NASSAU, BAHAMAS — The Davis-led administration’s engagement of the media has unearthed scrutiny of the seemingly incestuous relationship that exists between public and private institutions within a small developing state. What does it mean when there appears to be a porous barrier between the roles of state and watchdog and is there a path to effective self-regulation that cements a realistic ethical standard?
As an institution, and in a healthy democracy, the media can often take on the role of stewards of public trust. How effective the media is at reflecting public attitudes is often considered by political agents to be a direct indication of the media’s power to influence public attitudes, and as such media workers are valued as the architects of consent. Whether emerging commentary over the level of media hires by the incoming administration belies genuine concern over its impact on newsroom staffing and public confidence, or simply an attempt to demonize political agenda, remains to be seen. However, it is important to unpack the narrative that suggests journalists are immune to social and environmental factors, inclusive of shifting ideologies or convictions towards public service as a national contribution.
“They either go into the private market or work for the government in some fields,” said a former journalist with more than 10 years of experience.
“It’s a healthy thing for the industry, it makes the various (media) entities stay on their toes. It lets them know that to keep quality staff, they have to pay them well but also treat them well. It points to a changing of the guard, there is any number of persons now working at Bahamas Information Services that were at one point a cub reporter or a senior reporter in the private sector.
“People are being hired to go into different aspects of life, that’s natural. I think what the industry needs is a more active and functional press association that allows for better exchange of information, and history, so when someone moves on that knowledge isn’t lost with them.”
The former journalist argued that media workers are autonomous, and their independence should not be minimized by the imposition of a government plot to “gut the press”.
“That’s nonsense, your career is your career. No one can force you to go and work for anybody. Nobody can force you to do something that is not in your best interest. If you determine tomorrow that I now want to stop doing 9 to 5 news where I have seen murderers, I’ve had death threats, sleepless nights, to a more stable career where there are more structured hours, my family doesn’t have to suffer, my kids don’t have wait for mommy or daddy to come home because they’re out covering assignments. People have families. It’s different when you’re young with no commitments. These things should be looked at – in a healthy, open society people move one.”
The journalist continued: “They want to be paid better, they want to try something new. A lot of us got into journalism and that was our first job out of college. Are you saying the person flipping burgers at McDonald’s as a first job, that they want to do this for the rest of their life? Some people will always be interested in the news, but I think the biggest thing about it is, going into things that have a more balanced environment. Whether it’s a government job or working in the private sector, those are 9 to 5s, the news is not a 9 to 5 and burnout is a real thing.”
The journalist added: “When you color people’s career move like that, it’s not fair to the person. You’re saying they don’t have any sense, that they are being manipulated. We’re in a pandemic. There are so many other considerations, people make choices in their best interest.”
In its latest study “TRUST: The Key to Social Cohesion and Growth in Latin America and the Caribbean”, the IDB reports that trust – both interpersonally and in government – is lower in the region than anywhere in the world.
The bank furthers that restoring trust is the key to unlocking both public and private sector growth.
“Trust is the belief that others will not act opportunistically,” IDB president Mauricio Claver-Carone writes in the book’s preface.
“It is faith in others—in their honesty, dependability, and goodwill. Trustworthy people make promises they can keep and keep them; they respect social norms. Without trust, people live in fear, not freedom; they focus on the opportunities of today rather than innovating to expand the opportunities of tomorrow.”
The report underscores that the lack of trust further erodes public will to demand better public policies and services and that restoring trust depends on both information and empowerment.
With faith in ourselves and our institutions, at an all-time low, the decision by the government to directly seek out skilled laborers to meet their communication strategy goals becomes prudent governance, and not a nefarious plot to evade accountability.
But what about impact? It’s too early to tell whether this cycle of the media to public relations pipeline will deplete the fourth estate at a time when its role as watchdog is also experiencing existential shifts due to digitization and flagging public confidence. However, it is important to keep an eye on not only the level of engagement but the nature of the contracts offered to media workers. The industry must consider where it will draw the line on the prospect of “correspondents” engaged by the government while currently employed as media workers. While journalists are free to explore opportunities to earn a livable wage, there must be a firm and clear boundary that protects the industry from reputational damage or outright abuse.
Matt Aubry, the Organization for Responsible Governance (ORG) executive director said: “We need to give viable spaces for these people to contribute and live. I think it’s tough because in The Bahamas there is an existing relationship between the press and the government but there is also a general model when you look at government as the most prevalent employer – they’re the most consistent. There’s interesting traction for folks who feel they can make a difference to go into government that there hasn’t been in civil society or the private sector.
“Ideally in the kind of democratic functioning model, you have equal parts of civil, private, and government to work and balance each other but prevailingly the biggest part of the pie is and has been government and the perception of having an impact is that you have to get into government.
Aubry continued: “There’s an environmental issue, how do we make sure and shoe other are available alternatives to grow and expand professionally in a non-governmental space. Currently, our best and brightest feel that the best and brightest opportunity to make an impact will be through the government.”
Aubry pointed out there were also the nation’s human resource challenges to consider due to education challenges and brain drain.
He argued this required greater investment in the media and its workers to sustain a viable free press that is integral to a healthy democracy and establishing public trust.
“I think it can (erode trust) but the state of media in this country or any shouldn’t rely upon one or two or a few folks,” Aubry said.
“It is the entity, the vehicle, that there are opportunities for folks to accurately depict what’s going on. We’re a small population and this happens across the Caribbean. I think it’s probably an endemic issue. Somebody then takes a position in an incoming government, that there’s going to be lots of skepticism whether that’s accurate or not kinda depends on the circumstances. But the long issue of it is we need to build a pipeline, we need to build a value-based pipeline that ensures that there are folks who are finding their way into the (media) field, that those folks are trained and prepared, and that investigative journalism is supported, that access to information is not dependent upon having to corner somebody at a Chinese restaurant.
He continued: “In the immediacy, we need to build public trust in the short term, but in the long term we want a sustainable and developed nation that achieves progress, holds that progress, and moves forward. If we don’t have systems in place that encourage folks, encourage writing in our youth and plugging journalism as a viable career path and then fostering and supporting good journalism and dissent, that we’re not creating pathways where you get boxed into a corner if you were to come out against this group or that.
“All of us have a responsibility in reengaging the public to believe in the system, civil society, the media, academia, the churches, and clearly government. If we’re intentional about what we’re doing then a move that goes from one private sector person in the media to the government, it is seen and understood and there are efforts to reinforce that they are the right person in the right place, then that establishes the trust that sticks.”
The former journalist added: “At the end of the day we can’t hold them back. It wouldn’t be fair to say they can’t go and work anywhere else, you have to have that freedom. I also think these things are case by case, but I don’t believe it would be a fair argument to say in one respect if today I am holding the government feet to the fire, and then when a new administration comes in and I am employed by that government and it’s viewed as a reward.
“Realistically I could determine that I see where the deficiencies are and instead of just complaining about it, I’m gonna have skin in the game and do something about it. To determine I am going to get into the game, to make things better or give more service, just think about the risks involved. Elections have swung one way or the other for the past 25 years, so you know you’re jeopardizing longevity for the opportunity to serve.”