Presented at a panel discussion on media professionalism, safety and protection in Uganda organised by ARTICLE 19 Eastern Africa.
Saturday, 5th November, 2011 in Kampala.
The notion of professionalism, especially in relation to journalism, is loaded.
For purposes of this presentation, I don’t want to go into the enduring sociological debate on whether journalism is a profession like any other, say law, medicine, or engineering.
I have taken the liberty to assume that most of us who work in journalism agree on a certain set of norms and ethical values. We may not agree on all of them, but our work is in large measure defined by an attempt to adhere to a good number of these values.
I will talk about professionalism in the context of mainstream journalism/news media, and not in the context of free speech or freedom of expression. In this broader context, it is clear that some of the hallmarks of professional journalism (or the values I have referred to above) could in fact stifle free expression.
So, what are values that drive media professionalism?
Before I attempt to answer this question, let me share with you The Journalist’s Creed written by American Walter Williams nearly a century ago.
I believe in the profession of journalism.
I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.
I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.
I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.
I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.
I believe that no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman; that bribery by one's own pocketbook is as much to be avoided as bribery by the pocketbook of another; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another's instructions or another's dividends.
I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.
I believe that the journalism which succeeds best -- and best deserves success -- fears God and honors Man; is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power, constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid, is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance and, as far as law and honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing world-comradeship; is a journalism of humanity, of and for today's world.
At the core of this Creed, which some have argued needs some tweaking in the context of today’s information ecology, is clarity, accuracy, truth, fairness, independence, and public service.
Another more recent statement of principles of journalism comes from the Committee of Concerned Journalists and is discussed in the seminal book, The Elements of Journalism, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel.
Like Williams before them, they identify values including loyalty to the truth, and to citizenship, and underscore the importance of verification and independence.
Based on such writings and my own experience as a journalist and journalism trainer, I will list what I consider the key values in mainstream journalism—note the emphasis.
Let me acknowledge upfront that some of them are as loaded as the notion of professionalism. [By the way, research elsewhere has shown that the public and journalists disagree on some of these core values].
1. Accuracy and truthfulness. [And here I must stress the importance of verification]
2. Comprehensiveness, context, and proportionality: Do the news media provide their audiences with sufficient information and in a context that gives it meaning? Do they consistently pay sufficient attention to the major issues of the day or do non-events or issues of no significance dominate news coverage?
3. Fairness: Do the news media present all sides to an issue that is covered? Do they provide a range of worthy viewpoints and acknowledge credible evidence that may be contrary to the main claims by the chief protagonists?
4. Correcting errors: Do the media have humility to accept when they are wrong and correct their errors?
5. The right of reply: Do the news media have the courage to grant the right of reply to those that they report about?
6. Rejection of bribery: Do journalists and their managers refuse to accept bribes or other forms of inducement from news sources and new makers (real or potential)?
7. Independence from vested interests: Are the media independent from political, business and other interests (hidden or overt)? [Independence should not be confused with indifference or hostility].
8. Sourcing and Attribution: Do the media acknowledge secondary sources of information and ideas through attribution? [No plagiarism]
9. Loyalty to the public: Although in many cases the media are businesses, at their heart is public service. Is the loyalty of the news media to the public, or is it to news makers and advertisers?
10. Legitimate expression: Do the media exercise their right to freedom of expression with responsibility, in particular not wilfully promoting hate speech and such other forms of illegitimate expression that manifestly encourages discrimination along tribal, racial, religious and such other lines.
11. Respect for community social and cultural sensibilities: How do the media treat gory images, minors in the news, obscene language, and such other issues?
12. Skills and knowledge: Do journalists have the skills and knowledge to report on the complex developments around us in an intelligent and interesting way?
You will have noticed some overlaps here and there. But we can all identify with most of these values. A good number of them are contained in ethical codes of practice that have been developed at the institutional, professional, and national levels in different parts of the world.
How are the news media in Uganda faring if they are to be judged along these values?
I would say we have a mixed bag.
In terms of adherence to the values I have listed, we have made some progress over the years. But we have also retrogressed in some cases.
And it is this latter observation that I want to dwell on.
What does it say about our regard for accuracy when a news report about the alleged interest of billionaire and philanthropist George Soros in Uganda’s oil suggests that Revenue Watch Institute, Publish What you Pay, and Open Society Institute are some kind of for-profit companies? [These are non-governmental not-for profit initiatives that are associated with Soros].
