To make a competent decision, people must have access to reliable and accurate facts. Usually, it is the news media and therefore the journalists that take on offer these in modern democracies. Journalism is reporting the truth, not on a philosophical or scientific basis, but in a functional form. It is necessary to verify collected facts and disclose them in an understandable and fair way. Verifying information is what distinguishes journalism from propaganda, advertising or entertainment. Transparency is key, with sources as well as methods used, to give the readers the opportunity for a critical, informed discourse. A Journalist should value the public interest and the truth most and make it priority in their everyday work.
Traditionally, the democratic role of the media is the one of a Watchdog of the state. Its task is to monitor said and expose the abuse of official authority without fear or holding back. It is important to take shareholders as well as other types of authority into account. The media acts as a check on “abuse of all sources of power in both the public and private realms (Curran and Gurevitch, 2005, p.124). As Cohen argued, mass media “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about” (1963, p.13). Media plays a crucial role in engaging the public in the democracy it exists in.
“Journalism is in essence (…) a struggle over what information becomes public and what remains in the private realm (…)” (Borersma, et al., p.388). While sources certainly provide the writer with a publishable story, the Journalist or their editor ultimately decides who will be given a stage in the news and how an event, a story and its developments are framed. The dependency of Journalists and sources on each other is an integral part of the profession (Borersma, et al., p.389). Investigative reporting can help to shape the public policy (Lanosga and Martin, 2018, p.1690). It is not easy however, as a journalist to be reporting on reality – in reality.
One example for this is can be found in the movie ‘Spotlight’, directed by Tom McCarthy and written by McCarthy and Josh Singer. It tells the story of the investigative reporting unit ‘Spotlight’ at the Boston Globe which uncovered a scandal back in 2002, involving widespread paedophilia by priests and its cover up by the church. McCarthy and Singer interviewed the members of the original Spotlight team at the Globe, as well as their editors and reviewed the articles that were written by the unit in efforts to highlight the importance of investigative reporting.
The movie emphasizes how difficult uncovering and reporting a story as this abuse scandal can be. Not only do reporters work against those who want to keep the truth hidden from the public, but the process can demand a lot from the investigators – emotionally as well as mentally. As mentioned before however, it is a public service for Journalists to report and uncover the truth. ‘Spotlight’ shows that while reporting reality might not be glamorous, it is crucial for our society that Journalists work towards uncovering abuse of power.
Martin Baron, former executive editor for the Boston Globe, played in the movie by Live Schreiber, mentioned a letter he received from Father Thomas P. Doyle during a speech in 2016. Father Doyle wrote that “This nightmare would have gone and on were it not for [him] and the Globe staff.” (quoted by Baron, 2016). Baron explains that the truth is not meant to be hidden, supressed or ignored.
At a crucial point in the movie, a lawyer representing the victims explains: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” (Mitchell Garabedian in Spotlight, 2015, 00:57:40). The amount of people and power involved in stories like these, which need to be uncovered, is often very big. Working with a small team and in some cases even as a single person against a mainstream opinion, against people in power, can be very difficult.
Kill the Messenger
An example on just how difficult and also dangerous this can be, is shown in the movie ‘Kill the Messenger’. It is based on a book by Nick Schou and ‘Dark Alliance’ by Gary Webb himself, which focuses on the CIA involvement in Contra cocaine trafficking in the US. Webb published a three-part series on said topic in 1996 and in response was heavily criticised by major news outlets like the New York Times. Not only based on the story itself and the sources. The series was one of the first to ‘go viral’ online, when the internet was still very young. It first was celebrated then condemned and criticised. Webb killed himself in 2004.
Webb in the movie is being warned at multiple points throughout the movie, to consider the consequences of him continuing the investigation and ultimately publishing his findings. With investigations into corruption or drug trafficking and similar cases, Journalists may risk being kidnapped, jailed or even killed. Their families are exposed to dangers as well (Baron, 2016).
The movie makes it very clear that it is not always obvious where the line between a theory and the truth lies (Dockterman, 2014) and shows just how difficult it is to gain the needed sources to back up a story sufficiently. When suggesting his informant, former CIA agent James Cullen to go on record, said replies “And end up dead? No.” (James Cullen, Kill the messenger, 01:23:01). Even when getting access to an important source, it is not a given that it can be used to its full potential.
