Kudos to Nobel Prize-winning colleagues

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This is our Leader appearing in Indian Newslink Digital Edition October 15, 2021

Nobel Prize for a Reporter: Maria Ressa, Chief Executive of Rappler, the Philippines (AP Photo by Bullit Marquez)

Venkat Raman
October 14, 2021

The news of two of our counterparts in two different and difficult parts of the world winning the Nobel Peace Prize was reassuring. No doubt, Journalism is perilous but the environment in which Maria Ressa (the Philippines) and Dmitry Muratov (The Russian Federation) work make them unenvious.

As Kathy Kiely, Professor and Lee Hills Chair of Free Press Studies at the University of Missouri, Columbia observes in an article that appears under Educationlink in this issue, nothing underscores how far we have come from the moment of irrational exuberance (the tearing down of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989), then the powerful warning the Nobel Prize Committee felt compelled to issue on October 8, 2021 in awarding its coveted Peace Prize to the two reporters.

Imminent and relentless threat

“They are representative for all journalists in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said in announcing the award to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov.

The Honour for Muratov, the Co-Founder of Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, and Ressa, Chief Executive of the Philippine news site Rappler, is enormously important.

In part, that is because of the protection that global attention may afford two journalists under imminent and relentless threat from the strongmen who run their respective countries.

“The world is watching,” Reiss-Andersen pointedly noted in an interview after making the announcement. Equally important is the larger message that the Committee wanted to deliver. Without media, you cannot have a strong democracy.”

The UNESCO Report

According to a UNESCO Report on Safety of Journalists and the Danger of Impunity, only 13% of cases globally involving crimes against journalists were reported in 2020 “as resolved,” compared to 12% in 2019, and 11% in 2018. It said that 156 journalists were killed worldwide in 2018-2019 and that over the past decade, a journalist was killed, on average, every four days. In 2018, 99 killings were recorded, while in 2019, 57 journalists were killed, the lowest death toll in the last ten years. As of September 30 last year, 39 journalists lost their lives.

“Journalism remains a dangerous profession: the threats faced by journalists are many and wide-ranging. While casualties related to countries experiencing armed conflict have declined, fatal attacks against journalists covering stories related to corruption, human rights violations, environmental crimes, trafficking, and political wrongdoing have risen.” 

Dmitry Muratov celebrates his Nobel Prize win (AP Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Increasing killing of men

The higher number of male victims may be explained by the fact that there are fewer women journalists working in dangerous areas and, at least in some regions, fewer who are assigned to cover sensitive topics such as political corruption or organised crime. The UNESCO said that gap is due to prevailing stereotypes which sometimes prevent women journalists from being sent on assignments in high-risk areas or covering certain beats. 

While there are significantly fewer women journalists among the victims of fatal attacks, they are particularly targeted by offline and online gender-based attacks putting their safety at risk – these attacks can range from harassment, physical and sexual assault, trolling and doxxing – obtaining and publishing private and identifiable information. 

Responsible Journalism

The tradition of responsible journalism goes back a long way in Britain, to William Hazlitt, William Cobbett, Tom Paine, John Wilkes and beyond. These 18th and19th century essayists and pamphleteers were not self-described neutral observers who meticulously separated facts from opinions, discarded the opinions and then left readers to form their own judgments.

They were committed campaigners who had a point of view and made no apologies for expressing it. In the 1960s, the genre enjoyed a wonderful renaissance, bursting out on every front: the stage, nightclubs, television and most enduringly the print medium.

There were then dramatic shifts in the thought process and subsequently in the approach to the newspaper business.

In the days of Conservative governments, the Scottish press campaigned vociferously for evolution, not just because it annoyed the Tories, but because editors and proprietors thought it would be good for business. Sales would go up, it was supposed because people would want to find out what the new parliament was doing.

Not so. Sales of all Scottish-based newspapers actually dropped after the parliament got going and the result was a good old-fashioned newspaper war, complete with price cuts, sales gimmicks and trashing of rivals.

There is no guarantee that future generations of Sulzbergers (founders of the New York Times) would be more public-spirited than professional managers and a high risk that they will be less competent. Many family-owned newspapers in the US and Europe have failed. Most of the survivors are small-town boosters that prostitute themselves to local commercial interests.

The Economist of London says the newspaper industry is in a perfect storm.

In America, the circulation of newspapers has been gradually but steadily falling since 1990, according to Editor & Publisher, a trade journal.

The trend in other countries is much the same. Most young people nowadays do not read a daily newspaper at all. To make matters worse (and to devalue the argument that society must preserve newspapers as ‘trusted’ sources of news), the industry has been through a string of scandals, the most ignominious being the New York Times fiasco with Jayson Blair, one of its reporters who simply made up his stories.

Responsible journalism goes farther than factual and free reporting. It should also allow and encourage reader participation on individual pages.

This could start with a simple star-rating system for each article. Deeper engagement would include comment panes at the bottom of stories (like those below blog posts), or blog discussions between the journalists and invited guests.

Too often journalists are confronted by cognitive dissonance which could constrain them to subscribe to delusion and/or orient them towards the pursuit of excellence and truth. The New York Times journalist who fabricated stories and became a dream merchant was a perfect example of the opposite of responsible journalism.

We believe a healthy discussion began last week at our office.

We would hope that it continues to get more frequent and louder.

Because a good newspaper should not only be responsible but also responsive.

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