Journalists clash on relevance of traditional media

On Xtra this evening, seasoned journalists discuss the role and challenges of traditional media in the local context

From left to right: former journalist Godfrey Grima, journalist Dione Borg, MaltaToday executive editor Matthew Vella
From left to right: former journalist Godfrey Grima, journalist Dione Borg, MaltaToday executive editor Matthew Vella

The role of journalism in shaping public opinion was the subject of a animated debate between former journalist Godfrey Grima, journalist Dione Borg and MaltaToday executive editor Matthew Vella. 

The three were guests on Xtra, hosted by Saviour Balzan, with Borg insisting that journalism was a ‘step below politics’, as it does not change things. “If the authorities do not act on what journalists are researching – they will have to move on to the next story.”

However former journalist and communications expert Godfrey Grima said that although journalism does not form public opinion, it does influence it once it has been formed.

On his part, Vella said that journalists sometimes created events which did not necessarily resonate with the public, or are not strong enough to bring about public change.

"It could however be that these stories slowly change the way people think, over time," Vella added.

Citing the Watergate scandal - major political scandal in the US in the 1970s - as an example, Vella said that even the bigger ‘scoops’ are not enough to bring out tangible results. “It could be that people only realise later on that these stories are important, and this is a reality that we need to live with.”

Grima disagreed that newspapers don’t create a reaction however, as he said that every government department – such as the court and police – are always scanning newspapers. “Whenever there is a pressing media story about the government, a press conference almost immediately follows… so there is a degree of influence.”

“Journalism is based entirely on credibility,” the Malta Independent editor-in-chief Rachel Attard said. “Remove a journalist’s credibility, and you remove their profession. But whether or not journalists are taken seriously is another argument…”

She pointed to last June's general election as an example of occasions were journalists were not effective. “We need to examine our conscience and see where we went wrong, and why the electorate did not take us seriously… otherwise we would risk becoming irrelevant.”

Times of Malta online editor Herman Grech described what he said was a ‘war’ against the media brought about by the fact that there was one section of the public that took what the media said as gospel, while there was also another large segment that simply ignored it.

Grech also voiced concerns about traditional media being replaced by social media, especially for some parts of society. “People are not differentiating between a media house – someone who investigates stories ­– and someone who is posting things on Facebook.”

But Grima dismissed the comments of both editors insisting that their respective newspapers have “lost their credibility long ago.”

“They have aligned themselves to partisan politics. Why should I waste my money on them?”

To this, Borg said that the online readership of the Times of Malta, for instance, was not lost, and that the newspaper did retain a “strong element of credibility”.

“But why are we expecting stories to have the power to take down the government anyway?” he asked. “I think it is incorrect to say that journalism has this role. A story can be effective and correct and still not cause a change in government.”

Borg, however, insisted that there needs to be a differentiation between journalists, commentators, and bloggers. “A blogger can mix fact and opinion, while a journalist cannot do this – and would lose credibility if they do.”

Borg said he was convinced that the electorate did not vote based on news that appeared in the media. “Other issues determine votes. If the Maltese do not consider corruption and scandals to be a priority, there is not much newspapers can do.”

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