Journalism, responsibility and influence

Reflecting on responsibility in journalism and reporting

For over a century the Manitoban has been at the forefront of the fight for a slightly more informed world. This fight has raged since humanity first started lying to each other, but continues to this very day.

Journalism as a discipline is important, but also easily misused and poorly applied. Journalists have a critical responsibility to the readers and the public because of the popularity and impact of journalism as a discipline.

One study illustrates the social impact of newspapers by looking at readership numbers that illustrate their general popularity. In 1955, a Royal Statistical Society study conducted in the United Kingdom compiled readership data and found that an average of 80 per cent of the more than 12,000 respondents polled read a national daily newspaper.

A more recent 2013 study conducted in the United States found that 71 per cent of polled respondents watch local television news.

However, journalists also have a responsibility to the public not just because of the historical popularity of the news, but because of the influence that journalism can have.

Another 2013 study conducted in the United Kingdom found that respondents believed that the proportion of those fraudulently claiming disability benefits was anywhere between 10 per cent to 70 per cent, while in reality it was around 0.5 per cent. Furthermore, respondents also held negative prejudices to those they believe have fraudulent disability claims.

These beliefs were, according to the respondents, informed by newspaper articles focused on disability claims. Simply because of their exposure to frequent articles politicizing fraudulent disability claims, the individuals in this study experienced a negative shift in opinions. The ability to impact readers to the point where their perceptions are not in line with fact, especially in a negative sense, needs to be taken seriously.

The Manitoban, while employing rigorous citation, sourcing and fact checking has been responsible for articles that could both harmfully impact public perception and positively direct thought.

Way back in the first issue of the Manitoban, published Nov. 5, 1914, where articles discuss the First World War, there is an article titled “Dr. Allison’s lecture on the war.”  The article uses terms which could easily influence perception of events, such as “German barbarities” when referring to crimes committed by German soldiers and “the titanic struggle” of the British Empire’s war effort. There is also mention of the “remarkable” and “splendid preparedness” of the government.

The language of the article along with sympathetic reporting could shift a reader’s perception of the conflict as a mightily prepared British Empire against a vile and barbaric Germany. War, and conflict in general, is rarely as simple as a good guy and a bad guy.

Characterizing one side of a conflict as the good guy and the other as the bad guy is both reductive and irresponsible. This is particularly noteworthy when it comes to a conflict such as the First World War in which the British Empire and Germany both used thousands of tons of poison gas.

Going forward 89 years, there is an article from the Manitoban published only six days after the outbreak of the Iraq War. The article published March 26, 2003, titled “The costs of war” approaches the topic of war from a different, less biased perspective. The article written by David Leibl, was an editorial — unlike the article on Dr. Allison — and used less biased language approaching the Iraq War while critically questioning the conflict itself.

Leibl’s article challenges the reader to think critically about the conflict, asking important questions and offering potential alternatives for humanitarianism rather than conflict. Meanwhile, the article on Dr. Allison approaches the First World War encouraging a nationalistic positivity for the British Empire, with prejudiced language toward Germans.

Journalists writing comment or editorial pieces are entitled to their opinions, as long as these opinions are backed up by facts and reason. However, news must approach topics as objectively as possible. Compelling news is going to have an angle, but having an angle and engaging in irresponsible reporting full of bias are two different things. As a columnist, all of my pieces are filled with my unwarranted opinions, but any facts, claims or accusations have to be backed up with rigorous fact checking.

Because the frequency of pieces and the content of pieces can impact audiences, journalists such as myself have a responsibility to the reader and to the public at large. Writers can affect perception and thought, and lead the reader to draw certain conclusions.

As a final note to the writers of the Manitoban and any other writers reading, continue publishing great pieces of comment, editorial and news while exercising responsibility and critical thought. To the reader, think critically when you read any journalistic pieces or see articles frequently touching on the same topic.