The Truth Shall Set Us Free
Shakhawat Hossain investigates whether media can be both free and fair
Freedom of speech has almost become a crucial ingredient in building a thriving democracy. Freedom of expression and freedom of press have rightly been enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Both these rights are central to building strong democracies, promoting civic participation and rule of law, and encouraging human development as well as human security.
Furthermore, freedom of press can be capable of helping in assuring another human right-- the right to be free from the curse of poverty. Not only that, free and independent media serves as a vehicle for sharing information in order to facilitate good governance, generate opportunities to gain access to essential services, promote accountability and counteract corruption and develop the relationship between an informed and critical citizenry and responsive elected officials.
In the face of longstanding demand and mounting pressure from both the journalists and the civil societies, the much-awaited Right to Information (RTI) bill was passed in the Parliament of Bangladesh on 29 March, 09, giving certain agencies blanket authority to refuse to divulge information. Accordingly, the ordinance will not cover National Security Intelligence, Director General of Forces Intelligence Directorate, Military Intelligence Directorate, Special Security Force, Criminal Investigation Department of Police and Central Intelligence and Central Intelligence Cell of National Board of Revenue. This provision will also not apply if the information concerns corruption and human rights violation. Anyway, it is still a good journey towards a society having complete freedom of expression and freedom of press.
Besides, the government has already formed a three-member independent Information Commission to fully enact the Right to Information (RTI) act, which would be another step forward to achieving freedom of press.
What is press fairness?
But does free necessarily mean fair? That's an old question for journalists across the globe that hasn't really been resolved despite advances in technology dissemination itself. What fairness means to newspaper journalists and what it means to newspaper readers differ significantly. The public defines fairness more broadly. Its expectations of fairness in the professional behaviour of journalists and in the editing practices of their newspaper frame its option about the credibility of newspapers. The public's specific, principal concerns about fairness are not necessarily shared by most journalists. But if we say that there are no freedom of press responsibilities, the press doesn't have to be fair in order to be free, than does not sound quite right, does it?
Freedom of press does not mean that media unfairness will always go unpunished. But it also does not mean press freedom is not conditioned upon fair and balanced reporting.
When is press unfair?
Between 1998 and 1999, Freedom Forum, a US based international foundation held a series of conversations and roundtable with the public in cities across the USA to listen to the public perception about the press or media in general. During the conversations readers spoke compellingly of their experience with newspapers and their observation about the behaviour of the journalists. Their comments once again pointed out that a free press is central to a working democracy, but they were equally unsparin gin documenting their concerns about basic journalistic practices that they felt as being unfair:
Newspapers get too many things wrong too often; they are not factually accurate often enough.
Newspapers are unwilling to correct mistakes fully, candidly, prominently and promptly, and with grace.
The press seems obsessed with the negative. There is too much focus on what is wrong and on conflict, and not enough on reporting and explaining what is working and succeeding. There is too much focus on “failures” of the system and not enough on the “victories' of life and the people who live in our communities.
The public respects the professional and technical skills journalists bring to their craft, but fears that journalists don't know enough. Specifically, they don't have an authoritative understanding of the complicated world they have to explain to the public.
Journalists are seen as being arrogant and elitists. Too often they convey an attitude that says “We are better than you are”.
Newspapers are too inclined to jump to conclusions too when it comes to finding the truth, and are unwilling to challenge their initial take on stories.
The press does not reflect the entire community fully and fairly. Specifically, the public is concerned that progress in coverage of minority communities is levelling off and because there are not enough journalists of colour on staff or in leadership positions. Stories are also not sufficiently attuned to cultural differences and nuances in an increasingly diverse society.
The history of public perception that the press is unfair
In February 1997, the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press released the results of a national survey under the damming headlines-“Press 'Unfair, Inaccurate and Pushy.” Among other things, the study found that 67 percent of respondents felt that “ in presenting news on political and social issues , news organisations tend to favour one side rather than dealing fairly with all sides”. It stated further that this negative view of the press had worsened by 14 percentage points since 1985.
Press fairness before the 1930s
Before 1900, press fairness was not even an issue. As late as the 1930s, the partisan roots of most newspapers were still very much in evidence. And who would expect a largely partisan press to be fair?
By most accounts, such professional values as fairness, objectivity and balance did not become press priorities until the early part of the 20Th century. The reasons for this transformation are beyond the scope of this essay, but the signs of change in the practice of journalism are seen everywhere, especially in the United States of America.
Earliest surveys bring bad news for the press
In the first nationally representative survey ever to ask the public a question about the press, the press received an unexpected piece of bad news. In late 1935, the editors of Fortune magazine turned the attention of their newly instituted quarterly poll to the question of whether the public felt that bankers, a group thought to be held in low esteem during the depression, were 'abusing their power'. To provide context, they also asked the public how they felt about newspapers, radio, the “pulpit” and veterans.
