This column is spurred by a spirited, but pleasant, email exchange with someone for whom I have great respect: Andrew Mwenda, the capable founder and editorial director of The Independent and a former Daily Monitor reporter and editor.
He is, as I am, passionate about issues in which we firmly believe – especially journalism.
It began with an email of his – a criticism of sorts – of something I had written in my column last week about members of the editorial staff – specifically reporters – being barred from expressing their personal opinions in public, whether it be social media, traditional media or public forums. The reason, in my view: It fosters and amplifies the perception that we are biased in what we do, that our journalism is affected by our personal opinions.
“…[H]ow can a news organisation promote public debate while gagging its own journalists from expressing their preferred opinions?” he wrote. “My judgement would be that if a journalist wants to express a personal opinion on a public issue or public personality, they should be free to do so in social media and other public [forums] with caveat stating that their view does not reflect the organisational view of the newspaper. And if they want to publish an opinion in [the] Monitor, the newspaper should publish it on a page that is clearly marked as ‘Opinion’.”
He went on: “This is especially important because opinion formation and articulation is an important way to build good journalism. I hope that you did not mean that Monitor journalists are henceforth prohibited from writing opinions, appearing on radio and television talk-shows or giving public speeches on matters of national importance. Indeed, stopping journalists from expressing their opinions on social media, however biased such views may be, would set a dangerous precedent and ultimately prove fatal to public debate. All over the world, journalists influence public debate through opinion writing, appearances on television and radio debates and in such forums as blogs, websites and social media.”
I agree about the importance of public debate and journalists participating in it. But, as I explained, “I am adopting a hyper-strict model to correct what’s wrong here. The problem, simply, is that many of those journalists expressing personal viewpoints on a variety of topics mirror precisely how they do their journalism. It’s what shows up in their stories. If that were not the case, I’d be less concerned.
“We have to repair our reputation and the perception (which, unfortunately, is correct in most cases) that personal views do determine how we approach and report stories.
“This is one of the ways we can fix that. And it needs to be fixed.”
I agree with Mwenda that responsible and credible journalists should be able to provide opinion with an important caveat, as I emphasised: “They are welcome to provide analysis, which, by the way, is what journalists do in the US; [however,] few express opinion unless their reputations (such as yours) are such that the public knows that it is based on solid and credible sourcing, even if not mentioned. Here, journalists use unsubstantiated rumour and gossip as fact in both expressing their opinions and in writing their stories. And their reputations, quite frankly, do not have that stature or, as important, credibility, in my view.”
But the main point rests not with that point, but with why I am relaying this (and the way I’m relaying it by including our email exchange almost in toto): That journalism should be transparent, and that we should have open and honest discussions within our own journalist community, but with our public, as well.
So, that is why I am writing these columns – to be open with everyone about our intentions, to enlist the help of everyone in keeping our journalism honest and true, and to foster discussion.
With it, comes improvement. With it, comes truth.
And, for that, we are all better.
Mr Gibson is the Executive Editor of Monitor Publications Ltd. firstname.lastname@example.org