Monday, April 10, 2023

Beyond ‘both’ sides

Reporters are generally good in the who, what, when and where; but not in the why and how.

By Dharma Adhikari

The way Nepali journalism has managed to comfortably catch up with new media developments has been remarkable. It is becoming diverse and dynamic, enabled by tech-savvy producers as well as consumers. That’s the upside. There are serious downsides, however breath-taking our technological adoptions. Our precipitous digital slide appears rudderless; and now, technology itself has emerged as a conduit for peddlers of rumours, conspiracies and disinformation. The trustworthiness or credibility of professional journalists is at stake like never before.

The problem is that it is hard to tell where journalism begins and ends. In today’s hybrid media ethics environment, we witness a rapid depletion of objectivity emphasising straight news and arise of interpretative, advocacy journalism. For legacy media journalists, impartiality continues to remain a critical goal. But many among them now agree that complete objectivity is difficult to achieve, especially in stories about sensitive and controversial issues. And we do have a myriad of such issues today, from federalism to secularism to foreign influence. An article may exclude the reporter’s opinions or feelings, but the piece will invariably be selective in its presentation of facts, evidence or quotes. In cases involving the general public or national interest, you cannot not remain partial.

Attempts at objectivity raise questions about transparency and sourcing practices. An objective reporter tries to appear dogged, impartial and dispassionate, but often without success. Readers will supposedly evaluate the credibility of such reporting. That’s where the notion of fairness in journalism comes in. Journalists in the West strive for fairness instead of insisting on objectivity. They have no qualms about disclosing their personal opinions or feelings. A passionate reporter in Kathmandu once told me that he reports the news critically. But fairness requires doing more than asking tough questions or letting the evidence speak for itself. It also involves enough context for possible answers, a proper tone, and above all, equity.

Marks of fairness

Fairness inspires reporters to go beyond “both” sides and pay attention to all relevant parts. Professional groups and journalism textbooks identify inclusion, completeness, fact-based and non-emotive reporting, polite and neutral language, right of reply, informed consent and editorial independence as the marks of fair reporting. A cursory reading of the front pages of Nepal’s mainline newspapers shows no dearth of stories on issues that divide public opinion, including unnatural political alliances, social inequalities, impact of foreign migration, economic slowdown, delayed transitional justice, and most recently, the coming by-election.

While we do occasionally come across instances of fairly reported stories, often long-form or feature pieces, most news articles appear lacking in one or other measures of fairness. Those in the newsroom will point to the constraints of news routines, formats and deadlines for the deficits, but what I’m getting at is the general tendency and degree of fairness in our media. A few relevant sources, perceived to be “prominent” by their virtue of fame, wealth or power, dominate the news. Sometimes such stories are single sourced. Election stories ignore most candidates. Stories on foreign affairs are often one sided; reporters overly rely on domestic sources. Worse, in our context, reporters often approach partisan sources, ignoring other contending sides. A fair story would give due space to all sides and sources.

A fair story provides all information including the five Ws(what, why, when, where and who) and one H (how) besides the “so what” background information and context. Reporters are generally good in the who, what, when and where, but not always in the why and how, and much less at “so what.” Stories fail to provide sufficient context for understanding the “big picture”and how they relate to issues in society. In such a story, a reporter sets aside personal feelings and emotions; the story is grounded in verifiable facts. Experienced reporters pride in not “being part of the story”, but they often use quotes containing strong feelings of the sources. The principle of fairness doesn’t bar them from being passionate about issues of public interest and social justice. A fair story is polite, neutral and persistent in its language and tone. As wordsmiths, reporters may shine in this task, unless they deliberately seek to sensationalise the story for wider attention.

Another issue is the right to reply in case of allegations and opportunity for feedback and corrections. Stories sometimes report that a certain source “declined to comment”, “did not respond to the reporter’s request for comments” or “refuted the allegation”; but in most cases, the reporter fails to reach the accused for clarification. We come across photos of minors and vulnerable people in news content. How many reporters actually seek informed consent when dealing with them, or before taking their pictures or recordings for publication? Issues of consent and editorial independence involve intent and go beyond a story’s content.

Published in the Kathmandu Post, 10 April 2023.