Journalism shows how personal and professional integrity are crucial to the idea of excellence.
What constitutes excellence in journalism and newspaper publishing? I suggest that, to quote the legendary reporter I.F. Stone, we should try “to live up to (our) idealised image of what a good newspaperman should be.” After twenty years of publishing the Stabroek News I would say that to do that job well would require stamina, courage, wisdom, and even some level of scholarship. Though we will never fully achieve all of this, the vision should always be there, to enable us to measure our progress and to remind us that there is always a lot of room for improvement.
Quality journalism is the same whether you publish in Georgetown, Port of Spain, London, Nairobi or Delhi. The higher journalism, as it has been called, was exemplified by the work of Stone himself, of whom Murray Kempton wrote: “The argument could be made that the average issue of I.F. Stone’s Weekly is more illuminating than the average Sunday edition of the New York Times, let alone its inferiors.”
Stone brought to his writing a quality of research, analysis and scholarship that has rarely been matched. That is the standard we should aim at, nothing less, however ambitious it may seem. Starting a newspaper is a challenge anywhere in the world. The mortality rate is high. In Guyana in 1986, when we started to publish the Stabroek News, there was only one newspaper, the state-owned Chronicle. The radio station was also state-owned, so the state had a monopoly of the media.
Participating in the rebirth of a free press was exciting and challenging. We started as a weekly. A little while after, when we went daily, I gave up my legal practice. In retrospect, the last twenty years of my life have been the most testing but also the most fulfilling from a career standpoint, and I have never worked so hard. A newspaper is an extraordinary thing. It’s a business, of course, and you have to be able to pay the bills to survive – which is not easy in Guyana given the state of the economy and the paucity of ads. But as Arthur Miller once noted, a good newspaper is like a nation having a conversation with itself, by which I believe he meant that your readers should feel at least slightly involved in the adventure.
We cater for this by placing great emphasis on letters to the editor. Some days we publish as many as twenty letters on topics of every kind, ranging from the system of government to ethnic insecurity, to bad roads and poor phone service. The arguments go back and forth. A newspaper can make a contribution by the quality of its reporting and the tone of its editorials. It can be a voice for sanity, moderation and tolerance – though it can with equal facility be chauvinist, sensationalist and even at times warmongering (William Randolph Hearst being a classic example, though by no means the only one, of a publisher who was not averse to promoting a war).
A newspaper can be as good as you can make it. Like all jobs, it requires energy, hard work, talent and dedication. There are times when the future looks grim, when political instability and crime seem overwhelming, and all seems to be lost. So newspapers must be patient, they must take a long view that makes the crises and the setbacks understandable as part of the painful process of building a democratic nation cast adrift from the old relations with Europe and facing multiple challenges, including our own fragile regional experiment.
The highest accolade a newspaper can achieve is credibility. Readers may or may not agree with your editorial opinions on various issues. But it is essential that they learn to trust your reporting. They must be convinced that you are trying to report the news of the day fairly, to tell the truth, that you have no private agenda. This is far from easy to achieve, especially in an ethnically divided society. After all, why should anyone trust you? You have to earn that trust gradually, and ensure that your journalistic heart is in the right place and not the captive of some group or special interest.
It is a demanding task, and there are times, when passions are high on all sides, when you find yourself isolated, trying to maintain a rational position and praying for wisdom. Newspapers must deal forthrightly with all the main issues in the society. There will be pressures from politicians in and out of government, businessmen, advertisers and other interest groups. There can be no compromise: you only have to lose your journalistic soul once. One has a duty to check facts, to get responses from the parties involved, to balance the story and tell it fairly. There are deadlines, time constraints, and vital players who are often not readily available. Judgments have to be made based on the importance of the news, the need to tell the story promptly and the need to get it right.
It can be a fine art, and a great deal of damage can be (and is) done by careless, inaccurate or unbalanced reporting. It makes the job onerous and sometimes nerve-wracking. One has to try to keep free of any allegiance that may create a conflict of interest (for example by not accepting directorships in companies, especially large ones that are frequently in the news); to have no sacred cows, to be unafraid of difficult issues that are sure to raise the hackles of one group or another. The worst sin for any newspaper is to play safe, to duck the tough issues.
One has to be prepared to express one’s views without fear or favour, whoever is involved. When politicians or other public figures act like fools or bullies, one must say so, and when obvious injustice is done one must not be quiet. At times of crisis newspapers have to stand firm and do their job. Journalism can be one of the most fulfilling jobs, worthy of the best and brightest in our societies. And precisely because of its challenges, no journalist escapes the daily test of what is excellent.
David de Caires is one of the leading figures in Caribbean media. In the 1960s he co-edited the groundbreaking New World Quarterly; in the 1980s he founded the Stabroek News, which he continues to edit, and which has become famous both for its independent stance and its openness to diverse voices and points of view.
The first Anthony N. Sabga Caribbean Awards for Excellence, each valued at around US$80,000, will be presented in October.