Media’s honour at stake

2011-03-05 11:16

It emerged this week that media companies and journalists are up to their necks in disgrace, to put it mildly.

Kuli Roberts’s unconstitutional barrage of racial slurs against coloured women in her Sunday World column sparked some outrage.

Judge Caroline Nicholls ruled that a Carte Blanche episode on unsafe steel rails at Gold Reef City, which was broadcast in March 2005, was “blatantly one-sided”.

And Afrikaans singer Jurie Els last week served a R5.5-million damages and libel summons on Media24 publications that were responsible for reports on his alleged sexual molestation of then child singer Robbie Klay – a crime Els was found not guilty of by the Pretoria High Court.

This is the kind of publicity and reputation which journalists and their bosses, faced with the ANC’s media tribunal, have to avoid.

How does it happen that newspapers and broadcasting companies get it so wrong? Why do we slander, botch investigations and publish one-sided versions of issues?

A University of Pretoria survey commissioned by the National Press Club explains a lot about logistical and ethical shortcomings in the country’s newsrooms.

Interviews involved 68 mostly Gauteng journalists (76% print media, 17% broadcast media and 7% online media) and were conducted during October and November 2010.

Here, out of the mouths of journalists themselves, are the causes of their ethical sins:

» Only 63% of journalists said they worked in an editorial team with a code of ethics. Only 19% said this code was frequently referred to in the newsroom.

» Only 53% said they had “never” experienced “undue pressure” to publish or broadcast a story they did not consider ready for publication.

» Only 47% reported a culture of discussing ethical issues in stories in the newsroom.

» Only 41% said they believed that their company’s work environment would prevent complaints to the ANC’s planned media tribunal.

» Only 68% said they were encouraged to publish a correction when they had made a mistake.

» Only 58% reported having the courage to raise objections when they did not agree with changes made to their copy.

» Only 62% knew who to contact if something had to be corrected or changed.

» Only 40% were satisfied with the level of seniority of colleagues who changed their stories.

» Only 29% were informed of changes to their stories before publication.

» Only 21% believed that they had control of their copy on all the platforms on which their companies chose to publish it.

» Only 33% said they worked for companies where disciplinary steps were taken in cases of repeated mistakes.

» A full 25% reported monetary incentives directly linked to the profitability of their company or business unit.

The biggest and most frequently referred to obstacles to ethical reporting, journalists told the researchers, were deadlines, ethical issues, quantity- not quality-driven work environments, availability of staff, the knowledge and competency of journalists and work pressure.

Journalists suggested the problems could be solved by employing more staff, more training, regular meetings and discussions in newsrooms.

They told researchers that the media needed to focus on quality, not quantity, needed more staff and consulting when stories were changed, suitable equipment and fresher talent in editor positions.

Older journalists were far more negative about ethical and logistical problems in newsrooms than rookies.

Their bottom line? Appointing more staff to relieve some of the pressures caused by deadlines, allowing journalists to focus on quality and giving journalists more time to check facts regularly, they said.

The margins for ethical and logistical errors quoted in this report, which represents the reality of what journalists experience in newsrooms, constitute the worst journalistic disgrace of the week – worse than Kuli Roberts’s racial tirade, Carte Blanche’s investigative blunder or the quality of Media24’s pre-trial reporting involving the reputation of the Afrikaans singer.

We need 100% competence, ethical behaviour and logistical support in order to ensure trustworthy reporting.

The 19% use of ethical codes in newsrooms and the magnitude of other defects reported by the survey will, in the end, cost us our own honour.

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