Front Porch | Journalism and the Bahamian democracy
Athena Damianos, who left journalism some years ago, was part of a cadre of well-trained journalists who were known for their professionalism and journalistic skills. She was an intelligent and fearless journalist who dug deep and was well-practiced in the arts of research and storytelling.
In a September 1999 report on Hurricane Floyd for Reuters, Damianos, a reporter at The Tribune for many years, vividly described for readers the impact of the storm:
“NASSAU, Bahamas, Sept 14 (Reuters) – Hurricane Floyd, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, pounded the central Bahamas early on Tuesday and was expected to give parts of Florida a foretaste of its strength in just a few hours.
“More than one million people living along Florida’s Atlantic coast were preparing to evacuate their homes as Floyd, bearing winds of 155 mph (250 kph), churned a course toward the south-eastern United States.”
Damianos, who occasionally pens letters to the editor continued: “The storm blasted through the low-lying cays of the 700-island Bahamas chain late on Monday and slowly moved northwest overnight.
“Panicked residents of the larger, more populated islands in the northwest of the chain, which has a total population of 287,000, shuttered windows, sandbagged doors and stripped market shelves of bottled water.”
The descriptive Damianos wrote as fluently about most subjects. She was versed in Bahamian history and politics, with the quality of curiosity and general knowledge required in a good reporter.
A generation before Damianos, another reputable journalist who went on to make an indelible mark on politics, noted that the better journalists of his time were also highly curious and good storytellers.
He recalls taking careful notes of debates in the House of Assembly, and having to read and understand the legislation before Parliament. This required careful and detailed reporting and understanding of our Westminster-based parliamentary system.
With no computer technology and less readily available information from the internet and cable television, he recalls the proverbial gumshoe practices of his profession.
He laments how incurious and ill-informed many reporters today are despite access to sources of information of which he would have taken greater advantage than most of today’s journalists.
Most of the journalists of his era were well-read, fluent in regional and international affairs, as well as Bahamian civics and history. There was not the general knee-jerk and suspicious antipathy toward political and governmental leaders that exists today.
A former journalist in her 40s recalls a conversation with someone still in the profession who noted that if journalists are not negative in their coverage of politicians they are seen as not doing their jobs.
The former journalist laments that as fairly recently as the 1990s, her task was not to be negative or positive. Her job was to report a story accurately and fairly. Today, there is a “gotcha” culture and mentality in many newsrooms and among many journalists. This is a mentality resident at home and abroad.
Perhaps there was no golden era in Bahamian journalism. But there were periods of more quality journalists and journalism than exists today. There are a number of reasons for the decline in quality, including the economics of the newsroom, though this remains only a partial explanation.
A tabloid Fleet Street-like mentality often dominates both the print and broadcast media. The tabloid mentality is replete with racy headlines, which are sometimes misleading after the body of a story is digested.
And there is the tit-for-tat culture, where politicians are often lined up to fire at each other, helping to fuel a storyline already logged in an editor’s or journalist’s mind.
Notice how often words such as “slam” are used in headlines, a term used to draw readers to a supposedly juicy political fight that is often more political noise rather than substantial news.
Such headlines are the equivalent of the “Breaking News” banner on cable television. Not only is it often not really breaking news, the news that is supposedly still “breaking” has already appeared for many hours under the same banner.
The lead story in this journal on Tuesday, under the banner headline, “PLP slams prison chief”, was but another in an endless drumbeat of stories in the print and broadcast media with little context or reporting beyond a press release issued by a single source, happy for a sometimes lazy press eager for a headline.
It proved a boring ho-hum story, quicker to read than the ingredients on a food package.
Such stories are now par for the course, written with little to no contextualization. Indeed the strongly worded headline almost took up as much space as the 208-word story which was approximately three times shorter than the well-written and articulate approximately 660-word editorial in that day’s paper.
A proximate cause of a more caustic and poisonous tabloid news culture came during the years of John Marquis’s leadership as managing editor of The Tribune. During those years he also penned the Insight column, a forerunner of other journalists leading the newsroom while offering personal commentary online, in print and on radio.
The journalist as commentator or activist mentality is sometimes seen on the front pages of leading newspapers.
One journalist writing in this paper chastised a Cabinet minister, telling the latter that he and his colleagues should get on the same page. Such an opinion expressed in an editorial is understandable. But when such a sentiment is written in a story, a boundary has been breached.
In a lead story in The Tribune, the journal congratulated itself for pushing the government of the day on a matter related to aviation policy. It was an inappropriate act of self-congratulation on the front page.
There are capable, intelligent young journalists in The Bahamas, eager to hone their skills and craft. Yet they often lack the quality of leadership necessary to train them to be fair, curious and impartial.
During his tenure as prime minister, Hubert Ingraham quite often unleashed his volcanic displeasure when a journalist asked him a question, the answer to which was already in the public domain or to which he had already responded.
Ingraham was often annoyed as to how ill-informed and ignorant many journalists were of basic facts and information, much of which had already been reported on their networks or through their media houses.
This problem endures today, with many journalists blithely unaware of information already in the public domain.
Many journalists were intimidated by Ingraham. For all the criticism of former Prime Minister Perry Christie and Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, both men were more tepid in their public criticism of journalists than Ingraham, who did not abide sloppy and poor journalism.
Ingraham, an inveterate consumer of information and news, read voraciously. When overseas, he enjoyed surrounding himself with newspapers, magazines and periodicals.
An institutionalist, both of state and society, Ingraham understood the need for a responsible, competent and professional media, which is indispensable to the maintenance, development and flowering of a democracy.
The quality of a democracy is directly related to the quality of journalism and cannot survive at all without it. The very notion of self-governance in a representative democracy requires a certain level of knowledge and understanding by the governed.
Given the monopoly on the broadcast media by the PLP for a quarter century, and the essential role played by the two leading journals in the country, the FNM and Ingraham were deeply committed to freedom of the press and to the liberalization of the broadcast media.
The liberalization of the broadcast media in the 1990s was intended to open the airwaves to competing views and new businesses, which it did. But there are often unexpected consequences of even the best intentions, especially in a democracy.
What has been the effect on our democracy of what many view as too many licenses? What has been the effect of the proliferation of licenses on our small talent pool of journalists?
It appears to have stretched the talent pool too thin in a small country with limited talent in many fields, including journalism and writing. This has had unintended consequences for the media business and the quality of journalism.
More next week on the role of journalism in a democracy.