On balancing freedom with responsibility

Perhaps more than any other institution today, including the family, the church and the formal school system, the media wield tremendous power and influence in the socialization of people, especially children, in this modern communications age that has created a global village.

The media derive such power and influence because people today, more than at any other time in human history, have a huge appetite for information. When the average person wants to find out, for example, what is happening in his or her neck of the woods or the wider world, the media automatically are among the first places where he or she will turn.

This information then plays a critical role in moulding the perceptions which people have of others, places and issues. If you ask the average Barbadian what he or she thinks about privatization, to randomly choose an issue, the response most likely will be shaped by information which he or she would have read in a newspaper or Internet website, been exposed to on television, or heard on a radio station.

The media’s power and influence extend to shaping the national agenda through the issues they choose to bring to the public’s attention. In the 1960s, as several new countries were coming on the world stage through decolonization, sociologists and other scholars started to examine how the media could be used as agents in the service of national development.

Arising from one such study done for UNESCO –– United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization –– which was entitled Mass Media And National Development: The Role Of Information In Developing Countries, its author Wilbur Schramm observed: “Change will not take place smoothly unless people want to change. It is generally the increasing flow of information that plants the seeds of change.”

Because of the relative freedom which Barbadian media enjoy in the exercise of this immense power and influence, they ought to be always mindful of their great social responsibility. We at Barbados TODAY take this responsibility seriously.

Hence, our readers will never see us practising the kind of reckless, sleazy journalism that places emphasis on peddling unsubstantiated damaging gossip à la Flying Fish & Cou Cou, or giving prominence to issues that offend Barbadian sensitivities.

Since last weekend, a heated debate has been taking place on the island over the front page prominence given by another section of the media to a lesbian marriage involving a Barbadian and St Lucian residing in the United States. From the discussion, many Barbadians are clearly outraged and question the relevance of the story, considering that there are more pressing issues of importance that have never received the same prominence.

This story is not altogether surprising as it continues a trend by the particular publication. Who can forget the damage caused by the bogus story of pornography being filmed at the St George Secondary School? After all these years, that school is still struggling with image and reputational issues resulting from this case of journalistic recklessness. Not so long ago, as well, there was the story and photograph –– again prominently displayed –– of two students allegedly having sex.

What is particularly interesting is that on the day the lesbian marriage story occupied the front page, readers were being asked to pay a higher price for the publication. Gay “marriages” are not a new development in Barbados; a few reportedly have quietly taken place here over the years. Besides, within the Caribbean, Barbadians historically have been most tolerant and embracing of gays and lesbians who are free to live with a degree of openness which would be unthinkable in some other islands, especially Jamaica.

What the public outcry shows is that Barbadians object to the gay and lesbian agenda being rammed down their throats in the way the story did. Barbados TODAY takes the view that news reporting must at all times respect the sensitivities of Barbadians. In the final analysis, it is not so much about what is reported but, more importantly, how it is reported that matters.

We assure readers of our commitment to practising a high standard of journalism which rules out resorting to that kind of sensationalism. We are not in the business of selling papers; our news is available free of charge. Barbadian consumers should recognize that they have a choice. If they find a product offensive, they simply do not have to buy it.

Such a decision, which would hurt where it matters, would definitely send a clear message to the purveyors of sleaze and sensationalism.

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