As the Fortune editors put it when they reported the results in their January 1936 issue “….. for its curiosity about the bankers, Fortune received a rebuff for journalism, as these returns show”. The returns did indeed constitute a rebuff for journalism, as 42 percent said the press abused its power, compared to 38 percent for bankers, 29 for the pulpit, 23 percent for veterans and 22 percent for radio.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/DRIKNEWS
These results so intrigued Fortune's editors that in 1939 they developed the first comprehensive questionnaire ever to focus entirely on public attitudes toward the press What is most striking about the results is how little they differ in many respects from public attitudes towards the press today. The public expressed concern about accuracy (e.g.; 30 percent felt that headlines were usually misleading), favouritism (e.g.; 63 percent felt that newspapers “soft-pedalled” news that was unfavourable to friends of the publisher) and more to the point, fairness.
Fifty percent of the survey's 5,000 respondents felt that newspaper did not furnish fair and unprejudiced news about politics and politicians.
The survey also asked whether newspapers furnished fair and unprejudiced news about “labour and labour leaders (34 percent said that it was unfair), “business and businessmen” (28 percent unfair) foreign affairs (21 percent said unfair), and “religious and racial problems” (17 percent unfair). In all cases, substantially more people felt that newspapers covered each of these areas fairly when compared to providing fair coverage on politics.
This pattern of seeing the press as generally fair in most areas of coverage, with the exception of politics, is typical. In a 1973 Gallup poll, 66 percent characterised the press as generally “fair” while just 74 percent characterised the newspapers as “fair in the treatment of political news”. Some 60 years later, a 1998 Media Studies Centre survey found that 62 percent of the population considered the news media fair in general while a 1999 Pew Research Centre Survey found that only 31 percent said “news organisations are careful that their reporting is not politically biased”.
Perceptions of press fairness during and after the Roosevelt era
If today's survey results on the perception of press fairness are compared with those of the 1930s or 1960s, little difference is found between public attitudes now and then. But if today's results are compared with those of the 1950s or 1980s, it certainly appears that public attitudes have grown more unfavourable.
In the 1930s, public scepticism about the press's ability to cover politics fairly was very high. It reached a peak in the spring of 1939 when 61 percent said newspapers were unfair in their treatment of political news. That's much different from the result obtained by Pew Research Centre in 1997 when 67 percent said news organisations tend to favour one side in their reporting on political and social issues.
The 1939 survey results were obtained at a time when President Franklin D. Roosevelt's relations with the press had deteriorated to perhaps their lowest point. Never beloved by the largely Republican-oriented press of his day, Roosevelt saw the level of his editorial support decline preciously throughout the time of his first election in 1932, he received 57 percent of the popular vote , while garnering the editorial support of 41 percent of U.S daily news papers. In 1936, he was re-elected by the largest popular majority in history to that time, with 60 percent of the vote. But his newspaper support dropped to 37 percent. By 1940, when Roosevelt received 55 percent of the vote, he was supported by just 25 percent of daily newspapers.
The public, which by and large continued to support Roosevelt, could not help but notice the press's disdain for the president , which was anything but hidden. Roosevelt himself added fuel to the fire whenever he could, saying repeatedly that 85 percent of the nation's press opposed him. So it's not surprising that the 1939 public would so overwhelmingly characterise the press as unfair in its treatment of political news.
Interestingly, the public made a clear distinction between the fairness of the still young medium of radio and that of newspapers. In the same 1939 survey, 62 percent of respondents characterised radio's treatment of political news as fair, twice as many as considered newspaper fair (29 percent). It is quite likely that Roosevelt's highly effective use of radio through his “fireside chats” contributed to this result.
But public perceptions of press fairness improved substantially over the next 20 years. As early as November 1940, the percentage of people saying the press was unfair in its treatment of campaign news and issues had dropped to 40 percent. It dropped further to 35 percent in 1946 and reached a low of just 26 percent during 1957.
It's not hard to imagine what might have driven such a change. By late 1940, the nation's concerns were turning toward international issues. The New Deal had largely played itself out, and the press no longer felt compelled to devote daily ink to complaints about Roosevelt's domestic policies. By 1946, Roosevelt was gone and America was directing its energies to picking up the pieces after the war. And in 1957, a popular Republican occupied the presidency.
It may also be that the American press had begun to do a better job of living up to its professed standards of objectivity and fairness. After all, when the 1939 survey was taken, not that much time had passed since such standards were adopted. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the public's perception of press fairness regarding politics was at its best during the mid-1950s. It would not be until the middle of Reagan administration in 1985 that perceptions of the press would again be as positive as they were during the Eisenhower era.
