I believe in journalism - humbugs, hazards and all

Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, The Jakarta Post, Bangkok

Near the entrance of the editorial office of The Jakarta Post is a framed covenant bearing the title "The Journalist's Creed".

It is a declaration of the principles of the journalistic profession.

"I believe in the profession of journalism," so begins the pledge, authored a century ago by Walter Williams -- the first dean of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism.

It speaks of a sacred public trust; of accuracy and fairness as fundamental to good journalism; of a profession which fears God and honors man, unswayed by the appeal of privilege or the clamor of the mob.

Bold words for an occupation whose practitioners are sometimes likened to irritating mosquitoes.

But today's culture of novelty and sensationalism have taken precedence over fact. Rather than reporters of news, journalists frequently become makers of news. More famous than the subjects they report on.

The daily dose of the day's events is fed to TV viewers by star reporters whose integrity is determined by their attractiveness and ability to maximize news as entertainment. The hairbrush a supplement to wisdom and the first prerequisite of broadcast journalism.

The standing of the print media is not much better. It is one thing to make honest mistakes. To err is, after all, human. But it is another thing altogether when amusement takes precedence over truth. Journalism, hence, becomes a portico for the commercial rummage of tattletales.

Instead of illumination, millions of copies of newspapers and newsmagazines are sold feeding off the fear and paranoia of a public caught in a bewildering wave of sociopolitical change.

The public wants what the public gets. Right now it is getting a fantasy parade of false diatribe and shallow logic.

With volumes of published glib and hours of broadcasted trite, it is no wonder the public seems to be turning against the press.

As World Press Freedom Day quietly passes Wednesday, it is timely for Indonesian journalists to reflect on their profession.

Usually the day is filled with speeches on the values of press freedom and gloomy predictions of the lurking dangers that threaten the press.

These sermons, no matter how often recycled, are both valid and pressing.

The importance of a free press to the fate of democratic transition in Indonesia cannot be underscored enough.

Once under the gun of an exploitative regime, the press in Indonesia now faces new and no-less menacing challenges.

There is a tendency to criminalize the press.

In a state where the law is more shy than the criminals, vigilantes freely intimidate media organizations when reports are deemed unflattering.

The most novel challenge is the conglomeration of the media as business tycoons suddenly see profit, and more importantly, strategic benefits in building media empires.

Unfortunately these tycoons forget that while the media is a business, its main business is not business.

The predominance of tycoons is slowly diluting the profession, moving it away from a commitment to the interest of news, to one of news for (certain) interests.

But seasoned journalists also know full well, though rarely admit it in public, that even in the most perfect democracies "occupational hazards" are a signature of the profession.

Firemen spend much of their time raising awareness about safety and prevention. But they realize that fires are inevitable and when a blaze erupts, it is their duty to jump into the flames.

The same analogy applies to journalism. The truth hurts, and some people are going to fight back after being exposed to such hurt.

Like a drug, the constant theme of being under threat, of fighting for a cause, being on a higher moral plain and throwing caution to the wind, frequently causes journalists to exude a sense of superiority.

The privilege of "preaching to the masses" is a corruptive vanity. Journalists too high on themselves become the very reflection of the false prophets they try to expose.

In this new information age, journalists can no longer afford to be a closed league of humbugs. Official media organizations cannot maintain the same degree of conceitedness they once had.

The Internet has empowered the masses. Information is no longer the monopoly of the powerful and professionals.

Citizen journalism is emerging through blogs, mailing lists and chat-rooms, rendering the pious editorial boards more and more irrelevant.

Instead of running in fear, professional journalists should embrace this phenomena by instilling a greater degree of journalistic ethics which can help raise the credibility of citizen journalists.

Whether amateur or professional, in the end is it not all toward the same goal?

Let us also question whether journalists should truly become agents of change. Can objectivity -- the first principal of news reporting -- be sustained when one is engaged in advocacy journalism?

News reporters must ensure the public receives accurate information and educate them on the possibilities which may arise. From there, let us trust the "informed" public to make up their own mind.

Journalism is like the mythological greatness of Mt. Olympus, and its protagonists the all-powerful Greek gods who inhabited this place of purity.

But Mt. Olympus and its gods were only relevant as long as their mortal subjects held them in esteem. No matter how great Zeus' power, once mortals were able to fend for themselves and find their own way round the world these mighty gods faded into oblivion.

Let the press not be another Greek tragedy.

The author is a staff writer at The Jakarta Post.
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