Media and the Belizean Society

Janelle Chanona

In this digital age where we can send out a mass email via our cell phones, blog about the latest news story from the john and call in to our favourite radio talk show with our “two cents” all before breakfast, opportunities to literally connect with the world have become so mainstream, the power to do so is largely dismissed. But the power to influence others via the medium of our choice is one many of us readily embrace. That reality has simultaneously diminished the power of the traditional media – newspaper, radio and television – and empowered anyone with a phone, computer and the internet to instantly share their opinions, feelings or even what they had for dinner, with the world.

Enter the new media

The word media is defined as “the means of communication, as in radio and television, newspapers and magazines that reach or influence people widely.” Historically, media officially began in the early 17th Century with the newspaper. In the late 1800s-early 1900s, radio emerged. Around that same time, scientists were busy exploring the intricacies of photoconductivity in their bid to create moving pictures-television. From the moment of their respective introductions, the newspaper, the radio and the television instantly became crucial forces in society: its development, its self-expression, its self-definition. And most interestingly, the voices and the faces of the media men and women became important members of society: messengers with integrity bearing truth and fact, ergo, opinion leaders. But as the balance of power has shifted from trained journalists and broadcasters to anyone capable of wielding a recorder or a camera, the high standards that have been traditionally been associated with the media have become blurred, eroded or some would argue, extinct.

Case in Point

In July 2010, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a video on the website YouTube of Shirley Sherrod, the then US Department of Agriculture’s director of rural development for Georgia with an essay entitled “Video Proof: The NAACP Awards Racism 2010”. The video was footage of Sherrod at a NAACP awards ceremony and featured her saying, “the first time I was faced with having to help a white farmer save his farm...” the farmer was “trying to show me he was superior to me… What he didn’t know was while he was taking all that time trying to show me he was superior to me, was I was trying to decide how much help I was going to give him.” The video was seized as solid proof of racism by a US Government employee. Within hours of the video being posted, Sherrod’s boss was asking for her resignation. But what was conveniently left out of the story was the fact that Sherrod was telling a story of an incident that had occurred 24 years earlier when she wasn’t even working for the Department of Agriculture, a story that had changed her life, a story that ended with her saying, “Because I always – up to that point – I felt they had all the advantages. Until I started working with that farmer, I didn’t think white farmers were treated like black farmers were treated by the agency….There are a few of them who get treated like black farmers.” However, for twenty-four hours, Sherrod was condemned as shameful and everyone jumped to disassociate themselves from her. But the following day, when the full story emerged, the about-face by her detractors was remarkable. NCCAP President Benjamin Todd Jealous conceded, “with regard to the initial media coverage of the resignation of USDA official Shirley Sherrod, we have come to the conclusion we were snookered by Fox News and Tea Party Activist Andrew Breitbart into believing she had harmed white farmers because of racial bias. Having reviewed the full tape, spoken to Ms. Sherrod, and most importantly heard the testimony of the white farmers mentioned in this story, we now believe the organization that edited the documents did so with the intention of deceiving millions of Americans.” Jealous went on to say that the incident was a “teachable moment, for activists and for journalists…next time...we will consider the source and be more deliberate in responding.”

In Journalism 101, budding reporters are taught to use credible sources, to protect those sources and to double check everything. That same class reinforces the ideals of objectivity, fairness, balance and accuracy in reporting. In the newsroom of a newspaper, radio or TV station, reporters go out, find a story, write it up and give it to their editor. The editor’s job is to check grammar and spelling but more importantly, the editor ensures that those important principles like fairness and accuracy are adhered to. In cases of sensitive or controversial stories, media houses might even have scripts reviewed by legal advisors to avoid litigation. The point is, there are screens, buffers, insurance, all designed to protect the credibility of the media house. Without credibility, the journalist is not a journalist because no relationship can exist without trust. Whenever a media house fails to stick to this formula, the results are disastrous.

Just ask Dan Rather. Up until 2004, Rather was one of the most respected and trusted news sources in broadcasting. He was one of the people you could turn to and get the story straight. But that all changed when Rather presented several documents relating to then President Bush’s air service record as authentic, just two months before elections in the United States. The documents were immediately challenged, but for two weeks Rather and CBS “stridently” defended the material as legitimate. It was later revealed that CBS had failed to verify the records before going to air. In the aftermath, in 2005 Rather resigned from CBS, his distinguished career as reporter and anchorman reduced to little more than a punch line.

There was also a Belizean experience with a newspaper article that appeared in a local paper several years ago. The topic was benign enough, the visit of a Colonel of the United States Army to discuss several projects to take place in Belize. The article was formatted as a question and answer piece between the publisher and the Colonel. The interview might have disappeared into the woodwork quite peacefully had someone not pointed out that the Colonel had cancelled his visit at the last minute and that he had not had any contact with any member of the Belizean media. The interviewer’s explanation? “Well if he had come, this is what he would have said.” Since then, that paper is still doing business but has had serious credibility issues.

