Media Coverage of 2007 Campaign for PM

July 30, 2007

I sent this letter to the Jamaica Gleaner.  Naturally, no response.

Hello:  I hope that this note finds you in good spirits.

I am writing to register a few observations that I have made in reading your newspapers over the past few years, and which are again reflected in the current election-related coverage provided by the mass media institutions for which you have decision-making authority. My comments are meant to go beyond the campaign issues and speak more broadly to newspaper reportage in Jamaica in general.

I raise these issues in the interest of entering into a conversation with you about the ways in which Jamaican newspapers, which are read around the world, can better serve its readership and the society on which they depend. Clearly, these comments are my own point of view, and I recognize that they may differ from yours, individually and collectively; for example, we are differently located in terms of how we understand the role of mass media in relation to national politics, as well as in managing that relationship.  Nonetheless, I hope that you are able to recognize my intentions, even if my words do not adequately convey what I mean to say.

1. For professional reasons — I teach and research about Jamaica – I read Jamaica’s daily and weekly newspapers regularly. Often, I am provoked to respond to an article, but quickly decide against doing so because I am usually not convinced that the writers or the editors really care.  In my thinking, why else would so many inaccuracies, typographical errors, unattributed information and flagrantly biased reporting find its way into print?  Clearly, this is not true of all the writers, the reporting or of any single newspaper; however, this is a recurrent problem and an established pattern that I believe needs to be addressed.

2. To date, none of the newspapers have clearly articulated a set of questions regarding various policy issues and around which the current political debates and the various ‘manifestos’ being formulated might be organized.  To my mind, those questions would also be answerable and able to be translated into multiple kinds of social policy and practice.  While there will/should be disagreements about the questions themselves – e.g. how they are framed, and around whose interests – the reportage that takes place should be consistent in highlighting and providing thoughtful, indepth and critical analysis of the political candidates’ responses to those questions.

Instead, what is currently taking place is that the candidates are making arbitrary decisions about what the political priorities (and attendant issues) of the society are and should be, and offering their own half-baked answers to their own questions, with little thought, research or reflection on the implications of their ideas.  Likewise, the reportage operates as transcripts of the events, as entertainment, with little or no analytic framing offered by the writer except, of course, for their own opinion or attitude about the topic itself.  Today’s reports of Prime Minister Simpson-Miller’s response to the PNP’s general secretary is a good case in point.  The problematic assumptions undergirding her response — that of the one in authority and therefore needs to be obeyed, like a parent — and in his — that he is being disobedient, akin to a child misbehaving – is completely missed by the reporters, and the event presented as if it were not only “true” in the factual sense, but also “true” in the normative sense, ie. both of the candidates are behaving as they should, as is normal.

3. In a similar vein, I find it fascinating that none of the newspapers have explicitly taken up the question of how/why the credibility of a national leader and one who does participate in global political relationships does not become suspect when she uses quasi-religious interpretations to make political decisions such as the election date.

To be sure, many political leaders in recent years have used specific interpretations of religious doctrine similarly, so that this issue goes beyond the Prime Minister.  I note this because I know that managing the relationship between politics and religion – as institutions and forms of governance – is always a cause for concern and debate, and not a fait accompli in any society that aspires towards democracy.  Like journalists everywhere else, those in Jamaica are uniquely poised to give credible, critical insight and opportunity for reflection on matters of political interest.  And yet, I don’t recall the question of the value of a religious or a secular democracy being asked years ago or ever. And so, to my mind, this is an unresolved issue, despite [or because of] the silence and general acquiescence to Christian fundamentalism.  In other words, opening up the question of what the relationship between religion and politics does look like in Jamaica allows a conversation about what that relationship should be, and to invite (and encourage) diverse viewpoints on the topic. In light of the generalized intolerance of difference in the society, this is essential conversation.

