Journalism off course

Harold Hoyte, Editor Emeritus of the Nation Publish Company, is one of the region’s most respected journalists and newspaper administrators. When he speaks on matters of the profession it would be in the interest of all practitioners to sit up and take note.

Last week, under the aegis of the University of the West Indies and the Central Bank of Barbados, Hoyte spoke extensively on the practice of journalism in Barbados under the heading OUR DEMOCRACY: Are the media helping or hurting? Taken as a whole, it did not paint a flattering picture of the Fourth Estate.

We believe it should be required reading for all young and not so young journalists in this country, and as a public service, starting today, we will serialise the speech until the entire presentation is available to all who would read.

We agree with the goodly retired journalist that our journalism today is a shadow of its former self, and even though it is possible to advance a number of sensible reasons for this — including a not insignificant number that don’t necessarily rest on the shoulders of the practitioners — the fact that we are part of a corps that it not performing near its optimum can’t be denied.

As stated by Hoyte, one major failing of too many practitioners today is that they have either deliberately or unwittingly, declared their political colour and as a result, even when they are not “biased” in their writing they can’t escape the inevitable suspicion.

There is also no doubt that too many among us indulge in self-censorship largely because our politicians and political leaders are perhaps of the most thin-skinned variety there is in existence and as a result reporters and editors appear to have grown tired of defending/explaining away motives that were never there in the first place.

Additionally, the legal framework within which journalists are forced to practise is anything but encouraging. Our “modernised” libel laws are now close to obsolete and the accompanying Freedom of Information Act that has been promised by just about every Government and Attorney General for the last 25 years is yet to see the light of day.

In the meanwhile, our work continues to be contrasted with that of North American journalists, largely because modern communications technology has brought their operations into our living rooms and bedrooms — almost to the point of intimacy.

But in the US, law and practice make it extremely difficult for public figures, especially politicians, to file and win defamation action against media operations or practitioners. In Barbados, on the other hand, they file more intimidatory law suits and issue more letters threatening to sue than any other group. Perhaps more than all other groups combined.

It is in their best interest to maintain the status quo while spouting all kinds of charges and platitudes at journalists.

Just as dangerous and debilitating to the practice of journalism in Barbados, is the new breed of businessman/entrepreneur who appears to know little of the concept of public good. They throw their financial weight (and in some cases perceived financial weight) around in their bid to guarantee that nothing unfavourable, even if accurate and fair, makes it into the public domain.

In fact, we make bold to say that since the first publication of Barbados TODAY in January 2010, this has been the biggest challenge to our survival. To this group truth does not matter — only their power to influence.

Add to all that the absence of a strong media organisation. And for that we can fault no one but ourselves. Journalists in Barbados for the last quarter century have not been willing to invest the time and effort (and presumably membership dues) to advance themselves as a whole. We lack the capacity to defend or sanction our own and as a result have left others to paint the picture of who we are.

All this has resulted in a major disconnect between the “lofty” practices of generations of journalists past and those of today’s practitioners. There is no regime to bridge the gap between many of today’s journalists/editors and their predecessors and, in our view, the end result is that we have bred a whole new cadre of practitioners serving up “B” and “C” grade performances while blissfully convinced they should be taking home a Pulitzer prize each week.

Our profession needs to find its way back to the crossroads and then determine the direction we should be headed — for we are surely some distance off course.

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