Ahead of next week’s release of a report on its April 2013 mission to the Caribbean, the International Press Institute (IPI) sat down with Dr. Mercedes Vigón, an expert in media ethics at Florida International University and a member of IPI’s delegation to the Dominican Republic, to discuss what it means to be responsible journalist.
In the interview, Dr. Vigón shares her thoughts on how journalists can emerge unscathed from the ethical conflicts that are part and parcel of the profession, and offers some valuable advice to Caribbean reporters working in an at-times imperfect environment.
IPI: In your opinion, do journalists have the duty to be responsible?
Dr. Mercedes Vigón: The practice of journalism is personal and non-transferable. I don’t know of any country in which a journalist is not faced with a thousand different pressures as a part of doing his or her job. With an unemployment rate of up to 80 percent among journalists in some countries, the mere fact of having a job can sometimes seem like a privilege for which submission to the tyranny of a company is a small price to pay.
In procuring access to sources or information, some expect favourable treatment, others merely fair treatment. When a journalist completes a report, he or she might receive complaints, accusations of impartiality and protests, both justified and unjustified, from publishers, readers, advertisers and sources. In the face of this constant pressure, the young journalist may simply decide to close his or her eyes and say: “I commit to my company, I follow my editors, and I will just bear with it.” And of course, that is a good policy as long as the journalist has landed at a good company under good editors. But that does not always happen.
So what then? A journalist can simply throw in the towel and allow him- or herself to be carried away by the tide: “I will do what they ask because I need to survive.” Or, one can decide to “grab the bull by the horns” and recognise that responsibility goes beyond the company or the editors – it belongs to the journalist. A journalist has to learn to ride out the challenges, to satisfy mediocrity without becoming wedded to it. It is an eternal guerrilla war from which one can only emerge unscathed by accepting the challenge of fighting for the truth with independence and tenacity.
To accept this responsibility is the difference between life and death in the journalism profession; and between being your own boss and allowing others be the masters of your own actions.
IPI: If a journalist has doubts about publishing certain information, how can he or she arrive at an ethical decision?
MV: Ethical decisions require a pause for reflection. We should make such decisions respecting three basic principles: (1) get as close as possible to the truth; (2) maintain independence and a sense of justice; and (3) minimise damage. Personally, it helps me a lot to have people with experience and in whom I trust to consult with about what to do.
It is important to first define the conflict that we are trying to negotiate, and then secondly think about those who are going to be affected by whatever decision we make. With regard to the former, we need to identify the principle that is in play – credibility, honesty or truth, for example, and how our loyalties (responsibilities) will be affected by our decision. With regard to the latter, we owe loyalty to our readers or audiences, to victims, to the company, to sources, to ourselves and, finally, to the most-marginalised or forgotten members of society.
Lastly, it is important to reflect a little bit more when we have taken an ethical decision that does not benefit readers or the audience.
IPI: With respect to coverage of public officials, what is the difference between defamation and information in the public interest?
MV: Public personalities in the Anglo-Saxon tradition are those persons who have decided to work for the good of all and who have been elected to do so for their personal and professional qualities. In order to be able to vote for them, citizens need to be informed about what they stand for. For this reason, when a person decides to become a public personality he or she loses certain privacy rights. This person’s life becomes a reference for his or her public work and must be scrutinised to determine if he or she is honest and deserves to be elected. In order to allow for a public debate, which is very healthy in democratic system, people must be allowed to express their opinions without fear of being brought to court.
At the same time, when a public personality is in office, a journalist can demand accountability and expose that which is not being done correctly. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition, in order for a public personality to be able to accuse someone of defamation it must be proved that the journalist (1) published information damaging to that person’s reputation; (2) that the information was false; and (3) that the information was published with the intent to cause damage. The need to prove intent to cause damage is the difference between when a public personality files suit for defamation and when a private citizen does.
IPI: Media in many countries have been accused of trafficking in sensationalism in order to sell more copies. Do you see a conflict between ethics and capitalism?
MV: On many occasions, it has been proven that good journalism sells. In spite of the readership crisis in the United States, The New York Times is a newspaper of record in many countries, as is Le Monde in France or La Nación in Argentina. In Mexico, the newspaper El Norte, in Monterrey, was the first newspaper that got rid of bribes and went on to become one of the most successful in the country.
IPI: What kinds of mechanisms should the media develop to establish and enforce standards of responsible journalism?
MV: It is important to establish codes of ethics and security protocols so that journalists know how to behave. But even then the practice of ethics is something personal and non-transferable. Journalists must be independent and they must be able to put this independence into practice. In some cases, that means that they have to educate the company and convince editors to respect this independence. In other cases, journalists must look for a more ethical company for which to work.
IPI: As a member of IPI’s mission to the Caribbean in April 2013, how did you find the situation of the media in the Caribbean? Is there any message that you would like to send to Caribbean journalists?
MV: The situation of the media in the Caribbean is diverse and complex. In some places, salaries are precarious and are not enough to cover the costs of life. In others, it is access to information that is precarious, as there is no law that requires government offices to provide information about their expenses. Many countries do not have a clear legal regime for solving disputes between the press and groups who feel defamed.
But despite all that, the dedication of journalists to use their reporting to contribute to the betterment of Caribbean society is impressive. My message to Caribbean journalists would be to remember that the public depends and trusts in you to tell them what interest groups or governments would prefer to keep hidden.
Mercedes Vigón, Ph.D., is associate director of the International Media Center and an associate professor of journalism at Florida International University. Vigón is a native of Spain. She has trained journalists in Mexico, Nicaragua and Paraguay, and has worked as a TV news director for Net Financial News. She was also an executive producer and international writer for CBS Telenoticias. In April 2013, Vigón conducted media ethics training in the Dominican Republic on behalf of IPI during its press freedom mission there. Her participation was funded by a generous grant from the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo. In June, Mercedes was appointed to the board of IPI’s North American Committee.
Read the original interview in Spanish