Tuesday September 28 2010

ETHICS & INTEGRITY: The brown envelope has bastardised journalism

By Margaret Vuchiri

Had Gerard Manley Hopkins’ moving poem, No worst, there is none, been written in present-day Uganda, one would imagine he was mourning the slow death of journalism.
Many of today’s newsrooms are full of dubious characters. They plagiarise, fake stories, manufacture quotes and auction news tips for the proverbial brown envelope. Others turn up for work when and if they feel like, shabbily dressed. No work ethics!

This profession has been dishonoured by those who worship money; the ones who spend hours gleefully admiring Michael Ezra’s ‘dollars’ on newspapers, praising him for being ‘the man’. Where, one wonders, will critical reporting come from if journalists waste office hours studying sports betting odds hoping to make a quick buck or chasing public relations stories instead of doing incisive investigative articles?

Many blame such unprofessional behaviour on poor pay. Granted; news managers must improve remuneration especially for freelance journalists, but my sense is that devotion to moral principles starts at individual level.

The absolute disregard for journalistic ethics has had a negative impact on the quality of our journalism. It is alarming that some journalists, even after spending years in the newsroom, still have disturbing challenges with writing a decent story. That is why newsrooms are full of armchair journalists who can’t give a story background, context or analysis.

When Jayson Blair, then of the New York Times, scandalised the journalism world after it was discovered that he was, after all, not a news reporter but a fiction writer, many newsrooms castigated him- and rightly so. What they forgot was that Blairs exist in all newsrooms.

Understandably, the industry is facing massive challenges: declining circulation, falling revenues and the emergence of alternative online media that give readers wider and cheaper options. As a result, many newsrooms are grappling with budgetary constraints and increasingly, the business nuance becomes more pronounced than journalistic excellence and independence.

This reminds me of the period when English football went to the market. The tradition of many clubs waned; fans became alienated because of rising ticket and club merchandise costs. And yet, these are the fans who will celebrate a club like Newcastle’s relegation survival more passionately than Johnny-come-lately Man City fans would celebrate a ‘purchased trophy’.

That is why, despite Chelsea’s gentrification, the trophies and pampered players under Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, some traditional fans remain nostalgic and disillusioned. They feel money has killed the good old passion for the game.

This is precisely the same reason the increasingly fewer principled journalists start feeling alienated from those who think it is money, not ethics that matters—more like the ‘popular’ bubble gum singers overshadowing authentic musicians like the Maurice Kiryas and Susan Kerunens of this country.

Money does matter and journalists deserve decent salaries; but should poor pay be an excuse to clamber for money as if journalists, too, were NRM delegates? Should the Uganda Journalists Association members disgrace themselves over the Shs150 million the President gave them; and even rig their own elections? Do we, as journalists, then have the moral authority to question corruption and vote rigging?

This newspaper carries adverts on integrity of its journalists stating that no money should be paid for stories, but organisations and politicians keep paying some journalists for publicity.
It is critical that media managers tightly police newsrooms by implementing strict codes of ethics. Clear guidelines must be religiously enforced in addition to continuous professional development and skills training if good principles and ethics are to be restored and upheld.

Ms Vuchiri is a journalist