Thursday, November 6, 2014

Ricardo Morris ... stripping away the hidden agendas and media myths

Publisher of Repúblika Media Limited Ricardo Morris (second from left) with
University of the South Pacific journalism award recipients. Image: USP
This is the keynote message from Repúblika publisher Ricardo Morris at the University of the South Pacific/Wansolwara journalism awards 2014.

JOURNALISM is an act of faith in the future. That’s what the American television correspondent Ann Curry wrote in a 2010 cover essay in Guideposts magazine. Journalism, she argued, should do more than inform. It should make you care.

Ann’s essay, titled "Telling Stories of Hope", marked her long-deserved promotion to co-host of NBC’s Today show. Ann describes the lure of journalism for her as “a call, an urgency” to report because she knew that doing so would “give voice to those who need to be heard".

Not only do the people affected deserve to be heard, the media-consuming public also deserved to hear about what was happening in other parts of the world because it gave us “a chance to care, and it is that empathy that offers the greatest hope".

In today’s world, with short attention spans, competing media outlets and platforms and a world of information – not all of it edifying – at ordinary people’s fingertips, journalism can still be a way to inject some hope into our world.

I encourage you to read Ann Curry’s essay. But not only hers. Read the writings of other inspirational media personalities and commentators both near and far. There are several such voices in Fiji and throughout the Pacific region. I will leave it to you to discover the Fijian voices you should pay attention to except to point you to the late, great publisher of Islands Business Robert Keith-Reid, who wrote a weekly column in the Fiji Times called "Sidetracks" (but who I must also point out, in the interests of transparency, was never a great fan of this journalism programme in the late 1990s.)

Big impact
Some of those from around the region who you may like to pay some attention to are Tonga’s Kalafi Moala, Samoa’s Savea Sano Malifa and Monica Miller who is based in American Samoa. In New Zealand, you have Professor David Robie, the second coordinator of this journalism programme, who made a big impact on students.

In fact, there is no limit on the people you can read up on and the perspectives you can access. The internet has made the expression and exchange of ideas that much easier. We now live in a time where private thoughts and hidden deeds in a distant land can instantly be broadcast to the world through social media. Sometimes the results may not always be positive.

Which brings us back to the reason we are gathered here today. Almost everybody may have access to self-publishing media platforms, but not everybody can be a journalist. To be sure, a journalist has no more or less rights than the next person – we all share the same rights to freedom of opinion and expression.

The key difference between non-media and media people is that media workers voluntarily choose to exercise the rights outlined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on behalf of others who can’t or won’t. And this is true even if you did not realise that you were doing this.

There are a few points I would like to leave with you today to consider. Some of you are completing your degree, others are continuing next year. Deciding to be a journalist should not just be a career choice, you should consider it a calling a profession. Some of you – indeed many – will not stay in the news media but move on to other fields including communications, public relations and related areas. You could no doubt make more money in these fields related to journalism and many former journalists have long moved on.

For those who decide to make a career of journalism, it may not be easy at first when you are just starting out – the pay may be lower than other career fields and the hours are long and erratic.

Thankless task
It takes a special kind of person to persist in a profession that sometimes seems like a thankless task. Not many non-media people know about the pressures journalists face from many avenues. It may be pressure from officials, pressure from immediate editorial superiors, from sources or from commercial interests.  These are all part and parcel of the job, but recognising them and addressing them within the bounds of ethics and integrity will keep you in good stead.

For some people, journalism seems to be a glamorous job because you get to attend events, meet people from all levels of society, write the so-called "first draft of history". But it not always is glamorous and if you are going into this career for the benefits and positives alone, then you will be soon disappointed.

However, journalism for those who embrace it can be a rewarding experience. As a journalist you get to be many things to many people and sometimes by shining a light on injustice, on needless bureaucracy and offering solutions, you get a sense of fulfilment of doing something positive. Sometimes people close to me wonder why I do what I do when I could be overseas, or in a different field earning more money.