What message are we sending to listeners when a radio news item says Uganda’s population will grow to more than 100 million by 2015? [The 100m figure is a project for 2050].
What are we telling our readers when a Forex rate information sidebar that shows an average buying rate of about 2,780 and selling rate of 2,800 for the U.S. dollar runs alongside a business report that says the shilling has appreciated against the dollar to 2,600?
What are we telling our readers when we report that there is “a proposed law demanding people to declare the source of their wealth and pay 30 per cent as income tax”? [There is no such proposed law!]
For avoidance of doubt, in all the news reports I have cited above, our news media got it wrong or were misleading.
How do we talk about independence from those we cover when major advertisers are rarely subjected to meaningful scrutiny? Indeed, how do we talk about independence when we have allowed sales and advertising executives to degrade journalistic integrity at the altar of profits?
How do we talk about comprehensiveness and context when we fail to tell our audiences from the very beginning that the much acclaimed parliamentary resolutions on the oil sector were not necessarily binding on the Executive?
How do we talk about correcting our mistakes when correction columns (a practice that must be lauded) often have no corrections, although our newspapers publish errors on a daily basis?
I am sure some of you are expecting me to talk about journalists accepting brown envelopes (bribes), plagiarising the works of others or not educating themselves (choosing to remain ignorant?) about the issues they cover. You fill in the examples.
The list of our professional sins goes on and on.
What explains these professional sins?
I would look at the causes at multiple levels, including the personal, the institutional, the industry, and the society.
• Personal Integrity: Do we all have it?
• Attitude: An abundance of mediocrity, laziness, and lack of attention to detail.
• Weak self-regulation mechanisms: Our professional associations, including the Independent Media Council, remain weak.
• Institutional/internal codes of ethics: Very few media houses have developed professional values, and even some that have them rarely enforce them consistently.
• Training and mentoring: In the midst of deadline pressures and focus on the bottom line, many newsrooms don’t have systems to provide mentoring and continuing education to their journalists.
• Weak gate-keeping systems: Very few newsrooms have proofreaders, researchers, and such other employees who can help with information verification.
• High occupational mobility: The rate of defection from journalism remains worryingly high. Institutional memory is low and the number of journalists with deep knowledge and experience in certain fields is limited as a result.
• Poor pay, especially for radio and upcountry journalists.
• Socio-political context [access to information remains tenuous, draconian laws, attacks on journalists]
• Little public debate on journalistic standards and media accountability.
What can we do about these problems?
• At the very minimum journalists should search their hearts and ask: Am I a person of integrity? Do I have a conscience? Do I care about what I do? Have I got it right? Is my story clear?
• Media organisations should develop codes of ethics for their journalists and make them public.
• Media organisations should enter into contracts with the public, committing themselves to be held to the standards articulated in their codes of ethics.
• Media practitioners should encourage peer criticism, taking advantage of the opportunities offered by social media/new media.
• Self-regulation should be strengthened through revamping professional associations and independent regulatory mechanisms. Media stakeholders should not only agree on the importance of these institutions, they should plan to run them as professional corporate entities with full time staff. They should also be willing to inject resources into these institutions. Remember the government is in effect telling us what the UK’s Press Complaints Commission was told in 1990: If you don’t sort yourselves out, we shall sort you out through a statutory system.
• More newsroom investment both in terms of staff and resources for covering the news.
• Newsrooms should do more to attract and retain the best. One way of doing this is to strengthen the newsroom entry sieves. Who gets in? Do they have what it takes? Another way is to ensure that the job offers an intellectual challenge especially to experienced journalists.
• Newsrooms should invest more in training and mentoring of journalists.
• Make debate on media professionalism and accountability part of the national conversation.
• Media literacy: We need interventions that educate the public on how to better appreciate the forces that shape the news. I would start with high school students.
• Media support organisations: Where are they putting their money? Are they addressing the priority areas for media owners, managers, and journalists?
As I conclude, let me emphasise that while such dialogues like today’s are important, they will have very little impact if the conversation is not expanded to a level that makes journalists and the news media feel the public is holding them accountable, and inversely that they should be accountable to the public.
Thank you very much!
Dr. Mwesige is Executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME). This is a keynote address he gave at a Media Dialogue organised by Article 19 in Kampala on November 5, 2011.