Monday, June 14, 2010

The Newspaper-Readers

(Perhaps a subject for a modern Van Gogh, a la Potato-Eaters)

A former voracious consumer of all that magazines and newspapers had to offer, having been active on the university quizzing scene, and being congenitally curious, I have since concurred with the disparaging views expressed by Nietzsche (in his letters) and Camus (in La Chute) on newspaper reading.

The regular reading of newspapers is a harmless distraction, at best, and an ostensible absolution from the sin of intellectual laziness, at worst.

A recent article in The Economist on the suprising, continued profitablity of newspapers had as its penultimate opinion: "They (the news-reading public) will pay for news if they think it has value.". From a journalist, this is a revealing statement. One may infer from it that the journalist concedes that news does not necessarily possess value, and that the supreme objective for the sellers of news is that news must appear to have value for its consumers. Additionally, that the original brief of journalism being the Guardian of Truth, Justice and Freedom has been transformed (perverted?) into creating, refining and presenting stories to an audience desiring information and entertainment. So much so, that the word infotainment has been seen to appear in print, brings up 4,540,000 matches on Google, and boasts of a Wikipedia article.

Instead of examining the instance and consequences of this tendency towards infotainment and of the subversion of journalism to promote a particular agenda out of self-interest, let us attempt to construct a new kind of newspaper, with desired qualities potentially being an implicit indictment of the state of Fleet Street today.

The newspaper of the future

(It is possible that "paper" in newspaper shall become redundant; the
discussion here extends newspaper to include the electronic news media)

1. Social responsibility

The newspaper to be regarded as a formal part of our system of governance, i.e. a construct with the executive, the legislature, the judiciary, the press and the public as actors. This means that access to news (content-providers and channels, telephony, broadband, television, cellular coverage, satellite coverage etc.) is to be regarded as a basic right, and parts of this supply chain are to be treated on par with doctors, firemen and police personnel, i.e. as essential service providers, to be subsidized by the state, when necessary, and denied the right to strike, unless a minimum service can be ensured.

Additionally, newspapers to be legally obliged to distribute stories, suppression of which might adversely affect the public good. Conversely, newspapers to suppress stories that might hurt the public. Both action and inaction in these cases to be open to legal action, after the act.

Newspapers to be expected to declare their own interest in any story they cover, or choose not to cover.

Newspapers to be obliged to follow-up on any story that has harmed or continues to harm the community. For example, a story involving bribery in a government office must continue to be reported upon till a logical conclusion is brought to the case, or is handed over to another, relevant arm (evidence handed over to the local prosecutor's office).

2. Personal accountability

All sources of stories to be clearly labelled and held accountable. Journalists to stand up for their opinions by stating ownership. If a journalist insinuates that a certain school invites bribes during the admission process, this needs to be defensible in a court of law, after the act.

3. Images, video and sound bytes

A photograph may be worth a thousand words but is in no way accompanied with a guarantee of veracity. For each photograph, video image or sound recording, it must be clearly stated when it was taken, what the subject is, whether it has been digitally enhanced (and in which ways), whether the participants were aware (and willing) that they be so captured, and whether all or part of the photograph, video film or sound bite has been staged, the classic case of child's doll being subsequently placed in a bomb crater in order to elicit an increased pathos.

4. Language of expression and debate

Given the penetration of the news media, it has an enormous influence upon the quality and development of the language used by the public. Newspapers to be obliged to ensure not just correctness of grammar but also of style. This does not, in any way, require scholarship of the calibre of The Spectator, but does imply a more-than-schoolboy command of the language, and the avoidance of phrases considered pejorative.

But more than this, and perhaps even more important, is the adherence to the common rules of debate: the avoidance of ad hominem attacks, appeal to loyality and all the usual (contemptible) tricks in the propaganda box.

Headlines not to sacrifice objectivity, taste and grammar to sensationalism.

Basic courtesy extended to human beings, case in point being when they are referred to in news stories. Everyone warrants a "Mr." or a "Ms." or even a "Comrade", depending upon the language and the zeitgeist, or perhaps everyone is referred to without an honorific.

Again, more importantly, perhaps, care must be taken not to label human beings with the colour of their hair, whether or not they are parents or commuters etc., unless clearly called for by the context.

5. Localization

In keeping with the social responsibility aspect, newspapers must primarily focus on the information needs of the community, it being a truth universally acknowledged that there is enough news to occupy a human being for all his or her natural life, with only minimum respites allowed for sleep. This being a participating universe and, moreover, the era of globalization, a suicide bomber in a foreign city, thousands of miles away, cannot be without significance. However, it is probably of lesser significance than the local supermarket no longer being wheelchair friendly, or a new production at the community theatre.

It is easy to dismiss this view as being parochial, or the opposite one as being too superficial. We are a parochial species. Notice that most news stories focus on the planet earth and also EM Forster's courageous, "It's only one's own dead who matter".

The state to first subsidize, and patronize, local language newspapers, and newspapers based in, and providing employment to, and focused on the community.

The freedom to publish in a non-local language, and exclusively (or not) deal with stories that originate from many thousands of miles away to remain.

6. Clear charter and Ombudsman

Newspapers to clearly set out their vision for the future, their raison d'etre and be accountable to this vision to the public. An ombudsman to be appointed to ensure compliance, with legal recourse remaining an option, if a satisfactory answer is not given. This is the place to put in the glorious bits about defending liberty and furthering the Word of God, if applicable.

7. Commercial advertisements

Sponsored advertisements to be clearly identifiable as such, along with the contact details of the responsible corporation.

8. Consumer feedback

Newspapers to have a well-defined system of reader feedback, with reasonable resources allocated to handling and publishing this feedback in a fair manner. Ombudsman to regulate using reporting mechanisms and other checks.

It is undeniable that the Fourth Estate plays an important role in our system of governance. Formal recognition of this de facto state of affairs can only be a good thing, assigning responsibility to power.

Not power alone, but power without responsibility corrupts.

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