When no news is bad news

Posted: June 4, 2013 in Bermuda, media
Tags: , ,

RGLtdWhat on earth is going on at The Royal Gazette these days?

Over the past weeks there has been a rash of unusually soft front page lead stories that would have normally run on feature pages at best while more important news articles were carried – some would say buried – on inside pages. Last week this reached a nadir when the front-page lead stories included:

These stories certainly have a place in the paper. They are worthwhile community stories but they have no place being the lead story itself.

So what’s going on here? Have acting editor Jeremy Deacon’s news senses deserted him or, as PLP leader Marc Bean claimed recently, have Gazette journalists “been told by their editors, and their board of directors, that nothing negative about the OBA Government, or Bermuda in general, can be on the front page, let alone reported on”?

Jonathan Howes, the Gazette CEO, angrily denied this and threatened to sue Mr. Bean, prompting one reader to write this week: “We expect [the Gazette] to hold every organ of this Government accountable. As uncomfortable as it may make Mr. Howes and the board, the evidence of bias is clear; deliberate or not.”

Mr. Bean and the letter writer may be a little wide of the mark politically – ‘Jetgate’ has had plenty of coverage in the Gazette, for example – but it is my understanding that the board of the Bermuda Press (owners of The Royal Gazette), through its publishing committee, has indeed been putting increasing pressure on the editorial department to run more “positive” stories on the front page, and wants closer control over editorial content and direction. I understand that none of the publishing committee have any journalistic experience.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong, of course, in the board holding the editor accountable – they do, after all, pay his wages and are answerable to shareholders – but this “mission creep”, which started while Bill Zuill was editor, threatens to undermine the paper’s editorial independence and perhaps freedom of the press itself. And that should concern everyone.

By relegating serious news stories, or those deemed to be “negative” or controversial, to inside pages, the implication is that these stories are less important. It devalues a newspaper’s integrity and credibility, and makes it vulnerable to accusations of bias.  It fuels suspicions, particularly in the black community, which has an historical mistrust of the Gazette, of a hidden agenda, and that important stories are being suppressed.

It also implies that the board either does not trust the editor or perhaps does not fully understand the role.

A professional and experienced editor generally strives for a balanced front page of hard news and lighter human-interest items. The over-riding aim is to lead with the news that matters to, or affects most people, not whether it is “positive” or “negative” (subjective terms that are never used in a newsroom). Sometimes that may be gloomy economic figures or political scandal; other times it will be “good news” like the maiden voyage of the Breakaway or soccer player Nahki Wells’ history-making Wembley triumph.  It is all news.

The placement or prioritizing of stories by an editor is critical in setting the tone of a newspaper. It is not an exact science by any means, and making those judgments under pressure from advertisers, politicians and others seeking to influence the news, is no easy task. Indeed, with newspapers all over the world facing falling advertising revenues and circulation in the Internet age, editors are having to make commercial compromises that they wouldn’t have contemplated or stomached even five years ago.

But the lifeblood of any news organization – the reason it exists in the first place – remains news itself. Follow the trending stories on the Gazette and other news websites: it is almost always the hard news or breaking stories that are the most read.

When editorial independence is undermined or compromised, a newspaper is inhibited from its most valuable role in a democratic society: to hold to account governments and those in authority; to scrutinize, investigate, inform and explain. As the Island’s only daily newspaper and the only media organization with the resources to fulfill that role, The Royal Gazette has a greater responsibility than most. For all its faults, the Gazette remains the Island’s paper of record and as such is perhaps held to higher standards than other media.  Softening its content and curtailing editorial independence does the whole country a disservice.

As the British Medical Journal has put it: “Problems arise when editors publish material that offends powerful individuals or groups, but that’s exactly why editorial independence is needed. Journals should be on the side of the powerless not the powerful, the governed not the governors. If readers once hear that important, relevant, and well argued articles are being suppressed or that articles are published simply to fulfill hidden political agendas, then the credibility of the publication collapses — and everybody loses.”

In a policy paper on editorial independence, the Canadian Association of Journalists stated: “The firm separation between a news outlet’s editorial and business functions is critical in maintaining the independence of journalists. A free press that is trusted and respected by citizens as fair-minded and untainted by the personal whims of owners or the corporate interests of advertisers is paramount in a democracy. It’s also critical to the long-term financial viability of a newspaper or broadcast outlet. If readers and viewers lose faith in a news outlet’s autonomy, they will abandon it.”

Board interference also risks spreading frustration and disillusionment among the very professionals it pays to produce the paper in the first place. Without them, they will be left managing little more than a parish newsletter or an advertising freesheet.

[Disclosure: I worked as a reporter and editor at The Royal Gazette for almost 20 years. My company, Kaleidoscope Media, places thousands of dollars of advertising annually with the Gazette on behalf of our clients. Oh – and I still buy a copy every day.]

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Comments
  1. Ayo Johnson says:

    I don’t think I could have put it better myself. The real shame is on those “editors” who by their daily actions and decisions have agreed to prostitute the craft of journalism in this way.

  2. Rhonda Neil says:

    lol…only a few are fooled….

  3. NWard says:

    Definitely on the mark Chris. I’ve more than noticed that the Gazette has become more tepid and timid. Sad, used to be one of those little papers that could

  4. René Hill says:

    Good on you Chris!!! It needed to be said.

  5. Karen Skinner says:

    My husband has worked for the Gazette for 30+ years and during that time he was constantly putting his safety at risk covering court stories, etc. and now to have the Gazette sanitized like this makes a mockery of the profession. It’s such a shame that after all the years the Gazette has been in existence, it has been reduced to this! It goes against everything it stands for; reporting the truth in an unbiased manner and reporting the news as it is, whether good or bad. The public deserve to have a newspaper that is not influenced by some committee who decides what is page 1 newsworthy.

  6. […] When no news is bad news […]

  7. […] represented in the national dialogue. As former journalist/blogger Chris Gibbons wrote in his analysis of bias at the Royal Gazette, when news outlets don’t publish the full story it “fuels suspicions, particularly in […]

  8. […] situation at The Royal Gazette gets curiouser and curiouser. Following my recent post about the increasing board interference in editorial matters, the paper today dismissed Acting […]

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