By Maria-Christina Doulami
WITH The Newsroom Season 3 having just begun and Kill the Messenger hitting the big screens recently, journalism returns to centre stage. Not that it ever left. But right now it seems this vocation is all the more important, especially as journalists are sacrificing their own lives in order to reveal information that is critical for public safety.
The aforementioned film, is based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb and takes place in the mid-1990s, when Webb uncovered the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California. Despite enormous pressure not to, Webb chose to pursue the story and went public with his evidence. As a result he became the target of a vicious smear campaign fueled by the CIA and was forced to defend his integrity, his family, and his life, even reaching the point of suicide.
Just look at the recent example of Serena Shim, an American journalist of Lebanese origin who had disclosed that ISIS jihadists were being smuggled into Turkey and back into Syria in the back of humanitarian aid vehicles. Just days later, she was reportedly killed in a car crash with a “heavy vehicle” which was never found. Suspicions mount as to the true cause of death, while journalists around the world are regularly threatened against publishing information at their disposal. In 2013, around 100 journalists were killed, while so far in 2014 another 64 have lost their lives fighting for something they believe in.
But journalism no longer seems to really be what it used to. Journalists are often characterized as “the Fourth Estate”, a term originally used by Edmund Burke, who in 1787 said that the Reporters’ Gallery in the British House of Commons was where a Fourth Estate, more important than all the other three, sat. Since then, a lot has changed in journalism. Although there are still those who conflict with and criticize the ruling estate, many argue that journalism has become part of it rather than an objective observer of it.
The rise of digital and online media and the subsequent demise of the print, resulted in journalism becoming a vulnerable yet a still necessary profession. Yet, with the economic crisis striking hard, the revenue produced by this decreased along with the salaries of those who work in this field. Churnalism has taken the place of investigative journalism and reporters of all media types find it easier to simply replicate press releases and statements, rather than research, analyse and criticize in order to offer a clear explanation of the news to citizens. With the prominent rise of “citizen journalism” through social media, the definition of who really is a journalist becomes a blur. Statements are being blasted from every direction often without any credible evidence to support them. Yet, this is what sells and this is seemingly what the public wants to read.
In an age where global terror is becoming less of an imminent threat and more of a reality, where people are more engaged in exchanging narcissistic “selfies” rather than assisting in social welfare, where everyone complains but no-one takes action, now is the time more than ever for journalism to win back its lost vigour, grace and glamour.
People want to read the news. They just no longer accept bad journalism. They want to learn fast, simply and clearly, what is going on. They want to be informed not mocked. As MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) told Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) on the very first episode of The Newsroom, we need to reclaim the fourth estate, to rebrand journalism as an honourable profession, to produce news that inform and stimulate debate characterized by civility, respect and a return to what is important. It needs to end “bitchiness, gossip and voyeurism”. We need “to speak the truth to stupid”. Because we need to believe that the audience is not stupid. It is actually composed of intelligent people and this is whom we should address. If we treat people as if they are stupid, that is who they will be, but if we refer to them as intelligent people who have a say in bringing about change, then that is who they will become. Journalism is not simply about conveying news and statements and arousing the wrath of the masses. It is about communicating information and enabling them to develop a clear idea about what is happening and how things may change. For the better. In favour of us all.
Maria-Christina Doulami is a Communications Professional, Journalist/Writer/Editor