Increasing concern about press fairness in the 1960s
By the 1964 presidential campaign, public concerns about press fairness had returned to pre-World War II levels. In November 1964, a Gallup poll found that 48 percent of the public believed that newspapers tended to 'favour one political party or another”. (Was it just a coincidence that a Democrat Lyndon Johnson-once again occupied the Oval Office?)
Just as radio had been viewed as a much fairer medium than newspapers a generation earlier, television news in 1964 was also seen as much as fairer in its political coverage than newspapers. Three out of five respondents in November 1964 (61 percent) characterised network television news as politically impartial, nearly twice as many as found newspapers fair (34 percent).
In a 1999 survey sponsored by the First Amendment Centre in U.S.A, 53 percent Americans said that they believed that the press has too much freedom. That opinion came from a public whose ancestors insisted on the right to press freedom. The pendulum, however, swings both ways.
In “Right Vs. Responsibilities: Supreme Court and the Media,” author Elizabeth Blanks Hindman reviewed the high court's disposition of free-press cases and observed: "Over time, a dominant view of the place that media freedom and responsibility hold in U.S society became clear. Apparently in nearly every case, the view is that media freedom is very important to the functioning of US democracy …. Media freedom is protected not because of its own intrinsic value, but because it has a larger purpose. The opinion studied showed that, despite the apparently absolute language if the First Amendment, media freedom is a means, not an end. And because of that, the media can be, and often are, held accountable for their actions and their purposes.”
As Hindman points out, the news media face some limits. Libel, obscenity and criminal acts committed in the act of news gathering are among punishable acts. But the overriding social value of a free press provides extraordinary protection to news media.
So what does that mean for a free press exploring the concept of a fair press? It means that the journalists have great latitude in writing and reporting. It also means that the press has the freedom to be unfair, and that the court will step in only if the societal damage done far outweighs the powerful policy argument for keeping their hands off.
Thomas Jefferson, who was a life time advocate of freedom of press even when his friends and colleagues in public office were unfairly attacked by newspapers noted:
Our liberty depends on freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost. To the sacrifice of time , labour, fortune, a public servant must count upon adding that of peace of mind and even reputation.
“It is melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nations of its benefits, than is done by such abandoned prostitution to falsehood”, stated Thomas Jefferson who was always ahead of his time.
David Mayer in his “Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson,” concluded that those sentiments and others suggested that reporting abuses would be most destructive to the publication themselves.
“Jefferson's concern about libels was not for loss of popular confidence in the government, but rather for loss of popular confidence in the newspapers themselves' Mayer noted.
There has been a longstanding misunderstanding between the public and the journalists about the role and the responsibilities of a free and fair press. Not surprisingly, no simple solutions so far has emerged to bridge such a gap. However, one unique symbolic formula has already come out to serve as a guide to journalists looking for a headline to express the kind of journalism that might persuade that the public the press is listening to its concern and trying hard to be fair: A+B+C+D+E=F. The formula offered by Freedom Forum Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Charles L. Overby means Accuracy plus Balance plus Completeness plus Detachment plus Ethics equal Fairness. Thus news media can play its pivotal role not only in ensuring good governance but also accountability and transparency in all spheres of life through its free and fair professional practice and, being a real change maker, thus lead a nation towards the path of true democracy.
Despite all these facts, fairness of press or media is as equal as the freedom of speech or freedom of spirit. If the press is not fair, the given freedom of speech or freedom of press will, in fact, backtrack in a society, leading towards further jeopardy. The problem of fairness in the national newspapers is serious to the extent that it can threaten not only the future commercial viability of newspapers as trusted conveyors of news, but also influence the weakening public support for freedom of speech or freedom of press.
In conclusion, we can confidently say that both press freedom and press fairness are equally important and significant for ensuring objective journalism practices in any society across the world. A government can only give constitutional guarantee to the fundamental rights to the freedom of expression or freedom of press, but it is the journalists who can make fair press sure through excising their own professional ethics as well as professional code of conduct. So, the ultimate concern is for journalism to be both free and fair because an unfair press threatens a free press.
National Survey report on 'Press Unfair, Inaccurate and Pushy” by the Pew Research Centre for the People and the Press.
A press freedom survey conducted in 1999 and sponsored by the First Amendment Centre in U.S.A.
Gallup polls in 1973, USA.
Constitutional Thought of Thomas Jefferson by David Mayer.
Right Vs. Responsibilities: Supreme Court and the Media,” by Elizabeth Blanks Hindman
Best practices for Newspaper Journalists by Robert J Haiman
Writing with sources by James P. Davis
Media Studies Centre survey in USA 1998.
Reports on the series of roundtable on freedom of press by Freedom Forum, USA.
Shakhawat Hossain is a former Senior Reporter of The News Today and The Bangladesh Observer.