Dear Jamaica Observer
Dear Jamaica Observer -
You — here the general, meant to include everyone from management to copy editors to columnists to those who lay out the pages for print — have a decision to make. (Well, I suppose I have also personified the legal entity but I find that necessary for this purpose.) Are you a serious newspaper or are you content to be the sloppy biased voice of one viewpoint?
If you decide that you are a newspaper then I think that the editorial staff, management, and ownership need to quickly make some changes. Careful; do not choose this option lightly. Be sure that you understand what being a newspaper means. I have some thoughts on this that I will share.
I believe that newspapers, while not immune from bias because they are run by people who are full of bias, should strive to present the news in a clear, candid, and consistent manner. With this framework and expectation in mind it is clear to me that newspapers need to be careful. You have the responsibility to your readers to present information in a readable and ethical manner. That is, present the information in your newspaper in a grammatically correct manner that is also truthful, accurate, objective, fair, and independent of ownership or management interference. Allow your reporters and columnists to have integrity. Some consider print journalism to be the counterbalance to government and political propaganda or other blatantly biased information, the medium that helps the public to make decisions. You are sometimes called The Fourth Estate. Whatever the classification , I think that it is clear that your responsibility goes beyond attracting advertising revenue and expanding readership for the sake of profit. You may not like to admit it but there is a weighty social responsibility intertwined with being a newspaper. Perhaps that is why journalistic ethics are so debated and highly regarded. Regardless of what side of this debate you fall know that your credibility is at stake. With that newspaper label you are not beholden only to profit (as all corporations are), but also to the information needs and appetites of your readers. Notice that I separated appetites from needs. And let us, for the purposes of this missive, set aside advice for healthy cynicism and that one question everything one reads. Certain segments of your readership will want to read one point of view because they want to reinforce their opinions or beliefs. This is to be expected. There are various reasons for that attitude but I will not dispute them here, suffice to say that I believe this group to form the minority of your readership. I believe that the vast majority of your readers open your newspaper to gather credible information on life and happenings of Jamaica and Jamaicans. Or, rather, they would like it to be that way. They would appreciate information that they can trust for use in making decisions and for forming opinions. Or perhaps they seek information for changing their minds. A public needs clearly presented factual information useful for making sense of the gamut of activities swirling around them. They need reliable information from a credible source. I implore you to carefully consider your role and to take it seriously…certainly more seriously than you currently do.
And, please, keep in mind that your readership extends beyond Jamaica’s shores. You reach not only Jamaicans living in Jamaica, but those of us residing elsewhere as well as other nationals who have taken an interest in our island. Many have taken a very keen interest. With your internet publication you are even more in the spotlight and some behaviour, which could perhaps be hidden by just a paper circulation, is now laid bare for billions to see. Frankly, it is embarrassing to read some of the typos and other errors that make it to print. Your newspaper too often is a poor representation of what Jamaicans are capable of, what Jamaica has to offer, and what is going on in Jamaica. From a business perspective you also sell yourself poorly.
Do you see that heavy social responsibility? Can you honestly say that you are fulfilling it now, with The Jamaica Observer in its current state?
Actually, because you currently hold yourself out to be a newspaper there are a few things of which I think you need to be reminded. (Aside: I am no journalist nor do I have any journalism training but I read a lot and I had excellent English language teachers who taught me well. I also have an abundance of common sense that I delight in using. And I was managing editor of myU.S. high school newspaper.) So, even if we accept that much of Jamaica’s reading public is functionally illiterate that does not excuse you of the responsibility for presenting material in a grammatical correct, readable, and knowledgeable fashion. Actually if we accept that there is a high level of functional illiteracy in Jamaica then your social responsibility is greater, isn’t it? Think about that. When I attended high school in Jamaica it was not uncommon to get an assignment that required reading an article in the newspaper and providing a report on the article read. Now I shudder to think that any sensible English teacher would give this assignment for fear of undoing the work he or she has done in the classroom. Reporters are to report the news, not their opinions. Columnists give opinions. Note that they’re even on their own page with clear headings, and that some opinion sections even feature disclaimers. Reporting should be done in a clear and concise fashion, examining the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, HOW, AND WHY. (Sometimes WHERE.) They should present this examination with careful attention to detail (especially spelling) and the basic rules of grammar and sentence structure. Remember your audience’s needs and appetites and remember not to confuse the two. Also, report things of substance. I won’t dictate topics or advocate censorship but I believe that you should exhaust the range of subjects important to Jamaica and Jamaicans before delving into the lives of celebrities.
Subject-verb agreement matters.
Punctuation matters and can give great effect to an article; wield it well.
Wording and context matter because whether something reads well despite being technically correct matters.
Do not rely on spell check. Use a dictionary and thesaurus.
Encourage your staff to read widely and a lot.
Sources matter. How can you present incomplete background information in your pages and call an article complete? How can you present poorly sourced information in your pages and be content? It is insufficient to use Wikipedia as the only source, which is something I have seen done on your pages.
A headline that reads
is misleading and betrays either your shameless attempt to manipulate your readership or your ignorance. Neither is acceptable.
It is also unacceptable to merely reproduce press releases or speeches and call it a news article. Too often I have seen speeches, connected by a few poor clarifying sentences, regurgitated in your pages. The press releases do not even get the benefit of connecting sentences, or, presumably, any other review. Publishing these materials as articles is disingenuous. You do a disservice to the reputation that you had and to your readers, regardless of the group to which they belong. Any sort of reader of your newspaper deserves to read well-written factual material.
For columns, where opinions are shared, the basic rules of grammar matter. Organization of argument matters. I do not think that you compromise the voice of your columnists by requiring them to carefully edit their work.
Paying attention to all of this greatly enhances the reading experience, I assure you. It is an arduous chore to read material that isn’t well-presented (please distinguish this from matters of style). Sometimes poorly written material makes me question the writer’s credibility. Wait, I have a question – do you folks who work at the Observer read the material they publish? Critically? With an eye toward improvement and excellence? My guess would be that many of you do not. Well, maybe that’s my hope because if many of you read the paper and are happy with the product then this is worse than I imagined.
By the way, I am sorry if it feels bad to be picked on (because I am picking on you though your competitor is not immune). But I am picking on you because the errors I have seen in your publication have been consistent and consistently egregious. There seems to have been no improvement despite public and private efforts. Typos, grammatical failures, misleading headlines; it is sickening.
I will leave the social media experts to advise you on how better to use Twitter and Facebook, but I implore you to check articles before they are uploaded for sharing on either of these platforms. Twitter, especially, affords you slim cushion to fix a mistake so you must get it right the first time. Step back from the quest to be first and embrace the need for quality. Take the time to edit; dedicate skilled staff to this task and support them.
But all of the foregoing is if you choose to be and embrace your role as a newspaper.
If you choose to be the voice of one viewpoint then I think that the ethical thing to do is to make your leaning well and clearly known. Be explicit. Do not leave things to assumptions or innuendo. Give your readership the courtesy and benefit of full disclosure so that they are well-prepared when they open your pages or click your links.
Whatever the answer to my opening question, though, I beseech you to present the material you publish in a proper fashion. I am tired of the typos, glib and now misleading headlines, poor grammar, poorly edited articles, and just general sloppiness. DO better.
p.s. Thank you for the series of articles about child abuse in Jamaica. The subject is painful but has too long gone uncovered and I appreciate this bit of investigative journalism…so I’ll spare you my critique of how to improve its presentation. I think that for this subject matter about which we all need to be more informed and proactive it is sufficient to say thank you.