But let’s get real. Not every journalist lets a little thing like the truth get in the way of a good story and not every media house has objectivity and accuracy as part of its agenda. Entire news/media organizations exist to serve, for instance, political agendas. Why else would Fox News decide to run Breitbart’s video and blog on Sherrod as credible when a simple review of the video in its entirety would have revealed the truth? But we can’t all start beating up on the “Fox”es of this world. Every single journalist shows up to work with his or her own baggage, be it political, environmental, cultural, racial, etc. For many, that baggage serves as the fuel used to generate the killer story that just might earn the Pulizter prize. The point is, properly harnessed or controlled, that passion, baggage, whatever you want to call it, can produce incredible results. But fairness, accuracy, etc can only exist if the environment (the editor, the media house, etc) fosters that type of reporting. At the same time, all too often the journalist is subjected to the dreaded c-word: censorship, because their stories, while accurate and fair, get canned because they might affect the editor’s or the publisher’s business or personal relationships; they are inconvenient truths.

Within that context, the argument for elimination of the middle man emerges. In communist countries like China and Cuba, censorship is a fact of life. Just because a story is true, doesn’t mean it will ever be published or broadcast. In 2009, Home Box Office (HBO) released the documentary Burma VJ: Reporting from a closed country. The documentary tells the story of the Democratic Voice of Burma, an organization that runs a television station that films inside Burma, smuggles the footage out of the country and then broadcasts the stories via satellite back to Burma. The VJs, video journalists, handle everything: shooting, editing, writing and narration. If the Government finds out who the VJs are, they would be arrested and imprisoned. Within this sort of environment, the uncensored stories have become an important element in the life of the Burmese people, evidence that they do not suffer in silence, that the world hears their voices. For the journalists, they don’t need any special training to tell their own story. What they reveal is the truth, according to them.

But everyone has a different version of the same truth. I showed up to an accident scene once after someone called our newsroom to say that an electrician had fallen from a lamp post and was fatally wounded. One eyewitness said the victim was bleeding profusely. Another claimed both his hands and legs were broken. Yet another said that the man had lost an eye and had broken his arm to the point that the bone was protruding through the skin. All three recounted their description of the injuries in colourful detail on camera. So imagine my surprise then when I showed up at the hospital to find that the electrician was not only alive but unhurt, no broken bones or missing organs. I’ve had less dramatic but similar experiences with eyewitness accounts. It’s what makes us human, seeing the same thing from our own unique perspective.

The Belizean experience

Belize holds the unique geographic description of being a Caribbean country in the heart of Central America. Her population is small, approximately 400,000 people, scattered across a land mass of approximately 8800 square miles. The largest municipality, Belize City, is the country’s commercial capital and is home to approximately 100,000 Belizeans. The primary, traditional informational sources: newspapers, radio stations and television stations, are all based in Belize City.

The rapport between the public and the media can best be described as a “love-hate” relationship. Because of its small population and given that most of the media houses are based in Belize City, the majority of the stories covered are Belize City stories. It might be the old capital but Belize City is also the commercial capital so it’s the best place to be to cover the country’s economic and political issues. Unfortunately, Belize City is also the country’s crime capital, the scene of more than 80% of the nation’s serious crimes. Translation: much of the newscasts are crime heavy, filled with macabre accounts of the latest murder, armed robbery and sexual assault. The tourism sector has long been the media’s biggest detractor because of this point, arguing that any visitor perusing local channels prior to planning a trip to Belize would be turned off by the overwhelming amount of sensational crime stories and not much of anything else.

However, media houses point out that whatever traction that argument gets does not reconcile with the public’s demands to see blood and guts. “How can you criticise us for reporting the facts?” “For telling the truth?” they complain. Editors and news directors further insist that whenever they don’t lead with what bleeds, businesses take their advertisements to the stations that do. So while investors in tourism see the media as a foe, the public sees a friend, propelling the media personality to popularity. In 1998, talk show host Dickie Bradley became an instant celebrity when fugitive Wensworth Mangar used his show to profess his innocence from the safety of his hideaway. The long arm of the law eventually caught up with Mangar but his use of the media also re-defined what was acceptable “call-in material”.

Within the last decade, a new media personality has taken centre stage: the televised morning radio talk show host. Love FM was the first radio station to create this amalgamation but other radio stations and at least one television station were quick to follow suit. The format is simple: during an average 2 hour long time frame, at least two hosts field calls from anonymous participants on live television. Some days the shows include guest(s) discussing a particular topic but even if someone is there to talk about diabetes, a caller can redirect the show to the crime situation, education, etc.

