It is a well known fact that journalists have a poor image with the public. The public don’t have much regard for journalists and the profession has a poor image everywhere especially in Sierra Leone.
The public is always suspicious of us and the way we practice this profession. We are regarded in much the same way as politicians as disreputable, untrustworthy and dishonest pushing a personal or sectional interest rather than the facts of the matter.
If people are told that the essence of journalism is truth telling, they always react with skepticism, derision or ridicule. If we tell them the practice of journalism is founded on ethical principles, they will laugh, or if they take it seriously, they will point out to so many trivial stories carried in our newspapers – scurrilous or invented.
Because of these points, the image and essence of journalism are hard to pin down as each appears contradictory. The image is the way we are regarded by the public and essence is the reality that lies behind the image.
This is a problem that we journalists in the 21st century must manage to overcome at a pragmatic level in our daily lives. Whenever we are offered information through the newspapers, television, radio, the internet or any other source, we have no option but to use our God given intelligence to assess its reliability.
With all these criticisms, we still have good journalists all over and even in Sierra Leone. The reading public will be able to tell in Sierra Leone, because there have always been journalists who have stood out from the crowd because of their virtue.
There are others I can refer to as investigative journalists who have recognized that the proper practice of journalism must sometimes be subversive and anti-establishment, and expose what those in power would rather keep concealed from the public to whom they should be accountable.
Sierra Leone has produced some of these journalists in recent years that we can be proud off. Reports have it that the media was responsible for the demise of the former government and we still see some objective and ethical reports published in some newspapers. Not all of us would be so unethical and subjective to the detriment of our readers.
There is a different and competing image of journalism, one that contradicts the low esteem in which journalists are held. No doubt, there is and will always be a good deal of Hollywood in our image, but it is more than a myth.
This alternative image presents the journalists that are fearless investigators standing up against the politicians, the business officials and other public figures determine to expose their ills because the public has a right to know.
When a journalist serves the public rather than his or her own selfish desire, they become useful and respected by the public and feared by those who do wrong.
This takes me straight to the underlying political justification for the existence of journalism and for such notions as the freedom of the press, that the free circulation of news and opinion is a requirement of a democratic society.
Journalism ethics are also a complicated subject that in my studies have really proved that this profession is complicated and difficult. It has so many definitions and tends to dominate media ethics, sometimes almost to the exclusion of other areas.
Journalists can manipulate and be manipulated, so is news. The government and other corporations always attempt to manipulate news media by censorship and ownership respectively. So when we allow ourselves to be manipulated then the ethic of the profession is being compromised.
In Sierra Leone, most journalists have compromised the ethical side of journalism and they have resorted to slander. It is the right of a journalist to inform the public, but it should be done ethically and the issues concerned, but when a person’s name is unfairly slurred, then we have gone beyond our bounce.
A major area of conflict is between the public’s “right to know”, or freedom of the press, and individual’s right to privacy. This clash often occurs regarding reporting into the private lives of public figures. There are restrictions in most countries on the publication of obscene material, particularly where it depicts nudity, desecration of religious objects or symbols (blasphemy), human remains or violent or sexual crime.
A theoretical issue peculiar to media ethics is the identity of observer and observed. The press is one of the primary guardians in a democratic society of many of the freedoms, rights and duties.
In media ethics the ethical obligations of the guardians themselves comes more strongly into the foreground. Who guards the guardians? This question also arises in the field of legal ethics. This is where the Criminal and civil libel laws came in so the guardian would be guarded.
In developing countries, these laws are still intact and these governments are reluctant to repeal it because of the chaos they think will prevail. But in Sierra Leone where we have enjoyed relative press freedom, it is now the time to repeal it as the government is on the verge of enacting the Freedom of Information laws.
The easier we get the information, the better it is for us to practice within the confines of the law. Also substituting the criminal libel law with the pool I suggested in my earlier article can also bring in quality and lessen the unethical reporting in the country.
The bottom line now is that the time has come for this draconian law to be repealed and no journalist should go to jail, instead he or she should be fined or asked to retract with apology.
Let us all try to give our readers their entitlement by having news and comments presented to them honestly and fairly, and with respect for privacy and sensibilities of individuals.
However the right to privacy should not prevent publication of matters of public record or obvious or significant interest. Rumor and unconfirmed reports, if published should be identified as such.
Journalism today is a major industry and the media is now multifarious, transnational and interlinked. Newspapers, magazines, internet, TV, radio, movie etc are now everywhere as they all seek the same market, influence and profit.
In such an industry, media workers are like any another worker seeking secured jobs with better conditions of service, future prospects and satisfaction.
Finally, it is the market share and the ‘bottom line’ that rule, and sales figures, circulation figures, audience figures and keeping the advertisers happy dominate the thoughts and actions of the editors and proprietors who manage and own these various business.