BLOG: How journalists can regain respect again

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Hats off to my friend and respected colleague in the Malaysian media industry, Karamjit Singh, for his timely opinion-piece, Are Journalists So Special? and for positing the idea of an ‘integrity pact’ in the local communications industry.

Karamjit highlights certain challenges common in the ‘greyer’ zones of our industry, which of course also exist in darker shades perhaps in other areas such as politics, business, and personal relationships.

In this informal note, when I talk about journalists, I also include bloggers: those who also try and follow principled behaviour. (Of course, I insert the usual caveat: I am offering opinions purely as a fellow practitioner; I have much to learn and have made many mistakes already, and probably many more to come. I speak as a fellow stumbler on the path to nirvana.)

In our industry, we are vitally aware that editorial attention is the ‘golden light’ that marketing departments are striving to secure. Mainly because the notion is that your ‘brand power’ will be strengthened by what credible independent third parties (especially from the fourth estate) write and say about your brand, whether it’s a product, a service or a person. That’s the theory. [Adverts and advertorials are not editorial pieces and have different positioning, and a different purpose, and anyway, everyone on the street knows they are being ‘sold’ something.]

When our profession is practiced on a daily, balanced basis, most journalists serve quite effectively and with some panache; they bring credible news to their audiences, and bring value to their particular industry sector.

But real life tends to complicate things. Often journalists will inwardly think: is this lunch, overseas trip, or gift something I can accept and can I still write this piece with an editorially-balanced, detached and clear perspective? This is a personal choice, a moral decision. We have to make sure our article does not slip across the dividing line and become an advertorial. It can easily happen, especially in these days when information thunders across our day. It is easy to drown in that waterfall.

However, the principles have been laid out for us. Leaving the actual journalistic skills aside from this discussion (such as active listening, classic news/features structures, nutgrafs, using ‘journalese’ rather than the language of opinion, and so forth), the important point to note is that most media organisations have policies in place.

As an example, currently I work for an international news service that operates within a tight niche in a fast-moving global industry sector serving a specialist audience of professionals. This company has policies that go right down to ‘hamper’ management, never mind assessing media trips and other events on a case-by-case basis!

What I also took for granted (and naively assumed was generally known and practised in the local industry) is that our company does its best to encourage adherence to another traditional media practice, one which gives real force to editorial credibility and independence: keep the editorial and marketing teams (or processes) in a media organisation strictly separate, or as far apart as practical.

The editor is then supposed to consider all news on its own merits, regardless of whether the parties involved are ‘supporting’ your organisation. This is a powerful and time-honoured principle. Following this inspires a greater level of trust, especially in the audience that our company serves; these professionals need to quickly see how the day’s global and local news may impact the way they do their job.

Perhaps this particular principle is dying in these changing times? I do hope not. When I was taught media, this was regarded as a long-standing principle. A key one. Almost every profession has a set of principles to make the disciplined practitioner ‘special,’ and to add some value to daily life, work and play.

As I said, I have many things to learn, but like everyone else in the communications industry (media, PR, marketing, etc) I try to do the best I can. The support from your organisation and your colleagues, and industry peers, is possibly another key to success?

As I said, kudos to Karamjit and the local professionals in all the related disciplines here, such as media, PR, marketing departments, and so on. Such moves should benefit us all. Fingers crossed.

– Avanti Kumar,
Kuala Lumpur, 7 August 2012