It’s fair to say that journalists do not have a particularly good reputation in Britain. In the wake of the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press following the News International phone hacking scandal, the public are warier than ever in placing their trust in journalists. A recent study from Ipsos MORI showing that half of school age children do not trust journalists to tell the truth, should worry us all. It shows that the next generation do not have faith in the people who are meant to hold power to account, and reflects a more widespread belief that journalists are not the freedom fighters they once were, but the enemy.
Of course, there are journalists who are not committed to the golden rule of telling the truth, and others that simply disregard the ethical issues surrounding the procurement of information. Yet, as Jessica Elgot, a political reporter for The Guardian, pointed out in a series of tweets in the aftermath of the Parsons Green tube explosion last week, “reporters are not being vultures, they are trying to do their job which is to get a clear account of what has happened”.
The media have been rightfully criticised for their reporting of terrorism in recent months, relying on hearsay and unverifiable information, as well as using unnecessarily explicit imagery, but their decision to talk to witnesses is far from “immoral” or “cruel”. Naturally, people may be upset after such an incident, and they are under no obligation to speak to anyone. Most journalists will understand this and not pressurise those who are grieving. What is most concerning is that more and more people are beginning to believe that asking these kinds of questions is itself an offence.
This is precisely what journalists are needed for – to ask questions in order to form a comprehensive and unbiased account of an event. As Jessica Elgot explained, “social media speculation” is unhelpful and often dangerous, and whilst police statements have their merits, simply relying on the version of events put forward by the authorities is “problematic”.
The role of journalists is to find out the truth and hold power to account, particularly if there are failings in the police and security services that they wish to cover up. By talking to witnesses and using any video or images they have captured, reporters can understand the situation a lot better, and inform the public about it. This is in everyone’s interest to ensure that those responsible are punished, and that the services working to prevent these kinds of attacks are functioning effectively.
By sitting back and assuming the information provided by the authorities is the complete truth, we are falling into a dangerously uncritical stupor that fails to challenge the government’s decisions, or the information it is propagating. Surely, if we have learnt one thing from Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, it is that government-issued ‘fake news’ abounds.
Now, more than ever, we need journalists to investigate events on the scene, and probe the government on the reasons behind its decisions. It is the only way to keep our democracy alive, our citizens politically engaged, and our government accountable to the people it serves. It is for this reason that we must stop believing that journalists are the enemy, doing anything they can to grab a headline story, and start remembering their crucial role in the democratic process.