The Press:Accountable to Whom?

1999-09-15

    Democracy has been making re-markable progress in Asia since the 1980s. As authoritarianism has disintegrated, governments have become more accountable to the people. This democratic tide has swept through countries such as the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, and South Korea. Currently we are witnessing the making of similar history in Indonesia. Press freedom always goes hand in hand with democracy. Before democratization, the news media were held accountable to nobody but the government. Because many news media have the freedom to report now, the accountability of the press has become an increasingly important issue.

             Hong Kong has to face the same issue. Just two years ago, Hong Kong was in a state of apprehension. People were worried about many things, particularly the future of press freedom. But the political transition went rather smoothly. While there may be hidden dangers, Hong Kong's reunification with China has had a good start. The news media are still free to criticize the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese government. People have high hopes for the press, expecting it to parallel the executive, the judiciary, and the legislative as the "fourth" estate. This metaphor speaks to the desired role of the press as a watchdog of the government. If the press is to watch over the government, who is to monitor the performance of the press? To whom should the press be held accountable ?

What drives journalism?

            Internally, the press has to answer to the calls of its proprietor. In capitalism, where private ownership is respected, the proprietor holds the ultimate authority over the operation of a news organization. Disputes between the proprietor and the working journalists often result in the latter yielding or resigning. It is therefore important for journalists to pick a proprietor whose philosophy and management style they find agreeable. It is equally important for the proprietor to realize that journalists will be at their best if they are given a certain autonomy in the running of their news organizations. The modern proprietor should know where resource-allocation control stops and where day-to-day operation interference begins.

            In the absence of overt political control, media commercialism begins to flourish. Some news organizations are now run as if they were held accountable to nobody but advertisers. What the press aims to deliver to the advertisers is the largest audience of those who have the highest consumption power. This is often achieved at the expense of serious journalism, resulting in excessive sensationalism and commercialism. Although advertising is important for the survival of the press, accountability of this kind is simply misplaced. It tends to undermine the basic tenet of the news profession.

            As market-driven journalism prevails, media professionalism dissolves. Ethical principles are being challenged by market imperatives. Anything that sells goes. The social responsibility of the press is slighted. The boundaries between reality and fiction, facts and rumors, objectivity and bias, fairness and sensationalism, right and wrong, decency and vulgarity, issues and trivialities, are blurring. Many instances have shown that excessive commercialism and sensationalism will finally lead to the loss of credibility, the lifeblood of news media.

A profession that never matures?

            A few of my colleagues who have been interviewed by the press complain about misquotation and inaccuracy. They have my sympathy as I myself sometimes share their experience. I do think that the press has to be faithful to its news sources. Being faithful in this case is to be accurate and to be true. However, this emphasis on accuracy should not be stretched so far as to forbid journalists from making independent evaluation and selection of the facts in reporting. It is unfortunate that many journalists in Hong Kong do not show the depth of knowledge that is often expected of them. If journalists are given more opportunities to prepare and to specialize in reporting, they will be in a better position to gain access to the news sources, and convey their knowledge. Journalistic experience will also help. It is a pity that many journalists in Hong Kong desert journalism for other fields early in their careers, thus undermining the overall maturity of the news profession. It requires a rewarding incentive system and a friendly working environment to retain the very best in the field.

            The press is not just a private enterprise. The social functions that it serves are so important that it should be held accountable to the public in the last instance. Sometimes a circular argument is provided to explain why market-driven journalism prevails: the press is merely meeting the needs of the public. The blame is put on the audiences who seem to prefer drama and low taste to facts and decency. There is no denial that the audience should bear part of the blame. However, the final responsibility rests with the journalists because they make the final decisions about what is published.

Who is the public?

            Who constitutes the public? Where is the public? These questions are not as straightforward as they seem to be. The public is not organized most of the time. Analytically speaking, there can be more than one public. Groups and individuals sometimes make competing claims in the name of the public. In fact, they are speaking from the perspectives of different publics. News media also make diverging commentaries in the name of public interest. Although it is difficult for everyone to agree on what the public is, journalists have to make some assumptions about the public, in the broadest sense, if they want to serve the society well. The public represents decent people who want to be well informed. They want their children to be free from pornography and excessive violence. They want to live in a society that respects evidence and logical arguments. The public expects the press to go beyond the narrow interest of specific groups and have the whole society in mind when making judgements. The major function of the news media is to inform and to facilitate rational discourse. Should the press fail to function properly, democracy will be undermined. These are some of the assumptions that the press will have to take if it is to be socially responsible.

             Opinion surveys have repeatedly indicated that the public is getting more and more frustrated by press commercialism and sensationalism in Hong Kong. Public anger over bad journalism is on the rise. If the press does not want this anger to be translated into laws and rules by the government, it should take a more professional approach to journalism. This is perhaps the best way of honoring the news profession and showing its social responsibility.

            When criticized, a journalist tends to put the blame on the media proprietor, advertisers, or audience. As journalists are the content producers, their professional commitment can make a difference in what is finally produced. When the ethical boundaries between right and wrong are being blurred by media commercialism, we need journalists who dare to say no to unprofessional practices. Although self-discipline is hailed as the panacea for holding the journalists accountable, few communities of journalists around the world are actually organized in a manner that can make it work effectively. Much more remains to be done to make self-discipline a reliable mechanism for subjecting journalists to professional sanction. A possible solution is to design an institution that can handle public complaints and command respect from the professional community at the same time.

Does quality press has a future?

            Is there still room for the responsible and quality press in Hong Kong? Although the pressure on the quality press is growing, this should not be interpreted to mean that it does not have a future. By the census of the Hong Kong government, 18% of the population aged 9 or above in 1997 had received post-secondary or higher education. This sub-population constitutes the social basis of the responsible and quality press. As long as this sub-population exists, the demand for quality journalism will show. People need quality newspapers to get adequately informed. The Hong Kong society needs a quality press to sustain an effective feedback system.

            Structurally, Hong Kong is also entering a situation which calls for quality journalism. Under British rule, Hong Kong was more like a temporary society. Uncertain of their future, people were less patient with serious reporting and discourse. As the dust of the handover begins to settle, Hong Kong has to develop a long-term vision. People have also become more sober in the face of the economic crisis and growing competition from other cities. Surveillance reporting and informed discourse will better fit this change in social mood.

            To realize the ideals of quality journalism, commitment on the part of journalists and media proprietors are indispensable. The erosion of self-discipline and professionalism will only invite interference from the government. The local journalism schools can help by turning out more and better-trained students. The public should stand up and be counted. They can flex their muscles by buying the right newspapers and boycotting the bad ones. The quality press should have confidence in its crucial function and the decency of the educated readers. It is wrong to assume that all the readers prefer sensationalism and vulgarity. Hong Kong is a global city. It needs and deserves a quality press.

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