Abscence of Malice
The 1981 movie ‘Absence of Malice’ links to the ethical conflict and question of disclosing damaging personal information and the public’s right to know. The consequences of publishing a story and especially a source which might be crucial to back it up, can reach far. As mentioned before, the decision on what information is released to the public and what is kept in a private realm lies with the Journalist or their editor. The responsibility that comes with obtaining sensible information is something investigative journalists are faced with regularly. To summarize the problem, once a story is out, it can’t be taken back. Especially in the digital age, where stories can be published and stared in an instance.
Webb claimed in a speech in 1999, “You can’t believe the government. On anything.” and that “The media will believe the government before they believe anything.” (Our hidden history, 00:20:40, 2016^1). The fact that Governments now are more eager to pursue leaks as well as whistle-blowers (Lanosga and Martin, 2018, p.1691) can pose a serious problem to Journalists investigations. One of the biggest challenges in today’s media is that lies are recognized as truths. The almost unlimited amount of choices consumers has, leads to many confirming their pre-existing views instead of challenging them. Many media outlets and the journalistic profession are objects of suspension and those who are supposed to be checked by the media, politicians for instance, use this exact circumstance to their advantage (Baron, 2016).
An additional problem for journalism in mainstream media is the constant seek for profit. The question of who breaks a story early is very significant. The Spotlight team for example was concerned that their competitors would run their story first. Mostly because that would influence the outcome and consequences their work could have when only being published after throughout investigation. However, in reality the profit and advertisement that comes with publishing a story first, may me placed above the duty of reporting the truth thoroughly and aiming to do the best for the public good. In retrospect, all big uncovered stories seem to be obvious. However, most of them start with a small hint, a coincidental finding of proof or one source stepping forward. The decision of following such a lead is not only depending on resources, often the potential profit but also the possible risks for the reporters themselves.
To summarize this essay, journalists are faced with a variety of challenges and risks linked to their profession. Their duty to report the truth, to report on reality and uncover abuse of power in private and public realms as well as the medias role as a check to those in power, holds a lot of responsibility. The mistrust of today’s society in the media as well as the attempt of politicians respectively to use the mistrust and the media in general to advertise themselves poses a serious problem. The role of journalism in democracy is crucial and despite everything more than worth of the risks and challenges.
Baron, M. (2016) Speech by Martin Baron, editor to The Washington Post. 29.09.2016, The Times Centre, New York, Available at: https://premioggm.org/2017/03/speech-by-martin-baron-editor-to-the-washington-post/
Broersma, M., den Herder, B. & Schohaus, B. (2013). ‘A QUESTION OF POWER’, Journalism Practice, 7(4) [online], pp. 388-395. doi :10.1080/17512786.2013.802474.
Cohen, B. C. (1963) ‘The press and foreign policy’, Princeton University Press, Princeton, p.13.
Curran, J., Gurevitch, M (eds). (2005) ‘Mediations of democracy’, Mass Media and Society 4th edition, Hodder Education, pp. 122-149.
Dockterman, E. (2014), ‘This Is the Real Story Behind Kill The Messenger’ [online], in: Time, History. Available at: https://time.com/3482909/this-is-the-real-story-behind-kill-the-messenger/.
Iyengar, S. and Curran, J. (2009), ‘Media Systems, News Delivery and Citizens’ Knowledge of Current Affairs’, Stanford University and Goldsmiths, University of London.
Kill the messenger (2014), motion picture, directed by Michael Cuesta. United States: Bluegrass Films, The Combine, available at:https://drive.google.com/file/d/14j7Wzn_aYClANDDrn6ofwgQOVjAwMJ2s/view?usp=sharing
Lanosga, G. and Martin, J. (2018) ‘Journalists, sources, and policy outcomes: Insights from three-plus decades of investigative reporting contest entries’, Journalism, 19(12) [online], pp. 1676–1693. doi: 10.1177/1464884916683555.
Our hidden history (2016) Gary Webb: The CIA, the Contras, and Crack Cocaine. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YO6oMN8idUQ.
Spotlight (2015), motion picture, directed by Tom McCarthy. United States: Participant Media; First Look media; Anonymous Content; Rocklin/Faust Productions; Spotlight Film, available at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1QwcYWsdOeUXAoIe1BMHv1OtMQymQhTv6/view?usp=sharing
1) The interview in this video was recorded inp 1999 for Alternative Radio. Gary Webb spoke in Eugene, OR.
This article was originally published as an academic essay. References have remained in the text to ensure correct citing.