A week ago a friend of mine called me in distress because a business associate of his was being hounded by a Sunday newspaper that was chasing a story of an alleged extra-marital affair.
My friend told me his associate was very worried that the said newspaper had its facts wrong and that even worse, the journalist on the story had spoken to everyone but him and the alleged other woman.
I gave my friend and his associate whatever advice I could to help them handle the crisis but refused to get involved any further.
However, I was bothered when I found out that by Friday evening, the said newspaper or journalist had still not called the implicated businessman or the woman he was allegedly having an affair with.
At this point, I made it my business to call one of the editorial executives to ask why this was so. How could it be that the paper was involved in such a big investigative ‘exposé’ without checking with those implicated as early as possible?
The editorial executive nonchalantly told me, “We normally call the implicated people on Saturday before going to print”.
I don’t know about you, but I found this curious at best, and borderline unethical at worst.
Mind you, it was not my first experience of such a practice. Many years ago while advising a state-owned enterprise, another Sunday newspaper called the CEO on a Saturday afternoon to respond to a story they had been investigating all week.
I took exception and told the then editor that I found this practice unfair, at the very least.
Let me state up front that I defend the media’s right to report, investigate and expose anything they deem appropriate and this must be done without any hindrance or interference from anyone.
But someone must explain to me how a weekly newspaper can spend four to five days investigating a big story, only to give the subject/s the right of reply, a few hours before going to print?
What could motivate such behaviour?
On the face of it, this presents a scenario where the media do not want “facts to stand on the way of a good story” as the refrain goes.
It would appear to me that such behaviour is motivated by a fear (irrational fear at that) that speaking too earlier to the “culprits” would introduce doubt about the story and maybe even kill the story before it happens.
Also, calling at the last moment for comment, brings a further possibility of not reaching the “culprit” telephonically and therefore making it easy for the media to state that “X was not available or could not be reached for comment”.
This always comes out as a reasonable excuse that the media did everything ethically and correctly to contact those implicated and give them a chance to give their side of the story.
But if the media have been investigating for a while, I truly believe that the right of reply must be availed earlier during the investigation. And this right must be made in all possible ways including email, telephone calls or even one-on-one interviews.
Obviously a lot of people who are “in the wrong” have a tendency to be slippery and evasive and more often than not, they are not too keen to speak to the media when faced with unfavourable stories.
But the media cannot be seen to have not tried enough to do the right thing. It is in the interests of good journalism, fairness, objectivity and ethics that this is not only done, but it must be seen to be done and done timeously.
Failure to do so does not help cleanse the media from the perception that they have ulterior motives, and are unfair and unethical.
Good editors should instruct their journalists to source responses from ‘culprits’ early in the development of the story, not only for fairness, ethics and objectivity but also because it is the right thing to do journalistically.
In the absence of this, there will always be doubt to some good stories and exposés that the media publish to uncover unbecoming behaviour.
This will also limit a number of lawsuits that result from such poor and seemingly ethical behaviour as well as retractions and apologies that sometimes follow after publishing.
Rams Mabote is a journalist, spin doctor, connector, author and MC, and hosts a current affairs show on Metro FM. He owns the consultancy, The Kingmaker. Follow him on Twitter @ramsmabote.