Experts determine our lives. They decide what we should wear, who we should have as partners, how many children we should have, who we should take loans from. They determine the very characteristics of a ‘civilised society’.
Seven years after I wrote the original piece, this video further cracks the expert myth. A three part series.
Journalists too fall into the category of ‘experts’, and have considerable clout. While ‘expertism’, which works to preserve the power structures within society, is a trap a concerned journalist will be wary of. There are those within the media, who use the extra clout of a press pass to obtain favours, and use their expert status to sell ideas to a misinformed public.
A journalist’s job is to explain, in simple terms, complex issues in a manner, which is compelling, engaging and meaningful to people, to debunk expertism. In order to do so she needs to gather a fair amount of knowledge on the area of expertise that she reports on. She needs to wade through the jargon, to get to the essential facts. She needs to make sense of numerical data, and have enough rigour in her analysis so it can stand up to intense scrutiny. She needs to interpret things in language that is commonly understood, and to be aware of the cultural contexts that may give altered meanings. Here lies a trap, for in this process of simplification, she may choose metaphors, which may not be wholly accurate; she may leave out data, which may be pertinent; and she may shift emphasis, to make a point. Her position wields immense power. As a knowledge broker she can influence people’s opinion. Her politics may determine the course of social action.
Public servants may withhold information that rightfully belongs to people, knowing that information sells. Journalists too are in the business of selling information. The scope for an alliance where the selective disclosure of information can lead to profit, makes it necessary for journalists to be wary of their sources, and of the terms of disclosure that they enter into. Where money can be made as easily from withholding publication as by publishing, the onus of accountability is clearly on the independent journalist’s shoulders. Her reasons for being in her profession are not because she was voted in, or because the public pays her salary. She is there because she chose to be. Her job is to inform without distorting, to give opinion without colouring, to give without taking.
In the majority world the journalists’ role is greater still. Not only does she need to negotiate unequal power structures within her society, but her watchfulness must also extend to the investigation of trans-national deals, and the effects of global relationships. She poses a threat not only to the elite within her society, but also to the distant parasites that feed on poorer nations. In the early 1800s the global economy was largely agrarian, by the early 1900s it had become largely industrial. In the 2000s it is becoming knowledge based. In the years to come, the majority world journalist’s position as a knowledge broker, will therefore move her further away from the rural base of her people. It threatens to permanently position her as a member of the very group she must debunk. She will need to deal with the wrath of the powerful and the more real danger of being appropriated by the experts.
The emergence of the new media has further implications for the photojournalist. The ease with which darkroom tricks can now be done by a computer, reduces the value a photograph once had as documentary evidence. It is a welcome shift. A writer’s words are believed not on the basis of their construction, but on the validity of the source. Photographers choose what they photograph, what they include, and what they exclude. The emphasis that they provide, and the mood they create, are all controlled by the photographer. They represent value judgements and interpretations that are never devoid of politics. Why then should we place the burden of evidence on the dots that make the image and not on our sensibility and our integrity? Why reduce ourselves to being mere illustrators when our job is to be interpreters and analysts. Perhaps this fear is a hangover from the gospels of objectivity when a journalist was meant to report the truth and truth alone, amen. In a divided world where power structures are so unequal, truths are created, orchestrated and packaged. Moral standards, laws and norms of behaviour are moulded on the convenience of the powerful. Where a freedom fighter for some is a terrorist for another there is no neutral ground, and the best a journalist can do, is to be fair in one’s reporting. Where accepted norms require the continued oppression of the weak, it is a crime to be passive, and a journalist cannot hide behind the ‘code of ethics’ without questioning the validity of that code.
Even the opportunities offered by the new media, has not changed the status quo, where the Rupert Murdochs of traditional media still control the content that is piped down global information tubes. The most accessed sites on the Net, are also owned by traditional media and corporations rule the air-waves. What the new media does offer, however, is the scope of small-scale startups. We need to devise the strategies whereby the power of the new media, can be combined with the reach of the old, perhaps through hybrid technologies like Internet radio. We need to question why certain technologies are being promoted by the elites of our countries, in collaboration with their international partners, at the cost of other more rural-friendly ones. We need to question our own role within these power structures. On the other hand, people with little more than an Internet connection and modest computing facilities can be publishing and broadcasting. These are powerful tools for the independent journalist. A tool the bigger players will find difficult to stop.
Once, media was controlled entirely by the government. Even now, when broadcast and electronic media is largely state owned, particularly in the majority world, the emergence of independent channels offer the illusion of an alternative viewpoint. Unfortunately, the market does not represent independent thought, and state propaganda is slowly being replaced by corporate propaganda. Given the alternative sources of revenue, the journalist of today has to decide where her loyalty lies. A journalist who demands transparency and accountability in society, needs to ensure the highest professional standards within her own working practice, where voluntary codes of conduct and peer pressure can counter the ever creeping dangers of complacency.
Representation is one of the many ways in which the norms are created. The USA, self declared champions of democracy and free speech, orchestrated the totally one-sided reporting of the Gulf War. People in the ‘civilised world’ waved flags as smart bombs were sent in to get Gaddafi. Experts explained to an enraptured audience the marvels of the latest war toys. Terms like ‘collateral damage’ hid the harrowing tales of the human beings, men, women and children, mostly civilian, who were at the receiving end of the war games. ‘War ravaged’ Rwanda or ‘perpetually flooded’ Bangladesh await the white saviours of the west to provide salvation. No one on CNN questions the underlying causes of such misery. Victims of structural adjustments, simply don’t make it to the news. Mass media decides who the goodies and the baddies are.
Nobel laureate Amarta Sen observes, “One of the remarkable facts in the terrible history of famine is that substantial famine has never occurred in a country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press. They have occurred in ancient kingdoms and in contemporary authoritarian societies, in primitive tribal communities and in modern technocratic dictatorships, in countries of the south, run by despotic national leaders or by intolerant single parties.” Sen’s observations don’t always hold, and the phenomenon is certainly not restricted only to the south, but it largely rings true. However, political memory is short, and present expediency usually triumphs over actions of the past. Clinton received a rousing reception in Dhaka, while the police kept at bay, protesters reminding the government, that it was US intervention that was largely responsible for the famine in 1974.
What we are facing is a knowledge hegemony that is a new form of colonialism. As long as experts continue to wield power, and can overrule the wisdom of those close to the soil; as long as corporate databases, gene banks and archives in the north, hold information that has traditionally belonged to the south; as long as experts determine who has access to data, what we will face is knowledge famine. And it will be as sure a famine as the earlier ones, and like in other famines, it will not be because a problem of supply, but a problem of distribution. It is the journalist of today that has to ensure that distribution; and images will speak louder than words.