And when I examine the question myself, I realise that journalism for me is not just a job, it is a calling. And it would be nice to earn loads of money, but it should not be the main reason for choosing a career I believe. You should do something that makes you truly passionate and that you would do even through the rough patches.

For a country that’s prone to political conflicts, what kind of journalism will help provide a mirror on society while at the same time examining the various aspects of an issue and offering solutions? Some people call it “peace journalism”, some call it “deliberative journalism”. But its underlying ideology is the same: journalism should not fuel conflicts by focusing solely on its manifestations – such as violence – while avoiding complex explanations for why things are the why they are.

Your own head of school – Shailendra Singh – has examined these issues in his doctorate thesis: responsible conflict reporting and the practice of journalism that’s sensitised to its role in, and impact on, conflict especially in a country like Fiji where instability has caused a huge and lasting setback on development.

Critical juncture
Fiji is at a critical juncture in its transition – once again – back to democracy. The media as a whole has faced a tumultuous time over the past eight years, although some have benefitted more than others from the change of environment for the media. The rules of the game have changed, some say for the better, others are not so sure. Time and again our country has faced an interruption to the will of the people.

And this time around, the foundations and rules surrounding the working of our democracy have been re-written. Some people embrace it and some recognise that our liberal democracy is still a work in progress. The next four years will certainly be an interesting time to be a journalist.

For those of you who are leaving USP this year, don’t rest on your degree. Plan out a career path as well as a pathway for continuing your education. Education is a journey that never stops. The Journalism Programme at USP has not had the best of times over the past three years, but for those of you who have stuck it out hung on through the hard times – both students and staff – I offer you my congratulations. For young journalists, this should be seen as test of your perseverance. And if you’ve got through it, you’re already making progress as a journalist.

I congratulate you on choosing to study journalism especially in an era when many people have lost faith in journalists and the transformative power of journalism. Even in this era of social media and mobile technology, we still need well-trained journalists in the Pacific region to scrutinise and hold leaders accountable, expose corruption and focus on the pressing issues of our time.

And indeed there is a growing class of journalists who run their own businesses – journopreneurs – of whom I am one. It can offer an interesting career choice – merging business skills with journalism practice.

This journalism programme has often been under-appreciated. If it wasn’t for USP journalism, many students from Fiji and across the USP region would have limited choices to study. Graduates from USP journalism have not only entered the media but taken up jobs with government departments, NGOs, international and regional organisations. If it wasn’t for USP, many of these positions would have been filled by those from outside our region. I encourage you all to take ownership of this programme. Continue to support it and think about returning to do postgraduate study.

Population resource
I’d like you to think about the vast sources of information that the internet has made possible for us to access and the potential articles and news stories that could eventuate. Just the other day I noticed that the SPC website has visualised the data from Fiji’s 2007 population census. It is an amazing resource and could form the basis of many stories – this is a computer-assisted reporting opportunity right under our noses.

Before I conclude, tonight I would like to take the opportunity to thank those young and vibrant team who helped report the 2014 general election for Repúblika.

One of them is your own colleague Priya Chand, who wrote an article examining the impact of the youth vote on the outcome of the general election. Priya, I know it’s not been an easy year for you, but thank you for your efforts during the election.

On our team we also had Kelvin Anthony, Ashfaaq Khan, Hosanna Kabakoro and Mads Anneberg from Denmark. I acknowledge all of them for their hard work and under sometimes-stressful conditions.

In closing I would like to quote the journalists and filmmaker John Pilger, who in his 1998 book called Hidden Agendas outlined what he believes is the role of journalists.

“It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and the myths that surround it.”

Thank you for your attention and congratulations to all the award winners tonight.

Ricardo Morris is publisher of Repúblika Media Ltd and president of the Fijian Media Association. His speech was at the USP Journalism Awards night in Suva on October 31.

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