Columnists Features

Subjective words versus ethical journalism


Having observed that many journalists have tended to respect straight-forward guidelines about professional news-writing alone, I want to make observations around the lack of detail in use of words.
Completeness in journalistic news writing denotes the mood of the source without necessarily transmitting words that demean his competitors in a political discourse.
I will be deviating from truth if I pretended that news is simply about following carefully what I source has said or critically following the contents of a media release. There is more to news presentation than strictly understanding what a source wants to deliver.
My observation today is shaped by the luxury which media practitioners front when they write news stories. The use of subjective words in the packaging news has become a common place among journalists.
At times, such words are used simply because they have been used by the source and the copy-paste-writer ignores the duty to relate with the chemistry of journalism—ethical reporting.
There are ethical rules that must be adhered to when a source uses demeaning words against his other rivals. I will use a few words that have stolen prominence lately as examples.
Terminologies such as he is a liar, he does not listen, he is corrupt, he is tribal, a criminal, unpopular or political none-entity etc are some of the words which must be used with extra care or dropped from the story even though they sit well with the source.
There are many reasons for that. Firstly, they denote a close relationship between the author and the source. By extension, the writer is being used as a channel for transmitting demeaning words against rival parties. They place a journalist at the center of the conflict. In other words, they may suggest that the writer has adopted the words and thoughts of the source which is utter unprofessional.
The safety valve is placing such words in direct quotations. Direct quotations are simply a reflection of the mood of the speaker. They best reflect the characteristic of the source to society.  For the author, is simply telling the reader that here are the direct words used by my source.
It must be noted that there is a direct relationship between the words used by the source and whether or not the author believes in the description allotted to the rival.
Among the reasons such words are not ethically desired are that they are mainly used to de-campaign, disown, bring down the standing of a particular figure and at times, to cause divides between the rival and his supporters in favour of the source of such a statement.
Secondly, it is almost impossible to achieve balance when the introduction of the story attacks the person of another other than tackling the issue under debate.
For instance, what reaction would someone assemble when a source says for example: “GAG president Kenan Banjanja has said President Muchindu Mukwekwema is a pathological liar.”
The first requirement for a journalist is to balance such a story to the satisfaction of the person being attacked.
The challenge is to find words that can suitably rival the words ‘pathological liar’. Use of the term “President Mukwekwema denied all these allegations” will not suffice because the words ‘pathological liar’ can never be an allegation. They simply amount to an attack on the person of Mr Mukwekwema.
An allegation borders on what a person has failed to do or has done wrongly and the speaker wants to label him as such. A direct inference to the person’s character is, therefore, not an allegation.
Slash attacks such as a particular figure has no direction are simply fetching—a statement that lacks direction and journalists have an obligation to drop them or use them cleverly to retain neutrality.
The author is secretary general of the Southern African Editors Forum – Zambian Chapter

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