“If journalism is a force of immense influence — and I think it is, and should be — then it surely deserves scrutiny.” — Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian
In a manner that resembles an almost automatic knee-jerk reaction, news media sector representatives, journalists and editors often respond to criticism of the press with assertions that the freedom and independence of the news media must be protected at all costs. For many, the freedom of the press is an infallible sacred cow. This line of argument is sometimes well placed, but at other times it is decidedly manipulative and unhelpful.
There is no question that the world’s investigative news media suffers significant strain, resulting in part from the difficulties of financial sustainability and the crisis of credibility associated with delegitimisation campaigns and fake news. And it is also becoming increasingly more dangerous to be a journalist, especially for women.
Direct threats to journalists — such as assassinations, death threats and intimidation; arrests and detention; or online trolling — are on the increase across the world. Political and governmental interference in the editorial independence of news outlets, politically connected media ownership and regulatory or legislative restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information are still prevalent in many countries, even in the second decade of the 21st century.
The killing of journalists for reasons related to their investigative work is on the rise globally, and these cases are rarely investigated properly by the authorities. The resultant impunity means that the killers literally get away with murder.
Within this global context, it is easy to understand why journalists and media professionals automatically take up defensive positions when confronted with critiques of the profession. Journalists feel as though they are under attack, and they are.
However, too often genuine critique and/or evidence-based scrutiny of the news media’s performance by media analysts is unreasonably equated with the tack of the sinister forces who intend to do media workers serious harm.
But the two cannot simply be equated, and to tar them with the same brush, so to speak, is unfair. The rantings of a crooked politician who dismisses the news media’s reportage as fake news, and calls for draconian media regulations to conceal his own corruption is one thing.
The critique and criticisms of media analysts, but more especially of ordinary citizens, whose only request is that the news media works better for them, is an entirely different matter and ought to be respected.
Threats against the freedom of the press may be serious, but they are not the same thing as genuine and constructive criticism that aims to contribute to a more democratised media sphere, and one that operates to serve its audience better.
Although these two factors ought to be considered separately, they are often argumentatively lumped into the same category, effectively nullifying any meaningful consideration of the latter.
The cherished ideal of journalistic independence and the often misdirected defence of this ideal denies the possibility of crucial interactions regarding the concept of accountability. Thus, the loud defence of the journalistic ideal prompts the question: Independent from what and from whom? Surely not from the equally important journalistic ideals of fairness, balance and impartiality? And further, surely not from those whom the majority of the news media professes to “serve”: the mediated public, the media audience and ordinary citizens?
The line of argument adopted by news practitioners within media-related discourse the world over, infused with connotations that the press ought to remain beyond reproach and untouchable to protect media freedom, has often proven unhelpful.
This cop-out discoursal manoeuvre is not only irrational and unjustifiable, but is also an injustice to the billions of people who are media users, many of whom have legitimate grievances with the press.
The freedom of the press is important, and of course it must be protected. But the freedom of everybody else, and of ordinary citizens, is also important, and it too should be taken into consideration.
Freedom of expression debates that focus solely on the freedom of expression rights of media workers can be a hindrance when they effectively block conversations about the freedom of expression and representation rights of media users and citizens.
The right of freedom of expression of the press is traditionally regarded as universally so precious that any “meddling” in content, despite the inherently problematic nature of that content, is widely regarded as patently wrong.
This simplistic and naive view relegates the notion of media freedom to the role of a beating stick to dissuade anyone from suggesting that news media content needs to improve or change.
It immediately disenables legitimate debate and introspection on the part of the media sector, thereby dismissing opportunities to explore new ways of creating media content that speaks to, for and about ordinary media users.
But contrary to the way in which it has been mythologised, the freedom of the press is not a magic wand that imbues the news media with the status of an untouchable golden calf. The press can be critiqued without its rights being infringed upon, just like anything else.
For these reasons, among others, I have argued elsewhere for a substantial revision of the popular way in which we collectively think of the notion of media freedom. In summary, our definition of media and press freedom needs to change because of the current exclusionary nature of the popular understandings of these terms.
Much of the debate on media accountability has centred on the tension that this causes between journalistic autonomy and the public’s need for a responsible press. However, if we were to understand media freedom differently, then this relationship may involve less tension and more balance.
Julie Reid is associate professor in the department of communication science at Unisa. This an edited extract from Tell Our Story: Multiplying Voices in the News Media (2020), authored by Reid and Dale T McKinley, and recently published by Wits University Press