Following recent developments amongst the Australian theatre world regarding integrity within theatrical journalism, the staff of Theatre People engaged in a long conversation about the ways in which we can ethically deliver information to our readers. Theatre has always been and will always be a medium in which public perception plays a large role – so do we, as media for the theatre world, owe our audience anything?
We believe so. While none of our staff are currently credentialed journalists (I am on my way, beginning a University degree majoring in journalism next week), we do not believe that you need a degree to erase moral ambiguity from the vocabulary of your writing. We may not be professional journalists, but we each practice integrity in our everyday lives, whether personal or professional, and understand that the ethics with which we live our lives must translate to the page we write on. Journalistic integrity is the foundation on which we build our opinions, and while we work for a publication that is considered a media source, we are bound to a code of ethics that ask us to write about facts, to comment on our society, and to pass opinion and judgement without seeking to bring down another person, unless they are directly harming something that is relevant to our world.
I have known for a long time about the dangers inherent in disregarding journalistic integrity, and I regret my choice to not comment publicly on this sooner. I have always known that ignoring a problem does not allow it to disappear, but this time I allowed my apprehension to overshadow my normally very strong sense of moral duty.
No, theatre journalists do not report on wars. We do not write directly about famine or destruction, politics or the massive failings of human judgement that have led to our pervasive culture of violence and ignorance – but that does not mean that what we write is irrelevant to our existence. We talk about theatre, and those who belong to its world, and through the stage, we are allowed to speak about the trials of being a human being, and all that being a member of our species entails – which of course, includes he topics I have just mentioned. While Theatre People may not cover what most people would consider worthy of being called “news”, we report on a place and a people that have the opportunity to educate and bring about massive change in the world, nearly always for the better.
Above: Don Lockwood lied about practicing his profession with dignity, but Australian theatre journalists must take the issue seriously.
Our staff take their roles seriously, and we do not bully. We do not spread misinformation or blatant lies, and we try to immediately implement action against those who do. It is our job to guard against giving the wrong person a soapbox to stand on, especially as words carry such weight. This is particularly important when it comes to reviewing.
Reviewing is its own format, and the consequences for terrible writing that is made publicly available are disastrous. A single widely read review could spell the end of a production, and that is not something to be taken lightly. In the opinion of Theatre People, reviews exist as both personal opinion and as constructive criticism. Theatre is not a lasting format. To see any show these days costs a large amount of money, and one purpose of reviewing is telling our readers our opinions on the show, and attempting to give them an accurate reading of what it is all about before they purchase a ticket. The other main reason is to offer our ideas on what could be done better next time, which is especially important to our amateur theatre audience. To pursue a line of writing in which you attack a production with planned malice is nothing short of outrageous. Writers, like all other professions, must be held accountable for their actions.
The following excerpt, taken from the Journalists’ Code of Ethics found on the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance website, speaks to the rules that should govern what we do.
“Respect for truth and the public's right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists describe society to itself. They convey information, ideas and opinions, a privileged role. They search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They give a practical form to freedom of expression. Many journalists work in private enterprise, but all have these public responsibilities. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be accountable. Accountability engenders trust. Without trust, journalists do not fulfil their public responsibilities.” (x)
Some people have mentioned to me that blogs and their writers do not fall under the umbrella that encompasses “journalism”, and that when you write opinion on a privately owned blog you are under no obligation to be ethical, or to exercise integrity. I understand that blogs are their own medium, but in the ever changing landscape of professional/widely read writing, I believe that we all need to be held to a higher standard. I don't believe blogs should be under any less scrutiny than other pieces of mass-distributed writing. If you have a large audience base and you promote yourself as a person who holds the ability to change public perception through published writing, then you should be bound to the same code of ethics that other media sources are. It is interesting to note that recently, Strictly Ballroom widened their definition of media by inviting bloggers to a press event – if a show as large as Strictly Ballroom is willing to allow popular bloggers to have an equal say to a credentialed journalist in the way that their show is marketed, then it is clear that the production expects all parties to conduct themselves in a manner befitting that of a professional media person.
In a recent case, it was quite clear that the Australian theatre-going public agreed with us on the topic of integrity within theatre journalism. It took one horrible, slander filled piece to incite anger, and another, well written, well researched piece by a separate author to set the record straight. The Australian public bonded over a shared feeling of anger, and remained strong until the problem was solved, instead of allowing it to crawl under the carpet and emerge again when the furore was over.
We need to remain vigilant to stay on top of problems that pierce the edge of our theatre world. Stage publications need to not give a platform to those who wish to condemn people and productions for no good reason, and productions and performers need to be careful in sharing writing and reviews where they are favourably looked on – if a reporter or reviewer constantly attacks your industry peers for no good reason, it may be a poor idea to support their writing, even if you received 5 stars and the most glowing of personal reviews.
Let’s do our best to bring about the death of gossip, slander and vitriol in theatrical journalism, and instead turn our attention to writing and reading about things that excite us. Let us understand the theatre for what it is, and for what it could be, and let us above all support our peers instead of constantly ripping them down. Each member of the theatre media industry needs to examine the ethics inherent in their job title, and we will be all the stronger for it – we are the way that theatre gets to the masses. We cannot take our task lightly.