The Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) in Bratislava has launched a series of courses for news people on investigative journalism and media ethics. That the course is bring held at all shows that Slovak journalism faces heavy pressures to ignore ethics and not to investigate, and that its rank-and-file members care enough about the issue to travel long distances to find out how to resist these influences.
The most recent session was held on March 14, and was attended by 15 to 20 journalists from around the country, aged between 26 and 50 years. They represented such media as the national public channel STV, a Košice daily paper, a radio show for children. They travelled from as far as Humenne in the east, a good nine-hour train and bus ride from the capital.
There's certainly plenty to investigate in this country, as the methods of the Dzurinda government and the state bureaucrats who run the country have not changed as dramatically from what occurred under the 1994-1998 Mečiar government as we had been promised. Privatisation, the management of state companies, the courts and the health care network are run by people who are as loath to be examined as were their predecessors.
But it's ethics that remains the main issue. Journalists face a constellation of political, economic and social pressures to produce work that is neither accurate, fair or free of conflict of interest. While the mission remains to serve readers, what gets published and broadcast often bears the imprint of a 'higher' aim - to serve the political and business interests of the people who own the media - or the lower principle of avoiding the demands that integrity makes on media workers.
The four principles of journalism, according to an American group called Brill's Content, are accuracy, proper labelling of sources, an absence of conflict of interest, and accountability. These words and phrases translate roughly into the following precepts: that what you write is faithful both to the truth and context of the information you are communicating; that if you have doubts about the reliability of either your information or sources you must indicate your concerns to readers; that you must have no goal in mind other than serving the interest of the community of people who reads, watches or listens to what you have to say (and that if not, you must warn people of your motives); and that if you make a mistake, you admit it promptly and clearly.
A cursory glance at current media shows that these principles are threatened, if not occasionally trampled. The daily Sme newspaper recently ran a front page news story in which financier Jozef Majský "denied" threatening to beat up his wife, member of parliament Diana Dubovská, if she voted in favour of the amendment of the Constitution February 23. Dubovská also "denied" the information, and "denied" her husband had threatened to throw her out of the house. Nowhere were readers told what Majský had actually said, or if in fact he had said anything close to what he was denying. Nowhere was it explained why Majský might have wanted to do such a horrible thing, and what he had against the Constitution.
The 'story' was also reported by the weekly magazine Plus 7 Dní, whose front cover last week carried a picture of Majský and Dubovská with the caption "The MP with bruises on her face". To the jaundiced eye of the staff of this newspaper, Dubovská appeared unblemished and her usual beautiful self in all the pictures the magazine printed. The text of the article was equally coy about its grounds for having been selected as a cover story, with plenty of 'probably' and 'it is said that' and 'rumour has it', but no incriminating quote from Majský. Who, again, denied and denied and denied.
Such methods reveal a fundamental failure at all levels of the media process, from the journalists who wrote the stories, to the editors who assigned them, allowed them to stand, and placed them on the front page. Dare we say it, also among the owners of the media who countenance such journalism.
Extending our 'cursory glance' a bit further, we notice all kinds of articles written by advertisers masquerading as print journalism, and if we open our ears, we hear many first-hand accounts of TV, radio and print journalists being asked - and occasionally agreeing - to cover stories whose primary motive is to allow firms to sell their products, in return for money.
Part of the economic pressures journalists face have to do with advertisers, who are often unenthused about running ads in regular spots, and who twist arms to get additional coverage in reports that are presented to the public as disinterested, ethical journalism. This puts everyone under pressure, from the average journalist who could always use a bit of extra cash, to media owners who must come up with other options for advertisers or see their media suffer financially.
But in the end, it comes down to the rank-and-file, whether it's political or economic pressures that are being applied. Editors and publishers often show a marked distaste for doing reporting themselves, meaning that if journalists join together to reject unethical assignments or reporting, the people whom it profits will have to think again.
In this connection, it is worth noting that two top TV Markíza political journalists, Daniel Krajcer and Pavol Pavlík, set up a public relations firm called Select Consulting in March 1998, and then disbanded it in March 2000. There's nothing illegal in that, but given that PR firms are all about serving clients, and journalism is all about serving readers, we wonder why the two men would have put themselves in such an a priori conflict of interest.
Good journalism is about being fairness, honesty and courage. Journalists, being people too, have no greater share of these qualities than anyone else, and find it no easier to act fairly, honestly and bravely than do teachers, business people and plumbers, given the temptations we all face and the sheer difficulty of behaving honourably in a world so largely governed by tawdry compromises. But, as the CIJ course suggests, some journalists are trying. If only they didn't face such a rough journey.