In a country with a small population like Belize, many consider victimization a way of life. Despite efforts to encourage whistle-blowing, speaking out against wrongdoing is not eagerly embraced. Within this environment, the popularity of call in talk-shows has increased significantly due to the fact that they give Belizeans the necessary anonymity to express themselves without fear. Today, everything is fair game: complaints about an employer that won’t let his workers off early to prepare for an approaching hurricane, police brutality, Government corruption or even a neighbour’s trash disposal preference, it is all talk show fodder. It is not unusual for the Prime Minister to phone in with his comments on an issue being discussed. And it is quite common for an issue raised during the morning talk show hours to be resolved by the noon news segment. In fact, many journalists gauge the impact of their work by the amount of radio talk show buzz it creates. Therefore it is safe to conclude that this broadcast forum has become an integral factor in the development of the Belizean society.

At the centre of this dynamic interaction is the talk show host, all of whom hold various day jobs: businessmen, reporters, government employees, lawyers/politicians and single moms with vibrant personalities. They will be the first to admit that they are not journalists, they do not do any investigation into any issues that are brought to their attention and essentially, are simply directing on-air traffic. The ethics of the televised radio talk show host determines whether the show is entertaining, informative, slanderous or all of the above. Add to this mix the fact that these shows are live and you’ve got a recipe for either magic or mayhem. I once saw a show where a female caller recounts a horrific tale of domestic abuse in gripping detail and with such emotion the hosts are moved to tears. With just her side of the story, they were immediately on her side, damning authorities for not offering protection, demanding for immediate action and donating lawyer fees. But the nameless, faceless voice turned out to be nothing more than an actor giving an academy award winning performance and the only injustice in sight was the fact that she had duped everyone. That served as a powerful lesson for the hosts but others still attempt to con listeners and viewers every day.

Working on live television and radio is far trickier because listeners, viewers and hosts are all hearing the call at the same time so it takes a keen ear and quick wit to pick up on an agenda or a slanderous statement. Some hosts are aware of the liability that this can pose to the media house and will set rules like if a caller identifies someone by name, he or she must identify himself or herself. Those who choose not to adhere to the rules simply get to hear a dial tone. However, beyond profanity or personal attacks on the host or the host’s agenda, few calls are “cut” and the shows become a stream of society’s consciousness, jumping from one topic to the next call after call after call.

The power of this information is overwhelming. Every listener and viewer is armed with blow by blow accounts of what’s happening in every corner of the country. And with that information, residents are able to choose which bank to do business with, which politician to vote for, which lawyer to hire, where to buy flour without weevils. But all such power comes with responsibility because just as this forum can be used for good, it can also become an arena where the sport is tearing down another’s reputation, a chance to cast aspersions, an opportunity to influence others for personal gain, all in the comfort of anonymity.

The only other place where one can wield such a double edged sword is within the unfiltered flow of information is the web. As the access to the internet has grown in Belize, digital forums are also providing an outlet for unmitigated expression. I heard it once described as “the way to go if you think others might recognize your voice.” But like the talk shows, the websites dedicated to Belizeans have served both dual purposes. On one website, journalists were able to get copies of “confidential” Government documents, secret correspondence between Government officials that blew the lid off the scandal of the day. But on that same site, visitors were also able to read profanity filled discussions about nude photos of a Belizean woman, posted without her permission by her ex-boyfriend. Why would the webmaster allow such a degrading attack to occur? The answer is simple: the more controversy involved, the more bloggers, listeners and viewers are attracted; the more bloggers, listeners and viewers gives the website or media house more leverage to charge big bucks for advertising. And in a capitalist regime, this is hardly unexpected.

So in this era where information is delivered by multiple and often anonymous sources, we must ask ourselves, can we truly trust anything we see, hear or read?

One of my journalism professors once told me, “Question everything. And remember there are no stupid questions!” As societies everywhere are hit every minute by a barrage of information, this statement is profound. Even if this generation got its news the way the last three did, who’s to say everything that that one newsman shared was truly fact? I think of the US moon landing and the fact that many still question its veracity today even though at the time, the mainstream media never did. One of the most incredible gifts of today’s technology is the fact that everyone has the opportunity to question everything, all the time and in front of everyone. Shared knowledge. Depriving others of knowledge, of an education, is a tool oppressors have used to keep the masses weak for centuries. But at the same time, too much of anything is never good.

It’s up to the individual reader, viewer, listener and blogger to refuse to drown in the abyss of available knowledge and discern what is useful, relevant, practical knowledge. It is up to the individual to constantly engage with the media of our choosing until we feel comfortable enough to say, “I know this to be true,...”

Many “journalistic” standards like fact checking, using credible sources and even subject verb agreement have become whatever each of us decide, not what is in some text book. So now it’s up to the individual reader, viewer, listener and blogger to create new standards or decide collectively if “no rules” is the new rule.

The point is media as we know it has given us the power to connect more intimately than ever before. And whether we do so, anonymously or not, by blogging from the john, calling into our favourite talk show or mass emailing from our cell phones, we are being ourselves with the world. And if we don’t like what we see, hear or read, we can try to change society...or change the channel, pick up a new newspaper or magazine or click on a new website.

The power, as they say, is in our hands.

© Janelle Chanona

HTML last revised 21st October, 2011.

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