The new year started with a bang — no pun intended. And, there is no hiding the fact that Jamaica is a country in crisis when it comes to crime and violence. There were 81 murders in the first 22 days of 2021, 13 per cent more than for the same period last year. At this rate we could theoretically end up at 1,340 murders, or a world-leading 49 per 100,000 people in the populace.
In the midst of the crisis there is a raging debate about news reportage and whether the press has a responsibility, in reporting news, to not allow sensationalism to create alarm. This latest episode in a long-running debate was sparked by comments attributed to Major General Antony Anderson, the police commissioner. In addressing a virtual town hall meeting attended by members of the Jamaican Diaspora, the erstwhile army man was reported in the press saying the following: “If all your information comes from headlines then you will be scared. We have some particularly sensational headlines, sometimes, that do not fully explain or put context to what is happening.”
In its January 18 editorial, The Gleaner took the police chief to task. Writing under the headline, 'Muted headlines not the answer to crime', the editor concluded: “We agree that contextual reporting is important. The real problem is not headlines or the reportage of crime, but crime itself. It is fixing crime, rather than anodyne reports and muted headlines, that will lessen the fear in and outside of Jamaica and in all postal codes.”
Respected journalist H G Helps, in his January 24 Sunday Brew commentary in the Sunday Observer, was less gentle in his tongue-lashing of the embattled head of the police. This is what he said in part: “It appears that Major General Antony Anderson now seems to think that the media are responsible in some way for creating some of the crimes being committed in Jamaica, which he has no answer to. General Anderson is a nice man. Decent too. But we need more than that in our search to reduce the high crime rate that has choked Jamaica's growth for decades.”
What is the true position toward settling this vexing issue? It is without question that how one says something is as important as what one says. A man shouting fire in a crowded theatre may be doing a public good but is likely to create a stampede that causes a greater loss of life than the fire itself.
To put it more in the context of news reportage, who would not agree that in reporting on the rape of a girl the media must be careful not to damage her reputation and mental state beyond repair?
Jamaica is like that rape victim. Her painful truth must be told to expose the ills of society — corruption, injustice, and neglect — which ultimately leads to crime and violence. Without a level of transparency, we may never come to terms with the root causes of the dilemma, much less solve it. But her reputation must be protected to give her a fighting chance at redemption.
Public enlightenment is the cornerstone of journalism and the bedrock of democracy. Press freedom must not be quenched or in any way trampled. But with every right comes an even greater responsibility. The press and journalism are no exception.
To pick a powerful line from the January 28, 2021 The Gleaner editorial, written under the headline 'Powerful case for entrenched press freedom', accountability in reporting news is not only important but vital to the integrity of media institutions and journalists. The editor opined, “But media and journalists must also be clear that their implied compact with the societies they serve comes with responsibilities.”
Much of what passes for news reportage in Jamaica today is raw footage; not investigative journalism that puts consumers of news in control of how they respond to information. Instead, it disempowers them with the notion that the problem is beyond solution. Putting a pen in the hand or strapping a camera to the shoulder of a news reporter does not a journalist make.
Take Trench Town as an example, which has been trying against the odds to position itself as a tourism destination. The way news is reported in print, on the radio, or through the television screen has an immediate and telling negative impact on tourists who would venture to the area. Yet, in reality, this is a group that has nothing to fear in the birthplace of reggae.
How news is reported robs the community of that very thing that would help it overcome social and economic issues standing in the way of it achieving its great potential as a foreign exchange earner. This, then, becomes the unintended consequence and collateral damage caused by indiscriminate reporting of news.
There are at least two trends that may be affecting how news is reported and what gets reported. One is cost-cutting by newspaper, radio and television organisations, traditional media, that saw the laying off of trained and experienced journalists and over-reliance on contracted personnel to perform these services. Another is the proliferation of social media and other means through which people get their information, which makes it harder for material void of sensationalism to get valuable air play or newspaper space. Any wonder why a recent release by Pew Research Center revealed that 63 per cent of Americans say that news stories are often inaccurate?
I am not a journalist, having never been trained or paid for my skills in that noble profession. I write on the opinion pages of this newspaper at the discretion and privilege of the editor. So, I am not here forcefully laying down journalistic principles for the ages. But with a little imagination it must be clear that the twin objectives of reporting facts and giving hope can be achieved simultaneously. One way is to report not just bad, but good news.