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Sunday
Sep252011

The role of independent journalism – my take

By J L Samboma

The following piece is the outcome of a recent encounter I had on an internet forum.  It began after I commented on the role of independent journalism in society.  It was the first time I had been forced to define what independent journalism means to me. 

I say "forced" because it made me dig deep.  Ducking out of a response was not an option.  I have reproduced it here because I believe it is relevant.  Secondly, because I hope to open up the debate to anyone who has a contrary view, so that the dialectic can continue in a wider sphere.  This is what I wrote:

My position

My position is that independent media are there to offer constructive criticism, by presenting level-headed, detached analysis of events to the people, who will then be able to form educated opinions based on such appraisal. Let the readers or listeners do the praising or condemning; we provide them with the information they use to arrive at one or the other.

In a word, ours is not the duty to praise or condemn, but to provide the premises. But even when we do happen to praise or condemn, those conclusions must follow on from objectively verifiable premises. My two cents.

The riposte

This is what my fellow-debater wrote:

Sorry, Julian Samboma, this prescription only goes for straight news reporting where journalists must not take sides, not for features or opinion pieces like what we are doing here. In feature and opinion writings, commentaries or even radio magazine programmes, you are free to state your position on any matter under the sun if you chose to or leave your audience or readers to judge.

There are two approaches here; you can either choose to report or comment, each is accepted. But in any case if you choose to just report then we don't expect your opinion there. On the other hand, if you are reacting or commenting, then your opinion counts.  If we can constructively crticise I can understand why we can’t also not praise constructively as long as we are not reporting the news but expressing our opinions.

Riposte to the riposte

My response: Sir, there is nothing to be sorry about. This is going to be a long one, so grab a chair and a glass of something.  Instant internet posting, such as those on social media, are inherently fraught with pitfalls, not least of which is, in your haste get your message across, you leave certain features in outline, hoping your readers will be able to join up the dots. Your fancy footwork notwithstanding, my position remains unchanged.

First, you should have taken my post in its totality while appraising its merits. What you have done instead is isolate individual building blocks of my argument, misunderstood or misrepresented them, and then trained your pistols on them, rather than taking on the whole structure - one which, I assure you, can withstand even blasts from a 12-guage shotgun. I will first deconstruct my argument, after which I will turn my attention to your riposte.

Now, let's look at my argument, which holds that the role of independent journalism is not to praise or condemn political leadership, but rather, "to offer constructive criticism, by presenting level-headed, detached analysis of events."  Let us deal first with the phrase "level-headed, detached analysis." What do we mean by this? Simply-put, removing our emotions and presuppositions and allegiances from our appraisal of the social phenomena under examination so as to arrive at conclusions that are in effect logical deductions or inferences from the raw data.

These conclusions themselves become information which our readers or listeners then use to arrive at their own conclusions; they become the building blocks which they in turn use to form their own opinions, by placing them against against observable reality – to see whether they accord with them. Now, these conclusions of ours may or may not be value-free or judgemental, which means that they may be opinions. The only litmus test is whether they are level-headed and dispassionate, whether they logically follow from the raw data used to arrive at them.

Conclusions from factual, logical analysis

An opinion may or may not be logical. But – and here is the kernel of the issue – for a journalist to present an opinion for print, broadcast or the web, that opinion has to be based on logic which, by definition, is devoid of emotion – in a word, level-headed and dispassionate and detached.

For example, anyone can opine that fairies exist. It is a legitimate opinion because they may believe it to be true, even though it has no basis in objective reality and therefore is not logical. But for a serious journalist to write or broadcast a journalistic work opining that fairies exist, would be tantamount to professional suicide. Opinion pieces, features and commentaries journalists produce may be their opinions, but they are classified as journalism by virtue of their being based on logic – they are positions or conclusions arrived at by factual, logical analysis.

So for you to say that my position discounts the place of opinion as a legitimate strand of independent journalism is to misunderstand the whole thrust of the short piece I wrote. Whatever genre of journalism one is writing, whether a report, opinion or commentary, it has to be a logical piece of work, meaning level-headed and dispassionate and detached – my original position.

