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Wednesday 19 December 2018
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Media battle a new age

Sunday Newsday today explores the challenges the media faces in an age of recession and “fake news” to stay true to its tenets as the fourth estate.

As the landscape of journalism changes, Newsday and others in the industry are adapting every day to keep up. Traditional models are all but obsolete now that the internet has ushered in the age of free information. Newspaper circulations are declining, and, given the recessionary economic conditions over the last few years, so has advertising—the primary source of income for most media houses. Yet costs are increasing— the cost of newsprint, which was US$500/tonne in 2016, is now about US$650. Most media are moving to the digital sphere, but even then, advertising revenue is miniscule compared to print. And then there’s the journalism. The media is regarded as “the fourth estate,” an impartial check and balance on power, a bastion of fact. Despite the challenges of the industry, that commitment to the public interest remains paramount.

Trinis have it good—they’re spoilt for choice on where to get their news. They have three daily newspapers, over 20 special interest and trade publications and magazines, six free-to-air (antenna) television stations, nearly 40 radio stations, and the infinite potential of the internet.

They also have the freedom to criticise that news, the news coverage, and the people being covered in the news.

Freedom of the press is enshrined in the Constitution (Section IV), along with other fundamental rights like freedom of speech and expression and the right to access information, and it’s not something to be taken for granted.

“Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are accepted as foundational rights in societies pursuing the experiment of democracy,” journalist and academic, Dr Sheila Rampersad said in an e-mail interview with Sunday Newsday. These rights, she said, are enshrined in constitutions—whether written or unwritten—as a check to those same influencers who historically have subjugated the well-being of the masses in favour of often financial and political self-interest and/or other interests that are detrimental to the welfare of the citizenry. “The appearance of this right in constitutions protects protectors of the public interest in the supreme law of individual countries,” she added.

Incidents of violence or suppression are rare in TT, and the press is often free to do its job unrestricted. What is often lacking, however, is a sensitivity to the role and duty of the media which sometimes lead to skirmishes or misunderstandings. Social media use has also led to the proliferation of “fake news” and other inaccurate information that, with the tap of the “forward to all contacts” option, gets shared faster than the truth can keep up. Politicians too, attempt to co-opt the news cycle, believing their angle and witty catchphrases, should be the story of the day. Whereas the media was the sole source of breaking news, just to keep up, much of its time and resources have to be spent verifying news—fact checking that viral video has now become part of the media’s responsibility to ensure the public has factual and accurate information.

“There are now many more channels for enemies of the free press to employ their campaigns to subvert the value of independent thought, but I don’t think, in most instances, they will prevail. People crave the truth in order to make important decisions in their lives. Our experience with recent disasters here in TT and the Caribbean bears this out. The social media mischief-makers remained, by and large, under their beds while journalists stuck to their tasks with distinction,” said Wesley Gibbings, president of the Association of Caribbean Media Workers and vice president of the Media Institute of the Caribbean.

TT is still one of the better places to be a journalist, with international industry watchdog, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres/RSF) ranking the country 39th out of 180— placing higher than the US and the UK, but lower than sixth-place Jamaica. The group cited the possible passage of the Cybercrime Bill, the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Data Protection Act for the “chilling effect” it could have on media and online expression in the country.

Culturally, the public is aware and even protective of these rights to freedom of expression, including the outspokenness of calypsonians, artists, even trade unionists, politicians, police commissioners and activists. At the core, maintaining the checks and balance of power and special interests in society is an independent media – one that functions outside the influence of political, corporate and other sectoral interests and can safely carry out these duties without fear of attacks, including pressure from politicians and advertisers.

“The concept of a ‘democracy’ itself is, in part, premised on the free flow of ideas and information. In the absence of an independent media, democracy itself is perverted. Democracy bends to the will of the politicians and their financiers,” said Dr Emir Crowne, a human rights lawyer.

Independent media publishes the truth in the public interest without worrying about these special interest pressures, but, said Newsday’s editor in chief, Judy Raymond, while TT media probably has the most freedom in the Caribbean, some of those threats are becoming more ominous. “I don’t necessarily mean threats of physical violence: attacks on individual journalists whose names are smeared for supposedly having personal biases or political motives are increasing and becoming nastier, for instance. Especially in the case of female journalists,” she said.

Rampersad also suggested the institution was challenged by diminished confidence from the public, by anti-media political rhetoric, phenomena such as fake news, and internal and external pressures, despite which, journalists continue to find ways to navigate the challenges and bring information to the public.

“I would like to think that the public, though justifiably critical of the press’ numerous shortcomings, appreciates the efforts of journalism and will contribute to its protection when under assault,” she said.

Journalists are among the first to acknowledge they can do better. Typos, misspellings and general errors can all undermine public trust in the product—but none more so than the perception of bias. Then there’s the question of sustainability—how do media houses engage their audience to pay for good journalism. It’s a catch-22 situation, where in order to attract readers and subscribers, they need to produce good journalism, and in order to produce good journalism, they need subscriber income, especially as advertiser revenue falls.

“We operate in a very challenging environment when it comes to painting a picture of cruel and painful realities likely to be resisted by our audiences. People cry out for more investigative journalism, but not many sacred cows will go untouched or respected institutions survive the scrutiny of energised reporting on wrong-doing. People will tend to act out of relatively narrow self-interest and will pay and support good media with whose messages they generally agree,” said Gibbings.

“Standards have dropped over the time I’ve been in the media (but) I think we’re still moving towards, not away from being a really efficient watchdog. The people of this country haven’t discovered their own power yet, but we’re now starting to catch on to the movement for various kinds of human rights with regard to gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity. There are shocking degrees of racism, sexism, financial inequality, and the media can help to expose and right some of those wrongs,” Raymond said.

And it’s not an easy job—the hours are long, it can be frustrating and, compared to similar industries like advertising and digital marketing, the salary is low—so attracting talent is competitive.

But, says Raymond, journalism is a vocation, not just a job. “You just need to have enough of the right people. They’re a rare and special breed. They come out of their days off to wade through floods, they work on Christmas Day, they find themselves in the newsroom in the middle of their vacation if a big story breaks on their beat, they’re mocked and publicly reviled by politicians and they still keep asking questions. Years ago, when that first bomb went off on Frederick Street, sensible people ran away from it. The journalists started running towards it.”

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