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Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Fog facts in the news


By Prem Misir

CONCERN for the political is fascinating, a good in itself, yet alarming when taken to the extremes as with so many other things.

Not surprising, the election season is here. Among many of the disquieting foci is the usual resurrection of the media code of conduct seminars/workshops. And indeed the role of the state-owned media!

Over the next few months, city dwellers, beware! Georgetown will showcase the tired gatherings of tribal media clansmen. Why do I not just say ‘clanspersons’, the usual suspects embowelled with a familiar repertoire, fully engineered to sustain sterility in the media banter?

Already a done deal, this charade repeats itself periodically. In spite of all previous gatherings, the five-yearly media reunions have not raised the bar for a media code of conduct for all times -- a code of conduct not necessarily only for elections episodes, a code of conduct for all seasons.

This media code of conduct is serious business; examine what the media presents now, in this election season, and what the media exhibits in-between elections; more of the same.

Let’s take newscasts. There is a daily eruption of fog facts in the news, where useful information systematically fades away through opinionated newscasts; the result is a paralysis of analysis of the information. The newscasts are supposed to inform, but as Schechter (2005) aptly asserts: “…much of the news often disinforms, distorts and deceives.”

The British newspaper, the Guardian, demonstrates the growing trepidation against newscasts when in a recent news quiz it published, one of the questions asked: “Who accidentally sent an e-mail to the BBC that read: `Now f… off and cover something important you twats?’”

Regular distortions and deceptions in the electronic and print media news fester and linger, when the important stories of the day are neglected or receive a biased presentation. In this way, people’s misgivings about the media increase.

The newscasts in Guyana, with a few notable exceptions, do not regularly depict a true picture of the day’s main news stories of the country; the newscasts generally appear as main stories from different countries rather than from one country. Several newscasts even attempt to construct and reconstruct the reality, the resultant distortion; in this construction and reconstruction process, not only distortions emerge, but important news stories are left behind.

Distortions abound too where a caption is at variance with its content. For instance, a caption in one recent newspaper issue read “PPP not ‘totally satisfied’ with poll preparations” is a case in point; the caption drew from the PPP’s media conference last week. The conference addressed several other more objectively important issues, taking up most of the content; yet the editor decided to use this particular caption -- probably because this caption is consistent with some oppositionists’ position on GECOM’s supposedly ill-preparations.

Whatever may have been the editor’s intention, the fact of the matter is that the caption was at variance with the content; and that is a distortion, overemphasizing an area that the conference hosts never intended.

There is still another side to these media distortions; excessive usage of ‘Reports suggest’; ‘Reliable reports state’; ‘this newspaper understands’ may in some cases conceal non-compliance with the verification principle.

Journalists do not have to reveal their sources; but given the existing sensitivities in some stories, editors have to exercise greater vigilance where clearly excesses are being committed in the ‘reliable reports state’ reportage.

Again, the flood coverage is another poignant example of distortion, deception, and misinformation; ethnic tribalists were hard at work in the media in the month of January this year! Indeed distressing; especially as viewers frequently see particular ethnic groups’ troubles, depending on which media house is doing the shooting; undeniably a vulgar imbalance in reporting the news.

At any rate, presenting distortions allows media houses to advance their own political agenda; invariably, the newscasts read as political broadcasts.

Incontrovertibly, some media houses drive particular political lines, affording tacit support for suspecting political candidates. Any way, media houses consider the distorted news items as important; but viewers and readers may see these news items as of no great concern, further increasing people’s misgivings with the media.

Now the bells are sounding for ‘equitable time’ on the state-owned media. And as the election season advances, this timbre may become more vociferous.

I believe the media houses in signing the Media Code of Conduct in both 2001 and 2005 endorsed equitable time for all political parties hinged on some conditionalities; make no mistake about the fact that this advocacy for ‘equitable time’ on the state-owned media is filled with impure waters; the belfry already is a witness to ‘equitable time’ afforded to many organizations, including political groupings over the years; but the bell pealers seem to have a hard time noticing this ‘equitability’ in action, or are even agonizing over its presence.

Even more important than ‘equitable time’ as a working principle of the state-owned media, is the issue of the public interest, convenience, and necessity responsibility. The public interest philosophy and responsibilities have to primarily consider programme diversity; political dialogue; localism; children’s educational programming; access to persons with disability; and equal employment opportunity. Any discussion to improve the broadcasting media mainly focusing on ‘equitable time’ without holistically considering these six areas falls well short of meeting the public interest responsibilities.

Many private broadcast media houses are not fulfilling their public interest responsibilities, and really do not deserve the label ‘independent’; and many violate the principles of the free press as objectivity, accuracy, and fundamental fairness.

About 200 hundred years ago, President Jefferson said: “The only security of all is in a free press.” And in 1823, he said: “The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to…”

Today, in Guyana, these statements could be rewritten as: “The only danger of all is in a false media. The force of its false opinion must be rejected when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be refuted.”

Self-censorship is a regular absentee among some journalists in this country. Self-censorship of any verbal vitriol enhances applications of fundamental fairness and may echo the sentiments of the public’s interest.

Therefore, a call for discussion on ‘equitable time’ on the state-owned media, already a ‘done deal’, relegates the public’s interest to second place; hammering out the public’s interest will unearth media distortions, deceptions, and misinformation.

Are these media perversions not important enough for parliamentary discussion?

Guyana Chronicle