Central and fundamental to democracy, both for the citizens and the society, is information. Not just information of any kind but relevant useful and credible information. The citizens need to be well informed for them to exercise their rights; for instance, for meaningful participation in the political and democratic process; and for them to choose between competing ideas, values and political parties during elections, they need such information.
In realisation of the laudable project of producing this well informed citizens, democratic societies put a lot of responsibility on the mass media as the main mechanism of producing and disseminating such public information.
In addition to this, such societies also expect the media to act on behalf of the citizenry as the watch dog, holding those in power accountable to the people. They are to maintain critical surveillance on all centres of power and the players in those centres.
For the mass media to effectively discharge these functions, those who produce the news and other editorial contents which facilitate the democratic process are expected to be guided by certain norms and values. These norms and values – objectivity, fairness, detachment, independence, autonomy and truth–seeking – are encapsulated in the idea of professional ethics.
The ethical values that guide the work of journalists demand that they be independent and autonomous in the selection of the news. This is the sacred aspect of journalism. To further reinforce this ethical demand, many in and out of the profession hold fast to the aphorism that facts are sacred, and constitutional and legal requirements.
Apart from the issue of ownership, one important way of ensuring the independence and autonomy of journalists is the provision of adequate welfare. The welfare of journalists is not limited to the payment of salary, it includes provision of allowance for transportation to assignments, the granting of holidays/annual leave, conducive offices and work environment and other non-monetary incentives that can motivate journalists to work within the ethical boundaries of the profession. It should also include insurance and a pension scheme to safeguide their future after retirement.
However, in a media system undergoing severe economic difficulties, the welfare of the journalists becomes problematic. Many media organisations thus find it difficult, if not impossible, to pay their workers’ salaries and emolument. It is however ironic that such media organisations continue to produce and circulate news produced by unpaid journalists. The question then arises, how do these journalists survive, pay their house rents, care for their families, and get to their beats and venues of other assignments?
No doubt, they sell their services to their sources, those who are ready to pay. Quite often these are the rich and powerful in the society. But the danger is that when media proprietors out-source the welfare of their journalists to those they are expected to report on or watch, the society is in potential peril. Proximity and dependence on those in power severely limits the ability of the media to keep those they are expected to watch at bay. A compromised media is a captured media, and democracy is the loser.
The media are our collective watchdog. But when a watchdog starts to sup with those it is expected to be watching, it becomes a lap dog. Journalists keep the gate to the public sphere where our sense of reality is forged. An unpaid gateman will become unnecessarily friendly with all kinds of visitors, allowing all kinds of goods into the compound. Nobody can guarantee the safety of those inside such a compound. An unpaid journalist is a willing tool in the hands of those ready to pay, regardless of the types of massage that comes with the bargain. In such a transaction, ethics and values of journalism have no place.
Democracy suffers where journalism is in the hands of compromised reporters.
If we agree that the pen is mightier than the sword, we should not give such a mighty weapon to a journalist who is hungry and or unsure from where and when his/her next meal will come.
Lai Oso is a professor with the School of Communication, Lagos State University.