The current prime minister did offer an opening to pursue that question with more care and in more depth; yet as I recall, there was little focus in the newspapers, and the debate was completely dominated and drowned out by religious fundamentalists.  It is an understatement to say that the responsibility of mass media institutions like the newspapers is to point out when these questions ought to be front and centre in discussions about political leadership and social policy, when they are in danger of being eclipsed and the implications of such.

3. What is the value of identifying some core questions, and to debating what those core questions should be?  It allows us – in a general sense – to begin to talk in a more organized fashion about what the problems are, and to recognize the ways in which useful answers will require systematic approaches based on accurate, verifiable information, creativity, and attention to detail, not on blind faith.

There are many examples that I could draw on, but I will use the current discussions about “free education” (ie. universal access to K-6th Form education) as a case in point.  Lots of solutions have been offered to the problem of failing schools – more or less corporal punishment; more or less pay for teachers; more or less books, afterschool programs, supplies etc. But, what’s surprising is that we still don’t know a lot of basic information about how education works (or doesn’t) in Jamaica because reporters rarely provide sufficient or any contextual information for the stories they write, and do not ask the questions that will allow the readers to have meaningful insight into the issues:

ü      What exactly is in the curriculum and being taught in school?

ü      Who decides? Why? Should they [continue to] be the ones to do so?

ü      What are the measures for determining how the children are doing in school? Are the measures satisfactory? Which children are failing (ie. reading below grade level, etc.)? Which children are succeeding?

ü      What are the broader trends in terms of levels of literacy and education in the society, and in the specific communities from which children are coming to school?

ü      What are the philosophies of teaching, or pedagogies, that are being conveyed in teacher-training programs? Who decided this? Why?

ü      How are teachers’ philosophies useful or not to learning in the current social environment?

ü      What other institutions exist to address this problem of failing schools? To what extent do they try to address the problem? How? What are the effects/implications of these approaches vs. others?

ü      What makes a successful school, according to current education policy?  How do these ideas mesh with the reality of successful schools both in Jamaica and in other similar societies?

To figure out the answers to any these questions, readers are forced to wade through the pool of hyperbole, rhetoric, personal opinions and scriptural treatises offered in the editorials, letters to the editor, and columnists’ sections.  Because there is no standard or baseline against which to measure the arguments offered through these venues, readers are encouraged to see all these points of view as equivalent, and their consequences a matter of degree, rather than kind.  But each “solution” has serious implications for the level of social inequality in Jamaica; some needs will be met, others will be dismissed.  Do we want a just society? How does education contribute to that end? While these are my questions, I suspect that others share those questions.  It would be useful to readers to offer thorough, focused, accurate, comparative and transparent investigative reporting of these (and other) questions, which is conveyed through keen insight, and good research and writing skills.

Another issue that has been getting a lot of attention is “violence”.  Predictably, many citizens say “there is too much violence”, political leaders say “we have to do something about this violence”, police say the “public needs to cooperate to help solve violence”, church leaders ‘hold hands and pray for peace’ and ‘march against violence’, students in low-income communities are terrified to go to school because of violence, and terrified to stay home because of violence.  But what is completely ignored is that we are not all talking about the same thing, nor do we see all kinds of violence as a problem that ought to be, and can be, resolved through more police, undercover squads, etc. What exactly is being talked about as the “violence” that needs to be resolved? Why? Whose ideas and in whose interests? What questions and issues are being overlooked or pushed aside?  What do the statistics really tell us? What don’t they tell us? Is the information accurate and reliable? Answering these questions requires reporters and editorial teams to go beyond ideology (or bypassing it altogether) and the individuals accounts of trauma and horror to find, contextualize and report the correct information.  If the information does not exist, then equally important to the education of the citizenry is a plausible explanation of such.

4. If the goal of the political candidates is to “win” the election, then the goal of mass media institutions like yours ought to be providing clear information and incisive analysis based on thorough investigative reporting about what is being ‘won’ and ‘lost’ in and by the public interest.

