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The 'three plus one monkeys' in journalism

Journalists operate in a world that needs increased accountability. Facts and policies do not have only one side; they occur for several reasons

The ancient proverb 'Three Wise Monkeys' still retains its basic moral essence of not looking at, listening to, or saying anything evil, but in modern times it has taken on various satirical interpretations, such as ignoring or turning a blind eye to something wrong.

Journalists ask questions, and public servants should respond as long as they are in the public interest. But that is not always the case. Representatives and elected or appointed leaders in both the public and private sectors are masters at evading accountability. That is when the fourth wise monkey comes into play. It is the most important monkey, yet it is hardly mentioned.

Journalists operate in a world that needs increased accountability. Facts and policies do not have only one side; they occur for several reasons. With rising geopolitical tensions, a volatile global financial system, and rapid, never-ending technological development, communication as a change agent have grown in importance.

Most people with good writing skills can string together polished words and sentences or produce eloquent speeches, but not all of them can grasp and understand societal nuances and how to address them journalistically and within the comprehension levels of the recipients.

Journalism is about engaging in discourse and having good debates within a communication sphere that is fast, multidisciplinary, and insight-driven, but it is not everything. A journalist must also be an anthropologist and know history, sociology, and psychology. These are important because journalists shape public opinion, provide a context for social issues, and help raise awareness. But when those in positions of public trust have their eyes closed, well, they probably cross their arms and rub their tummies.

As in several areas of study, journalists are like detectives, anthropologists, and financiers; they all need research skills for collecting and understanding information using multiple techniques to learn about an issue. They need to examine ‘behind-the-scenes’ aspects of topics to ask the appropriate questions and hopefully get meaningful answers.

The language of journalism is a mirror of society, where half-bits, half-truths, and guessing games are commonplace. There are times when journalists are aware of incidents such as hazardous waste dumping or leakages but are unable to discuss them due to a long list of excuses from those who should address or clarify the concerns.

Journalism’s soft skills remain mostly the same: attention to detail, persistence, research skills, problem-solving skills, objectivity, logical reasoning, etc. The difference now is that it combines ever-improving technology with a diverse set of research techniques to extract information and patterns. Transparency in reporting, yes. Activism, no. It should not serve as a public relations exercise, either.

One advantage of social media is that it allows people to exchange ideas. Even though social network users congregate in bubbles because they share the same views; they hold dialogues. The danger arises when information that has not been publicly released or discussed is called a rumour, disinformation, or simply a lie. Who wants to get into a spat with large corporations, government officials, or industry lobbyists? The social-cultural concept of power and privilege allows for secrecy, which is a loss to journalism and the public.

A journalist’s work is influential. It works well to promote progress and highlight accomplishments; therefore, it would also work well to inform and get people engaged in matters of common interest. After all, it is communication skills that are required, not who screams louder or carries the stick - unfortunately, sticks and blind eyes are thriving.

Social issues have shifted the agenda; it is no longer what the powerhouses want but what the public wants and needs. As technology advances, so do public interests. There is a new dynamic in journalism. Let us not stigmatise journalists or, like the fourth monkey, look away and rub the tummy.

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