Sunday, August 31, 2008

Why should journalists be responsible?

Source: Kuensel, August 27, 2008
An issue the Bhutanese media must discuss
By Kencho Wangdi

I att ended the closing afternoon of a writer's workshop in Thimphu recently and the topic "The Writer's Responsibility" cropped up for discussion. Though a relevant issue, the debate could not muster beyond a few stray speakers. Being not much of a public speaker myself, I've seized this chance instead to try to write about it- from the perspective of journalism I learned from my teachers, including experience.

"The writer's responsibility is to the readers and, more importantly, to himself," a leading Bhutanese journalist told me recently. "He is responsible for the values and morals he promotes in a society."

To me this sums it all up. Because journalists can contribute to a citizen's ability to take an informed part in shaping their society, the stuff they write about is significant, in that it has consequences. As audience, readers are guided by the decisions journalists make about what to report and how it is reported and written.

There are of course plenty of intelligent, aware, sensitive people, outside our newsroom, who find us reporters and our articles sorely wanting in the responsibility department.

According to media ethicists, a reporter's responsibilities, whether they know it or not, is woven into every element of their craft and discerning citizens often sense it more acutely than reporters do. That is why a journalist's quality of judgment, tone, taste, and character of his stories are implicit in why some people choose one TV or newspaper rather than another.

But that is not always the case. Sparsely in a developing society like ours. Which is why editors are critical because the type of editors and the culture of the newsroom heavily influence the quality of the decisions journalists, especially cub reporters, make day to day.

The values of the ownership can also heavily influence the nature of a newspaper. And if someone gets grossly misrepresented or embarrassed or publicly humiliated, so what?

There is a moral dimension to journalism just as there is to writing. If we believe in that then we -
Bhutanese journalists- have to think through in a hard and open way what it means to be responsible. If we want to play God, or simply if we have to play God, then what sort of God are we?

Is sensationalism all right? As human beings, media experts say, we readers want to be entertained. We want to enjoy the spectacle of the mighty falling, the arrogant getting their come-uppance. We want to be transported; we want to be titillated. We want to be shocked in order to confirm our own sense of virtue.

As a newspaper one has to ask the question of what we're willing to do in order to make a buck.
What kind of financial consequences are we willing to endure in order to take the journalistically high road? How do we respond in the message from our owners and our public that sleaze sells? What is the difference between being attuned to our audience and being enslaved by it?

Media ethicists have described the situation as the tension between rights and obligations, between what we can do and what we should do. Or the tension between what is right and what is good – what is right for me and what is good in a larger community.