Now, let’s take another strand of my argument, that the role of the independent journalist is to offer *constructive criticism.* First you have made the error of taking your working definition of criticism to be to condemn or to lambast or to express disapproval. It is a common error, so don’t beat yourself too much over it. I have used “criticism” here to mean the “practice of analysing, classifying, interpreting or evaluating.” In a word, to critique.

The fact that I have taken the pain of qualifying the word with the adjective “constructive” should have alerted you to the fact that I was not making reference to the act of “condemning” or “expressing disapproval.” The unequivocal sign that you fell into what became a bear-trap for you is when, in your second paragraph, you cite “praise constructively” in opposition to “constructively criticise.”

Support or debunk an argument

In a word, the outcome of any exercise in “criticism” or “constructive criticism” can either support or debunk the argument or position under consideration.  You are “analysing, classifying, interpreting or evaluating,” and your conclusion will either support or debunk an argument. The outcome can go either way. In short, “constructive criticism” encompasses both “to praise constructively” and “to constructively criticise.” However (remember, my position is that we are not there to praise or to condemn political leadership), I would use “support or oppose an argument.” In any event, as long as we are talking about “constructive criticism,” it is superfluous to differentiate between the two, for both concepts are, by definition, implied in the term.

You can therefore see that my use of the term “constructive criticism” implied to support or debunk an argument or position. Therefore, to allude, as you have done, that I claim independent journalists should not take sides in an argument is unfounded. You have clearly not grasped the import of my position. All constructive criticism, or critiques, end up on one side of an argument or another. For an opinion piece to be classified as a legitimate work of journalism, it has to be a constructive piece of writing, meaning it must advance its point of view, yes, but do so in logical fashion.  As I said earlier, it may be opinion, but it has to be grounded in factual analysis.

As a matter of fact, works of constructive criticism and opinion pieces are not mutually exclusive. In other words, a piece of constructive criticism can be an opinion piece and vice versa. Take, for example, an article arguing the case that the benefits of space travel outweigh the costs. One could argue in favour of the proposition in a piece of constructive criticism - by quantifying relevant variables such as discoveries made in space which have impacted medical science, nuclear physics and improvements in telecommunications technology.

On the other hand a newspaper or magazine could commission two experts to write opinion pieces from opposing sides of the argument for a special issue on space exploration. In short, constructive criticism and opinion pieces are not mutually exclusive – one can be the other. To ram the point home, I have not said that journalists should not take sides in an argument; I have not said that journalists should “only do straight reporting.” You have put words in my mouth and proceeded to prove me wrong on something I have not said!

If you say fairies exist, it is fiction – not journalism

I have not taken offence. But I feel it my duty to explain the finer points of my position, so that you do not make the mistake again.

Let’s look in its entirety the sentence I have been deconstructing for the last few words: “My position is that independent media are there to offer constructive criticism, by presenting level-headed, detached analysis of events to the people, who will then be able to form educated opinions based on such appraisal.”

I wrote further: “But even when we do happen to praise or condemn, those conclusions must follow on from objectively verifiable premises. My two cents.”

Now to your riposte. Your first sentence: “Sorry, Julian Samboma, this prescription only goes for straight news reporting where journalists must not take sides, not for features or opinion pieces like what we are doing here.”

You have failed to see my point, or deliberately misrepresented me. I have not said that journalists must not take sides. From my above exposition on “constructive criticism” and “dispassionate analyses,” it should be clear to you now that what I’m saying here is that whatever we write – whether it’s a report or an opinion – must be based on verifiable fact. If you write that fairies exist, that’s not journalism but fiction. Whether you are writing an opinion or a report, it must be objectively verifiable.

