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Sunday, August 20, 2017

One of the cornerstones of a free and fair society is the existence of an equally free and fair press. This is a sentiment that can’t be overstated and shouldn’t be taken lightly. The reporting of the news provides two vital services: to inform the population of issues that could affect them and to serve as a stalwart watchdog over the state’s power structures. But as an institution that’s obsessed with accuracy, speed and connectivity, is there such a thing as an overload of news? In a world under the sway of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, is this constant exposure to information “too much of a good thing,” or will this “road of excess lead to a palace of wisdom?”

It’s hard to imagine how our lives would be without immediate access to the news. Turn on the television, go online, or pick up a mobile device and there it is—events from around the world being reported on for your viewing and listening pleasure; sometimes even in real time. But we must keep in mind that this concept is still relatively new. Cable news channels didn’t exist until 1980, with CNN (the aptly named Cable News Network) being the first of its kind. Its success made it the go-to name for news and spawned a number of imitators. Now, thirty-seven years later, the proliferation of these outlets has resulted in as many caveats as there are benefits. Biased coverage has politicised certain media houses, where any two could report on the same event and give completely different perspectives. There has also been an emergence of alternative news sources that operate under the guise of legitimacy but are more concerned about opinion—as opposed to fact-based reporting. In the end, with all the options out there, the audience will ultimately choose where they get their news from. But what happens when they choose none of them?

Providing the news is a business enterprise, one that’s a double-edged sword in that it requires a considerable cost but also holds the opportunity of being financially rewarding. Therefore, since profitability depends on getting people to read or watch, it pays to be “first” when it comes to catching that moment of importance, what has come to be known as the “Breaking News” event. However, this leads to over-exposure of the same story. We’re gone from a twenty-four-hour cycle to a thirty-minute cycle; even less in some instances. And along with that repetition is a pseudo-exaggeration in its presentation—the ominous music, the eye-catching graphics, the red alert banners—they are all meant to transmit a sense of urgency. Remember the Ebola outbreak of 2014? There were eleven cases in the US but the daily updates made it appear that the country was in the midst of an epidemic. And just last week, the verbal tit-for-tat between US President Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un was being so hyped up that one would think a nuclear war was imminent.

It should be no surprise then that some viewers have come to regard some press outlets as “mainstream media” peddling “fake news.” It’s debatable whether Trinbagonians have similar concerns when it comes to the local purveyors of information. But it’s my opinion that our problem is the exact opposite—I think our media coverage needs to be expanded, both in investigative reporting as well as the discourse surrounding it.

Considering the rampant corruption that plagues T&T’s political and civil administrations, a free press is the only check the public has to effectively counter it. Upon that cadre of dedicated journalists lay our hopes that such malfeasance is exposed. We need only look to the scandal involving the Sports Minister’s expensive Tobago trip and the mystery surrounding Bridgemans Service Group and the inter-island ferry to appreciate how a little media scrutiny can go a long way. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen time and time again, discovery doesn’t always lead to accountability. But at least it’s a start.

I also wish there was more specialised programming where knowledgeable members of our national community can discuss, analyse, and provide insight on current events. CNC3’s “Morning Brew” hosted by Hema Ramkissoon is at the forefront in that respect. But the early time slot may limit its viewership. These shows should follow the nightly news. The local television stations are replete with foreign content; one hour a week during prime time isn’t a huge sacrifice for the intellectual benefit of the country. The hardest part might be finding personalities whose opinions aren’t coloured by a personal, political, or professional agenda; they’re only human after all.

Anywhere you go in the world, you’ll find that the media is far from perfect. For like any man-made institution, it is subject to the whims and temperament of those who are holding the reins. But the positives far outweigh the negatives, and the alternative of not having it would mark a decline in the values of western civilisation, if not the beginning of its end. Trinidad and Tobago especially needs the free press if we hope to continue our development. And I’m sure we can all agree that there’s enough “bacchanal” to keep them busy.

Ryan Hadeed


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