“Many journalists now are no more than channelers and echoers of what George Orwell called the ‘official truth’. They simply cipher and transmit lies… many journalists become so defensive when you suggest to them that they are anything but impartial and objective. The problem with those words ‘impartiality’ and ‘objectivity’ is that they have lost their dictionary meaning.” ~ John Pilger
For Malawians working and interested in current affairs, the last few months must have been interesting. The judiciary strikes and the National Aids Commission (NAC) MK5 million saga have been a source of endless flow of news and information. These have provided the kind of news that is always handy for the media that is cultured in reporting both sides of the story and let readers and audiences to judge for themselves – the convenient premise of objectivity.
After weeks of debates, arguments and counter arguments in the press, an average Malawian still cannot fully explain what the so called NACgate is all about. This is because news headlines and reports have been following the noise around the issue, regurgitating arguments and counter arguments instead of stepping back, separate facts from the fluff, and report the straightforward truth. Any journalist worth their name in Malawi should know where the truth on the issue is. But this is comprised by journalist’s quest for objectivity, which for most journalists simply means reporting both sides of the story.
News must be balanced, of course. All parties involved must have a fair hearing, this is important part of news reporting even though balancing the news does not always guarantee neutrality or fairness, even when sources are treated fairly. This is because the choice of balancing sources is not always objective, if ever. A news source on one side of the argument can be a more authoritative figure who commands much more respect in society than their opposite.
This is one of the reasons why letting ‘both sides’ of the story determine the truth of the matter is always problematic. It only adds to confusion instead of clarifying issues. Journalists who, mistakenly, believe that it is enough to simply tell ‘both sides’ of the story, as long as the information is correct and has been presented accurately, compromise accuracy and truthfulness in journalism.
The late New York Times columnist, Molly Ivins once noticed, “the very notion that on any given story all you have to do is to report what both sides say and you have done a fine job of objectivity journalism debilitates the press.” He added:
“In the first place, most stories aren’t two-sided, they’re 17-sided at least. In the second place it’s of no help to either the readers or the truth to quote one side saying “Cat” and the other side saying “Dog”, while the truth is there’s an elephant crashing around out there in the bushes.”
Think of NACgate here, the crux of the matter is that money donated by Global Fund to the people of Malawi, to help fight HVI/Aids epidemic and other diseases has been abused by those entrusted with it. The money has been used to fund a launch of a trust that has nothing to do with fight against HIV/Aids, a trust owned by one of the country’s powerful individuals, the country’s First Lady. This is where the matter is. All other arguments put forward cannot change the fact that the money has been abused.
Journalism has a duty to set such record straight – the truth. Instead, it is those who take a stance against such abuse of state resources that always have to defend their anger in the national press. This is because journalist believe determining what the truth is would compromise their objective and neutral role. Objectivity does not mean perpetuating falsehood and inaccuracies. Journalists ought to play an educative role and not disinterest mediators who are only there to present the case regardless where the truth lay.
The renowned journalist, Chris Hedges noticed that this kind of journalism “disarms and cripple the press”. Hedges added that journalism becomes a convenient and profitable vehicle to avoid confronting unpleasant truths. This creed, he goes on, “transform reporters into neutral observers or voyeurs. It banishes empathy, passion and a quest for justice. Reporters are permitted to watch but not to feel or to speak in their own voices. They function as “professionals” and see themselves as dispassionate and disinterested social scientists.”
Good journalism must analyse accounts from ‘both sides’ of the story, crosscheck sources’ statements against available evidence and report what the truth actually is. Journalists are not there to report exactly what sources of information tell them, the “he said, she said” journalism. Professor of journalism at New York State University, Jay Rosen calls this “one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence”. And he is right.
Balance has its use and it remains a very important part of news coverage but it must not come at the expense of reporting the truth. The point of balance in journalism is to uphold truth and shine light where darkness is. It is not being subjective if journalists expose lies or ask sources to substantiate their allegations; it is not right for a journalist to report information they clearly know is incorrect just because they are afraid of contradict their sources. These issues only empower the powerful against vulnerable groups. Journalism has a moral duty to check against this.
- Jimmy Kainja is a full-time lecturer at Chancellor College, University of Malawi, a Nyasa Times columnist every Wednesday and a current affairs writer and blogger.