The journalist’s role as a member of the ‘fourth estate’ vs the rights of the individual
To fourth estate or not to fourth estate?
Indeed, that is the question (ok it wasn’t actually the question Shakespeare asked but it sounds really good as an introduction so just go with it for now).
It’s the most pressing question a journalist ever has or will face, and its answer, however elusive, proves crucial to mastering the incredibly difficult balancing act between the ‘fourth estate’ role and the right of the individual to privacy.
Throw in the recently enforced metadata retention laws, and all of a sudden this balance becomes harder to achieve than ever before.
The public interest must be upheld when investigating and reporting… but an individual’s right to a fair trial must be maintained if we are to call our society a democratic one.
Perhaps the reporting one must avoid above all else is that which leads to valid claims of defamation. From a court’s standpoint, defamation is reportage instilling hatred, contempt, or ridicule in the minds of ‘right thinking people’.
Herein lies the ultimate conundrum: should journalists report a situation that, from an objective point of view, doesn’t favour its subject?
This is just one journalist’s opinion, but we should be able to report on these issues in order to uphold the public interest while still maintaining the rights of the individual. From a reportage standpoint, this means providing details of one’s actions, but being incredibly stringent in providing information likely to be linked back to a particular person or persons.
It means hauling in some aspects of a story and not fully disclosing them, something journalists have proven over history they’re reluctant to do, and it can be tough to go against that ever-burning thirst to inform the public of everything. In return, however, we’re provided with a balance between keeping the public informed enough to uphold their interest, while also not giving enough to skew public opinion against an individual or group.
It is as close a concept journalists have to, as Hannah Montanna spectacularly puts it, “the best of both worlds.”
Again, this is in no way a ‘surefire plan’, but it can be used as a compass for reportage on issues where objectivity is a must.
Throw a high profile individual into the mix, though, and all of a sudden things become (somehow) a lot harder.
Such is the case with political reportage. On the one hand, these are the people tasked with running the country, and so there are perhaps no people of greater importance when reporting to uphold the public interest. On the other hand, by the very nature of politics today (where personalities are as identifiable as policies), these people become substantially easier to identify, and thus become ridiculed in the minds of those ‘right thinking people’.
When one has misused the powers and privileges granted to them by the public, it is a journalist’s duty to inform the public of such a breach of trust. Thus, avoiding identification becomes next to impossible. Still, the piece must be reported as objectively as humanly possible, and this is where a journalist’s skill with words becomes truly necessary. Every word is a building block, and if even so much as one is misused or misplaced, it puts a piece at risk of tumbling down, which from a journalist’s standpoint would mean readers immediately presuming guilt of the subject solely because of the words on the page.
Overstep the mark, and punishment often follows. One need only look a couple of months back to find proof, with then Treasurer Joe Hockey winning a defamation case against Fairfax Media for the headline ‘Treasurer for sale’.
While 2006’s Uniform Defamation Laws removed the previously skewered nature of defamation’s definition in cases (which favoured the plaintiff over the defendant), one’s reputation remains an incredibly delicate concept, and even the slightest infringement can (and often will) result in a journalist paying the price (literally).
Of course, these are just opinions.
They are opinions, however, with more power in practice than arguably any other occupation, such is the limited role of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA), and any other mechanisms of self-regulation.
The lack of any one true regulatory body means it’s in the hands of the journalists themselves to determine what’s right and wrong, and what constitutes the ever-shifting space in between.
The MEAA Code of Ethics provides the closest thing to an ‘agreement’ the journalism industry has, but even it is something some don’t agree with or adhere to.
Perhaps the development of technology can be seen as journalism’s best friend, then. What it has allowed is for social media to provide an ongoing hub of opinion, and from that a general consensus on the reportage the public deems best is able to be attained.
Of course, it’s not breaking news some on social media aren’t the most rational. But, when filtered out, we’re left with a measuring stick with which to judge our reportage.
Combine this with the pillars of journalism (fairness, balance and accuracy), and we’re left with a formula that, although it may never never be perfected, has a potent blend of public interest and the rights of the individual.