“Trinidad and Tobago,” I patiently repeated for the second time.
“What?” She frustratingly retorted.
Two weeks ago, Dr Amery Browne spoke up for journalists in Parliament, while debating the Libel and Defamation (Amendment) Bill. Media workers risk life and limb for stories and yet are paid poorly, said Browne, the Diego Martin Central MP. “They are paid very, very small salaries. And that encourages them to moonlight, consult...do lots of other things.” —Fabian Pierre reports on the reality of life in the media.
“There is a public perception that this is a glamorous job,” admits a senior print journalist, “and in a way the public cannot be blamed since television and movies portray journalism as just that.” But in fact, he said, the hours are very long, and the work gruelling, and combined with the need for meticulous attention to detail, that creates a highly stressful job. The money doesn’t make up for it. Assignments editor at CCN TV6 Marlan Hopkinson said that traditionally media practitioners in this country have always been low paid, but in answering the question why he believes this is so, Hopkinson joked, “Maybe media managers should become reporters for a day or week and then they will understand how difficult the job is. Sometimes those that come up the ranks and become managers forget the rigours and ultimately they toe the company line.”
The Banking Insurance and General Workers Union (BIGWU) represents staff at several media houses. BIGWU gave the Guardian a list of print journalists’ salaries for the last two years that range, for entry level, between $3,000 and $5,600, while senior reporters’ starting salaries are anywhere between $9,900 and $12,000. Television and radio can range between $4,000 at entry level up to $12,000 at a producer level over the course of approximately 15 years. Department heads’ salaries are varied and are usually negotiated outside collective agreements.
How does this compare to salaries in other professions? The T&T Unified Teachers Association (TTUTA) provided figures to the Guardian that show entry-level primary schoolteachers starting at $8,500 all the way up to a secondary school principal’s entry level salary at $17,000, ending at just under $20,000. Communications Managers and specialists fare a little better. Several calls to specialists and managers show that in government ministries, communications specialists usually have three-year contracts and can start at $8,000 and go up to a maximum of $12,000, depending on their experience or qualifications. In private organisations, entry-level communications specialists can start at approximately $12,000 and over the course of a couple decades can go up to $30,000.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior print journalist told the Guardian that media workers are suffering by their own hand. “We don’t take ourselves seriously,” he said. “If we did, there would be a more unified approach to wages, negotiation with media managers, and even standards of practice that would lead to higher wages at both entry and senior levels.”
A senior television journalist agreed, saying that over the years he’s seen a lack of participation by media workers in fighting for better wages—but added: “Even then, those that did fight for unionisation or other benefits were ultimately victimised and fired, or simply fired straight off.” This has had the effect of lowering morale, he added, so that younger journalists are instilled with the fear of losing their jobs. BIGWU president Vincent Cabrera told the Guardian that journalists would have continued to be ill-treated were it not for intervention on a larger scale. “It is only because of unionisation of certain branches of the media that any kind of increase or benefit has come to workers,” Cabrera said.
BIGWU deputy president Mario Als said while salaries are affected by a number of variables, media workers and journalists in particular need to address their issues both as union members and professionals in a less fragmented manner. He said salary levels reflected journalists’ lack of participation in the professional bodies since the days of the Journalists Association, predecessor of the Media Association, and limited support for the union in taking action to influence negotiations on their behalf. “Which impacts both the degree of respect given to the profession and the value placed on their labour,” he said. Both Als and Cabrera said MATT and BIGWU may wish to consider dialogue toward a joint strategic initiative.
Media bodies comment
Matt president Curtis Williams told the Guardian he had to meet with the association’s executive for a clearer understanding, agreeing with BIGWU that salaries are affected by external factors. “I don’t know the salaries, because a lot of it is so varied and affected by individual negotiation, union intervention, those who work on contract, etc,” Williams said. A high percentage of salaries are paid, Williams said, that he suspects are negotiated outside collective agreements, adding that as with any business, the cost of a service is determined by supply and demand.
ACM president Wesley Gibbings told the Guardian that while working conditions are not the main focus of the ACM, there is a definite link between conditions and performance.
“It appears that journalists don’t always receive their just dues financially.” Gibbings said this is not to support any argument that owing to low salaries the integrity of a journalist is more likely to be compromised.
Moonlighting and moving on
One media veteran who started his career at the now defunct Trinidad and Tobago Television (TTT) went on to become one of the founding staff members of another TV station. Yet he was well known for his “tuck-shop” at his corner office. Asked once why he sold snacks and drinks, he remarked, “What else will I do to supplement a small income?” Many journalists work a number of jobs external to their primary employer in order to make ends meet. Many write stories for other publications or broadcasters, to be used without their byline (name attached to a story), or write speeches for government speakers, or private companies. Some consult, some lecture. “We’re just like everyone else,” a radio reporter told the Guardian. “Even I have to do things like selling nuts to pay a phone bill—because we also use our phone to make a lot of calls. It’s very expensive.” Atiba Wiltshire, a former radio journalist with Power 102 FM, said he plans to return to the field, but left primarily because of salary. Wiltshire says external entities grab journalists and treat them with a level of respect that is lacking in media houses. “Media managers need to understand what we do and I think they have no clue. They understand the basics of what happens and give nice words, but it ends there.”
A day in the life OF A JOURNALIST
The senior print journalist said the public does not realise that a journalist is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “News happens whether it’s a holiday or not. Whether it’s midnight or 3 am, it happens.” Reporters regularly have to work on weekends and public holidays, and the work is never 9 to 5. If a story on a reporter’s beat breaks at 5, 6 or 7 pm, he or she is expected as a matter of routine to cover the assignment and get the story. Another senior journalist with 25 years’ experience said unlike the North American model, there isn’t a support system with respect to technology and other resources. This is compounded by consistent staff shortages, he told the Guardian, and due to the demands of day-to-day news reporters often have to rush to produce several stories by deadline—all of which increases the stress level. “Time is extremely important in this business,” the source added, “and this is the major part the public doesn’t see. The cost to health and familial relationships.”
Other reporters told the Guardian that unless journalists are in a relationship with someone in a similarly demanding profession, families and spouses do not understand the time and dedication to the job. “This is the other cost, hidden to the public,” a reporter said. The larger cost, journalists said, has to do with security and safety. Journalists are often sent on assignment in dangerous areas such as murder scenes in high-risk areas where they could face attack or injury, even death, without any form of security. On an investigative report at a broadcast media house, a journalist and camerawoman had their lives seriously threatened by the interviewees when an editor mistakenly showed the faces of the gang members who were giving an in-depth look at gang warfare. Protection and surveillance at the employees’ homes and escorts to and from work had to be arranged. “But every night and every day,” a senior journalist said, “the news comes out, and the public is none the wiser. “Don’t get me wrong, they’re not supposed to know these things, but the point is they don’t know that this is part of the reality. It’s not glamour.”
Then there’s the stress caused by the kinds of stories media practitioners have to deal with—for instance, cases such as the murders of children like Sean Luke and Amy Annamunthodo. “I broke down crying,” one journalist said, “and how could you not?” There are many things that traumatise journalists, she said, from murder scenes to other stories containing gruesome details that the public won’t know because there are standards of publication or broadcast that have to be adhered to. Counselling is not provided by the company, in most cases, journalists told the Guardian, except in extraordinary circumstances.