I raise this issue because as I read your newspapers, I often wonder whether the reporters who write the stories – and the editors who sign off on the stories – understand the complex linkages between the individual stories of gang-related murders, lead poisoning, sexual assault in schools, nonexistent roads, insufficient water supply, etc. and some broader set of policy issues and debates? And when the reporters do make such connections, are they being fair and thorough? What is the source of knowledge that they draw on? To whom are the reporters (and perhaps yourselves, in a broad way) accountable – for what they write? For how they write about a topic? For what information is included or left out of the reportage? For what questions are never asked or acknowledged? Are news articles simply vehicles for the writer’s personal opinions? How does a reader or average citizen draw attention to the issues that are being overlooked and have some impact on the newspapers’ handling of the issues in the future?

Letters to the editors and call-in programs allow all of us to feel like people are participating in shaping social policy, but there is no evidence or guarantee of this. Despite all the claims to being a democratic society – one recent editorial even went so far as to state that Jamaica is a “liberal democracy” – there is no mechanism for people to get accurate, comprehensive answers to pressing questions that affect how they participate in the democratic process. Access to information – not the pre-digested stuff from the internet which seems to be replacing local coverage – and variety in points of view is critical to the democratic process.   We can’t have a healthy society without it.

5. As I have noted, I think that mass media institutions in Jamaica bear a large responsibility (why? perhaps that’s for another conversation) for providing accurate and useful information to the general public.  (If I am being repetitive, it’s because I don’t think this can be said enough, or that there’s cause to stop saying it now).

As a compliment to the radio, the national newspaper is (ought to be?) a forum for the working out of diverse ideas and points of view about a variety of topics; the newspaper should not be a bully pulpit with readers having little recourse but to either bear it, throw the paper away or not read it all.  And yet, some of the regular columnists do not seem to realize this.  I am less concerned with the nature of the opinion that is expressed, than how it is expressed.  Many columnists continuously play fast and loose with research and ‘facts’, offering personal anecdotes and opinions to stand in as “truth”, and foregrounding their own ideological positions with scant attention to or regard for current empirical knowledge, theoretical frameworks or debates. [1] This is particularly disturbing to me as a social scientist and scholar, and, to me, a clear violation of ethical codes of conduct of professionals, journals or otherwise.  I cannot imagine that the codes of conduct in Jamaican media are so different, and yet the onus is on the reader to make a counterclaim which may be ignored and/or never sees the light of day. Rarely are such counterclaims treated with the seriousness and attention that they deserve, in a way that equivalent to the original published article.

6. Because of the format, the newspapers have a particular role in shaping what and how issues are discussed by the kinds of questions and information that it brings to bear.  Dare I say it? The materiality of paper and ink still offers a unique sensory way to interact with information. No computer screen can compete.  Despite [dubious] claims that Jamaica is an oral not literate society, the education system and the mass media newspapers remain the most important mechanisms for ordinary Jamaicans to engage with ideas in any focused, sustained way, and to return to the information repeatedly for new insights.  Paper is portable and can last a long time. Regardless of their social situation, a literate citizen can rip out and fold up a section of the paper and take it with them to share with someone else.   If Jamaicans are not reading as much as they should, defining the cultural context in dualistic (i.e. either/or, oral vs. literate) instead of mutually complementary (ie. both/and, oral and literate) hardly encourages an educated, questioning and engaged citizenry.

Rather than accepting the status quo, ie. taking the “safe” route of simply parroting back what is already being said/spoken elsewhere, I believe that as decision-makers at the newspapers, you have access to resources (human, political, etc.) that are essential for cultivating knowledgeable, discerning and engaged readership and citizens through the written word.

The irony that I am sending this [very, very long] email on the eve of Emancipation celebrations is not lost on me.  I hope that you have taken my comments in the spirit they were intended, that is, to enter into dialogue about the role of information literacy in contemporary Jamaican society, and the ways in which mass media institutions can operate as a tool of progressive social change.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these and related issues.

Best Regards,

Natalie Bennett

[1] The examples are too numerous to list here.  However, I would be happy to discuss specific examples with you.


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