Inevitably, journalists have to act when a story of national importance breaks – simply because they are the best-equipped to bring the truth out.
This special status is why they are collectively named the “fourth estate” or power in a country, a responsibility that every member of the news media has imprinted in their mind from day one. But that imprint can also become a blind spot.
The social outcry against the news media’s role in the Chiang Rai cave drama underlines one fact that many journalists have ignored. Namely, that there are times when they should stay out of the way. “Freedom of information” sounds like a borderless principle, but it is not, as the cave story unmistakably confirms.
Professional journalism has more ethical guidelines than most people believe, many reporters included. Should journalists play golf with their “sources”? Should they enjoy luxurious dinners, where wine or whisky are served, with businessmen or politicians or lobbyists? Should they invest in the stock market, which is highly sensitive to coverage of political or economic events? Should they interview grief-stricken relatives or dig into the personal backgrounds of innocent victims? Should they accept corporate gifts or invitations for wonderful trips, which will inevitably hang over their heads when they have to report on anything to do with the “generous” organisations?
If you gun for integrity, journalism is a very narrow path to tread indeed. Should you publish a photo of a wailing woman who has just lost her child in an accident, a photo that will be in the public realm forever, reminding everyone of the tragic loss? Should you disclose the neighbourhood where a rapist lives, or his workplace, when doing so could enable people to “connect the dots” and find out who the victims are, despite the legal ban on making their names public? Should you run the photo of a hooded girl in the middle of a heinous crime case?
Such questions have delineated the “freedom of information” argument. Debate can go on forever, especially in the most “free” countries, where any restriction on reporters is met with ideological lecturing. It’s always “privacy” versus “the right to know”, and the latter usually comes out on top – not least because it has human curiosity on its side.
The Chiang Rai cave story heaves up a journalistic problem that even the most comprehensive ethical guide couldn’t clear up. Is it a matter of great public interest? Yes. Do the public have the right to know what is going on? Yes. Should journalists have opinions on what should be done? Yes. Has the reporting frenzy played a role in forcing the powers-that-be to pay full attention to the rescue mission? Yes.
But were reporters so unambiguously useful in the later stages of the rescue? No. Is a lot of media activity surrounding the cave story counterproductive? Yes.
Reporters – both cubs and senior journalists – have one professional imperative, and that is they must be “first” to report an incident. Not only does being second mean nothing, it also means embarrassment. So, the cave site has been overcrowded with super-eager news people, their helpers and equipment. They raced to be the “first” to interview relatives of the missing, whose emotions have been in turmoil. Tips that turned out to be false were pounced on, out of fear competitors might get the scoop first. So everything went viral.
Hollywood probed journalistic “fearlessness” in the 2015 film “Spotlight”. In one scene an influential figure tries to convince a newspaperman that breaking a story may not really serve the public interest. “I find that the city flourishes when its great institutions work together,” he said.
To which the newspaper person replied: “Thank you. Personally I’m of the opinion that, for a paper to best perform its function, it really needs to stand alone.”
It’s a damning dialogue hands down, summing up the news media’s difficulties in building relationships with the rest of the world.
The film, however, touched upon the “lesser” dilemma of dealing with other institutions. It romanticised the merits of being “brave”, of being defiant, of being “the first”. It did not address the supposed requirement that, sometimes, reporters should know their place. They can advocate ideologies, but they don’t really save lives like doctors or rescuers.
They can feel proud at having the courage to speak out against powerful and feared figures, but they don’t have the expertise to plough through long tunnels flooded with muddy water.
Everyone is taught that the “moment of truth” is when you have to “act”, but, for reporters, maybe the “moment of truth” is when they should simply step out of the way and let others do their job. There are times when “being the first” can be disastrously disruptive, intrusive and disrespectful. And there are times when doing little is the most honourable thing to do.