Do you get my drift? If your opinion, for example, is that the government has done well by raising teachers’ salaries, it must be based on objective verifiable fact. It must be the case that teachers can corroborate your claim. If they cannot, then it is fiction, not journalism. By the same token, if you are reporting that teachers received a pay rise, it must also be objectively verifiable. In your above post, were you reporting, or giving an opinion? Whatever it was, it failed the litmus test.

It has no purpose in this discourse

Now, back to the first sentence of your riposte. The very first sentence is wrong. In both reporting and opinions, your assertions have to be objectively verifiable.

Now your second sentence: “In feature and opinion writings, commentaries or even radio magazine programmes, you are free to state your position on any matter under the sun if you chose to or leave your audience or readers to judge.”

The sentence has no legitimate purpose in this discourse. Nothing I wrote says or implies that I disagree with that. It’s a red herring. However, by presenting it, you have shown that you are aiming at a target which is proving elusive. So what do you do? You stick a target in the sand and take pot shots at it.

Your next three sentences: “There are two approaches here; you can either choose to report or comment, each is accepted. But in any case if you choose to just report then we don't expect your opinion there. On the other hand, if you are reacting or commenting, then your opinion counts.”

Again, there is nothing here which contradicts what I said in my post. You should pay attention, brother!

Now to your final sentence, which hits the crux of the matter and, as I have delineated above, shows where you got confused: “If we can constructively crticise I can understand why we can’t also not praise constructively as long as we are not reporting the news but expressing our opinions.”

As I said, above, you have, erroneously, used the common definition of “criticism” here, ignoring in the process the adjective before the word, and thereby only covering one aspect of what “constructive criticism” means. That adjective should have alerted you to my use of the broader, more accepted definition, that of “analysing, classifying, interpreting or evaluating” - the outcome of which can either support or debunk an argument. Thus, the introduction of “constructively criticise” and “praise constructively” are unnecessary, superfluous, for both are implicit in the term “constructive criticism.”

Of course it’s okay to be a campaigning journalist

Finally, to the last piece of the veritable jigsaw you failed to figure out. Let’s go back to the first relevant sentence of my post: “I would only add that I don't think it's the role of the independent journalist to either praise or condemn political leadership.”

Your conviction that it is the role to of independent journalism to “constructively criticise” and “praise constructively” (applying the restrictive definition of criticism) led you into the pitfall I will now point out. It is not the role of journalism to praise or, for want of a better word, un-praise. The role of the independent journalist is not to be griot or decryer. We analyse, classify, categorise, interpret, evaluate, appraise. We do “constructive criticism,” “constructively criticise,” “criticise.” We don’t condemn or praise. We leave others to do that. We’re not praise singers or “damners.”

Our reports, analysis, commentaries and opinions present the facts – or reasoned, logical arguments in the case of opinions – to our readers. They then choose whether to use our reports, opinions and comments to base their praise or condemnation of the powers that be.

When the journalist chooses to condemn, he or she ceases to be an independent journalist; they become “campaigning” journalists. That’s the difference, my friend. It’s okay to be a campaigning journalist – to take a position and go on the offensive. But even here, his or her positions have to be logical, reasoned arguments.

A report does exactly what it says on the tin – reporting what happened, what was said, etc. An opinion piece – whether in a paper, magazine or radio show – has to accord with facts, has to be logical, or else it ceases to be a legitimate work of journalism. I hope you get this distinction.

When the journalist praises political leadership, he or she becomes a griot, a bootlicker. This is not to say that a journalist cannot comment on, say, a government policy which has improved people’s lives.  A reasoned piece expressing the merits of a policy is not praise, per se. It may support a government’s position, but it has not set out to praise, but to *criticise*; the end result of that *criticism* may support a government position.

Setting out to praise government or criticise government is not independent journalism. It is one of the following: partisan journalism, campaigning journalism, or bootlicking.

Perhaps I should end this modest contribution to a critique of independent journalism with a nod to a journalist who is known more as a pre-eminent political and social theorist.  He is Marx, and he wrote: "I am speaking of a ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in two senses: The critism must not be afraid of its own conclusions, nor of conflict with the powers that be."

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