Public interest: Will Fourth Estate falter in 2022?


Digital revolution that has led to immense social media power and citizen journalism is a lived reality. [Courtesy]

Ipsita Chakravarty, an Indian journalist, recently told a panel of scribes in the UK that in the wake of threats facing the news media, “we are not alone.”

Her conviction was that even if the Fourth Estate faces political crosswinds, ethical dilemmas and mounting pressures from wielders of power and influence, the public will never cast it off.  

I couldn’t agree more. The media’s biggest asset is its audience. In the same fashion, the audiences trust journalists exist for common good and are the custodians of a just society.

There’s big debate around public interest. Call it public good, public benefit or the common good. News value theory outlines how reporters and editors decide what news is. However, what forms public interest tantalises even the best of the world’s scribes. Some say public interest is media interest. Others say it’s only but what grounds the media and its ethics.

In an ideal world, public interest starts with justification of the media’s ability to decide what’s for the greater good of an audience.

About nine months before the 2022 polls, public interest is an issue the local press will need to rethink. The measure of whether journalists are upholding public interest should be seen in the confidence of news consumers rather than the news subjects.

How I see it is that whatever public interest is to a journalist, truth and accountability in their work should form the larger part of it. When the media becomes a paragon of honesty, it builds trust and shapes rather than manipulates opinion, a trait needed for the preservation of the greater good.

In this delicate political season, let’s not camouflage self-interests with a superficial quest for public good. The divide is clear. It is tricky when journalists openly take sides. Their humanly biases must be tampered with truth and reality. Journalists should be reminded of this principle even though they know it. When unaligned, they can be focused and more balanced.   

Digital revolution that has led to immense social media power and citizen journalism are a lived reality but shouldn’t be fodder for misinformation and disinformation. 

The Kriegler Report on 2007 poll chaos indicted the local media for having tilted stories in support or against Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga. Dubious opinion polls stories were also cited by Kriegler. 

The Uhuru succession is a critical moment that will put media ethics to test. Even so, it offers a chance to dig into campaign pledges and their deliverability, and to raise visibility of women and other disadvantaged contenders.

Last week, a presidential hopeful quoted inaccurate GDP figures during a rally and got away with it. When the media fails to call out such, it emboldens aspirants to tell even more brazen lies. 

Becoming a public educator and a dialogue platform devoid of profiling makes the media an agent of democratic growth. Let the industry creatively but continually embrace diversity in content, voices and perspectives. It can be done.  

 -The writer is an editor at The Standard and a 2021 RISJ University of Oxford fellow. Twitter: @markoloo

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