Monday 17 December 2018

When a newsroom gets it wrong, the public deserves an apology

This article first appeared in Malta Today

The article by Tim Diacono published in Lovin’ Malta news website, raises a lot of interesting questions.

Entitled “My Egrant Experience: How I ended up believing ‘the Mother of all Scandals”, it traces what happened last year, the prevailing atmosphere which was reigning at the time following the publication of the Panama Papers, and the ensuing media hype when the Egrant story broke, throwing the public into a bewildered state of stunned disbelief (or unabashed glee, depending on your politics) . 

So far, so good. 

But as Mr Diacono, a former MaltaToday journalist who left after the 2017 election, himself admits, he (and many other journalists) chose to believe the story and ran with it despite the fact that there was really nothing tangible in hand. The information that the offshore company Egrant belonged to the Prime Minister’s wife, Michelle Muscat, was taken as a blind truth, turned into absolute fact, and repeated with utmost certainty and conviction even though there was nothing really concrete to back up this grave claim which, at the time, completely destablised the country.  

Fo me, several statements in his article, stood out: “I’ve been asking myself over and over again how and why I believed the story despite the lack of documentary evidence”

“I had no reason to doubt Caruana Galizia.”

 “…it is evident that something, somewhere went badly wrong for what turned out to be the predominant narrative in the independent press.”

While there are those who are praising him for being so candid and honest, I think this article was completely misguided because in trying to justify his actions, it simply confirmed and exposed the problem in many newsrooms today. There is a mad rush to jump on a breaking story and make it one’s own, relying on second-hand sources without applying the brakes, using a hefty dose of detached skepticism, verifying the information, and thinking things through. Online news portals are particularly prone to this problem because the Internet is an insatiable beast and the demand for content is never-ending. Coupled with an impatient public which does not read things properly (if at all), which has the attention span of a toddler and which can make even the most puerile story go viral within seconds, this means that Houston, we have a big problem. Or rather, journalism does. 

The events which unfolded after the Egrant story was picked up by the mainstream media and claims suddenly and magically turned into rock solid facts, had wide-reaching implications all because some newsrooms decided that the information came from an unimpeachable source. That grave error of judgement is at the crux of this whole issue. One either believed that Daphne was infallible and anything she wrote had to be true….or not.  Everything else which followed and the direction taken by the various media houses from that point onwards, started from that one very crucial premise.

Some say that Mr Diacono’s tone was apologetic and that may be true, especially in his concluding paragraph, “…so what lessons should the media and the public draw from Egrant? To be more critical and sceptical, even when a story is reproduced in a reputable foreign paper, to not fall into the trap of confirmation bias and to challenge your own opinion and your own emotions even if it feels incredibly uncomfortable. Not everything is always as it seems.”

Unfortunately, however, by his very own words, he also confirms something else which is potentially uncomfortable – that at no point during his reporting of the Egrant story was he following the very tenets of what it means to work in journalism. Of course, he was not the only one who failed in this respect, but so far, he is the only one who has admitted it.

Yes, it is true that everyone in the media approaches any new story like any other member of the public: from the standpoint of a personal opinion and even slant. But when one gets working on such a piping hot story all that has to be set aside and you should only rely on black on white facts rather than just a hunch.

Leaving aside Mr Diacono’s personal experience, the worst thing about all this is that (unless I missed it) to date, what Lovin’ Malta and other newsrooms have failed to do is to formally apologize to their readers.  I have noticed that  apologies are very scarce on the ground when it comes to the media. It is not the first time that someone gets it completely, unequivocally, wrong and yet the news portal or newspaper simply corrects the online version and lets it slide, hoping that no one will notice.  But time and again, many do notice, and this further chips away at the credibility and reputation not only of that particular newsroom, but journalism in general which has to bear the brunt of a general perception that the media is not really there to serve the public, but other interests. 

With the Egrant story in particular, an apology should be even more forthcoming because of the ripple effect that was created which could have potentially caused national mayhem and economic upheaval. When this story implicating the Prime Minister and his wife in corruption broke, which was then repeated as fact by some sectors of the mainstream media, the rumour mill started churning that the financial services were in turmoil and major companies were threatening to pull out.  Like others, I received messages that a meeting was held among top finance people who were warned that if Muscat were to be re-elected, the entire industry would collapse. People were being told they were going to lose their jobs. 

When so much is at stake and the media gets it so very wrong because it failed to verify such serious allegations, it cannot be waved away with a simple ‘oops’.   

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