When I was a teenager and beginning to think that I’d maybe one day like to be a journalist, I had a naive assumption that it was an almost unfailingly noble, honest and respectable profession and that its practitioners were almost unfailingly women and men who were bursting with passion, empathy, integrity and decency.
When I first started working as a journalist around four years ago (or to put it more accurately, when I finally started making enough money from writing to quit my weekend bar job and do it full-time), I was exceptionally proud, perhaps too proud, to tell people what my job was. Indeed, it used to elicit enthusiastic nods of approval in almost all social interactions. It seemed as though most people I met shared my idealistic vision of journalism and its role in society.
But in the last year or so, in many people’s eyes, journalism seems to have lost some of that sheen. There’s a growing sense of distrust towards the media and its practitioners. We’ve seen this manifested in a variety of ways. Most recently, it’s the Trump “fake news” bandwagon in the US, which has seen the names of many reputable news outlets dragged through the mud, though a few of those targeted must accept some of the fault.
On my own Facebook timeline, I’ve noticed increasing and largely generalized anti-media sentiment both in South Africa and in the UK, and this is being propagated by the state on the one hand and various civil society groups on the other.
Unfortunately, there is certainly no shortage of fodder for an offensive against the profession that I still hold so dearly. There’s the ongoing Independent Newspapers debacle in South Africa, which aside from all the slander and lawsuits, has seen a number of the country’s longest-standing dailies deteriorate to the point where they are largely unreadable.
Meanwhile, in the UK, a resurgent tabloid press has hunkered down on a relentless campaign of xenophobia and bigotry; one of the worst repeat offenders, the right-wing Daily Mail, was just crowned Newspaper of the Year at the prestigious Press Awards, which has many liberals decrying the current state of the British media landscape.
As a journalist, all of this certainly makes me very uncomfortable or, at times, despondent. While I can try to disassociate myself from the ethics and agendas of the tabloid press, or refuse to have anything to do with Independent Newspapers, I can’t shrug off the growing sense that the integrity of my profession is under attack from many different sides, and, worse, that there is plenty of grounds for this attack.
On a personal level, I’ve also been disturbed by a trend I’m noticing among many fellow journalists who seem to feel that integrity and decency are surplus to the requirements of this profession. To give an example, in the past couple of years, I’ve challenged various incidences of plagiarism of my work or use of my images without permission or accreditation, and my complaints have generally been met with either contempt, incredulity or apathy, rather than the effusive apologies I was naively hoping for.
I’m aware that I’m still pretty new to this journalism gig, so in an attempt to combat the threat of complete disillusionment, I’ve been trying to connect with other more seasoned journalists whose work I admire, in the hope that they’ll reaffirm some of my idealistic views about what it means to be a journalist.
Unfortunately, this mission has often had the opposite effect to what was intended. The worst culprits, I’m ashamed to say, have generally been white British middle class males working in similar fields and for the same major international publications that I have my sights on. There’s a certain self-satisfaction that seems commonplace in this particular bracket, and an inability to listen to what anyone else has to say in a social situation because their opinion is obviously superior. I recently heard one journalist boast about ripping off his fixers; another was openly racist; a number are far too firmly entrenched in the ostentatious expat enclaves you find in so many African cities.
I should say that my experiences have often been little better with other demographics in the world of journalism, nor do my indictments only apply to the other writers out there – the same also goes for photographers (often the most smug of all, in fact) and editors. There are, of course, a number of noteworthy exceptions, but in my overall experience, they remain exactly that.
A side effect of all of this has been a certain self consciousness in social environments. I’ll find myself wondering if someone I’m speaking to thinks I’m smug, self-interested or self-righteous, or if telling them my profession prompts a panoply of negative judgments towards me rather than respect or positive interest in what I do. I wouldn’t really blame them.
But cheesy and self-righteous as it might be, I still believe that journalism and journalists can be a powerful tool for good, and I’m encouraged by the number of journalists and editors who have said more or less the same in the wake of Trump’s election, Brexit and various other recent events around the world that have made it easier for the media to be cast in a negative light.
I certainly think that serious self-reflection and self-critique are both warranted and necessary. At a personal level, it’s an important part of my everyday routine as I continue to forge my journalistic path. I’ve certainly got a long way to go, and I sometimes feel as though I’m stumbling through a dark room trying to find a light switch. But I hope I can continue to be guided by the teenage idealist that still resides inside me somewhere, rather than by the frightening counter movement towards something even darker.