Media ethics and the truth under fire

This month, the American channel NBC suspended its lead news anchor Brian Williams for six months without pay because he had falsely claimed that a helicopter he had been flying in, while covering the Gulf War in 2003, had come under fire.
Williams blamed a lapse in memory for his so-called misrepresentation of the truth. NBC's management decided that the public's trust in the organization had been damaged and decided to penalize him. He is not out of the woods yet because there is now intense scrutiny of many of his previous reports and anecdotes.

Williams has reportedly also potentially jeopardized the $10 million (SR37.5 million) a year contract he just signed with the organization in December. His fame and standing as a journalist failed to deter NBC from its decision, over what it considered a moral and ethical issue.

Huge debate

The case has sparked a huge debate in America's media over the importance of honesty and abiding by an organization's code of ethics. Of course, there have been many incidents of lying and plagiarism involving high-profile journalists in the U.S.

In 2012, Time magazine suspended the weekly column of top writer Fareed Zakaria for one month for plagiarism. Zakaria copied a paragraph from the New Yorker magazine without citing his source correctly. At the time, he was also suspended from his show “GPS” on CNN but was later allowed to continue because no further problems were found.

Zakaria has apologized for the mistakes he made in 2012, saying he had been overstretched at the time and that he would be careful in future to ensure he attributes information correctly.

Media organizations have been known to take tough action against those found breaching journalistic principles and standards of professional conduct because their credibility as news gatherers are at stake. Even those found making unsavory comments in private, particularly racist jibes, are severely punished.

Opportunists

On this side of the world, many Arab journalists are opportunists who have no qualms about changing their political opinions depending on which way the political wind is blowing. In many countries in the region, the media industry is a circus, lacking any form of professionalism.

The painful reality is that certain nations are paying the price for believing in certain channels and journalists. This blind support has inflicted serious damage, perhaps irreparably so, to their credibility.

The hope now is that the Internet, with its plethora of new media such as YouTube, will bear testimony for posterity to the lies and misrepresentations of journalists. There should be particular scrutiny of those who support their current governments now and then condemn them once they are toppled.

The weakness of the media industry is one of the main reasons for the underdevelopment in the Arab world. There is a serious lack of professional standards in media organizations, which are staffed by people who have very little understanding of what journalism really means.

Many media houses are failing to publish much-needed contextual analyses that can provide their readers and viewers with an informed view of world events, which allows them to make better decisions about how they live their lives. Censorship preventing journalists from crossing certain political red lines need not be a deterrent to quality reporting on many critical social and economic issues.

Media freedom is meaningless without qualified journalists who can prevent opportunistic hacks from using publications to further their private agendas. Change can only come about once we start supporting the work of properly trained, professional reporters.

This article was first published in Arab News on February 18, 2015.

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Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is the editor-in-chief of Sayidaty and al-Jamila magazines. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, al-Harthi later moved on to establish al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992. You can follow him on Twitter here: @mfalharthi

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