Common sense, personal experience, and a substantial body of social science research indicate an important relationship between the media and individual behavior. The media perform a critical role in any community. They facilitate freedom of expression and dissemination of information and, most important, they monitor government, thereby encouraging community participation in a fully democratic society. Therefore, the media have a moral and legal responsibility to the community they serve.
Consequently, it is morally wrong and extremely detrimental to our community for the media to glamorize crime and sexual scandals just to sell papers. Over-reporting stories that are attention grabbing but which do not inform or educate about important social issues does not serve the public interest. Moreover, consider that the Virgin Islands survives on a tourist-driven economy.
Yet, it appears that the media are not always willing to accept responsibility for their role in the current state of the territory. Certainly, the territory's printed and electronic media would protest against any attempt to make them partially responsible for St. Croix's demise. However, a little research reveals that certain media practices marginalize public interest, unfairly criticize minority and dissenting views, and misinform the public on significant issues affecting their lives.
Let's take the issue of education as an example. The state of public education in the territory's schools is well publicized. None will dispute that the current situation is unacceptable and in need of major reform. The newspapers have highlighted the chronic low scores and recent loss of accreditation in the public high schools. The headlines have created an atmosphere of helplessness and disgust for the current education system through the publication of editorials lamenting the lack of government and parental involvement while beseeching the community to become involved.
Yet, the very same newspapers provide maximum coverage to beatings and stabbings in the schools and offer little or no coverage to stories on student achievements and other exciting developments in education. For example, a pioneer program begun in the Marley housing project by three recent University of the Virgin Islands graduates which provides GED instruction to underprivileged people has yet to make it into the newspapers.
Crime and sex are two topics which are routinely exploited to make money. No one will argue that crime or sexual abuse should not be reported. However, the 6-inch front page headlines scream out on a weekly basis and are progressively sensational: "Big Island Crime Spree!" "NSF Agents painted as Drug-Running Extortionists." The result: Individuals who may want to relocate to live and work are scared out of their wits and decide not to travel here, costing us valuable potential human and financial resources. Investors researching locations are chased away by our graphic descriptions of criminal wrongdoing and government corruption.
Additionally, media further aggravate the situation by printing editorials which disguise personal agenda as public sentiment. Take, for example, the media's treatment of the Yacht Haven project. While promising to enhance and uplift a major eyesore, the project contained several legal deficiencies. The viability of this private business venture also required violating other aspects of existing Virgin Islands laws. Citizen watchdog groups and local agency experts were incensed by the project developers' apparent lack of concern for its negative environmental impact.
The government's response was to propose a law to approve the project "notwithstanding any other laws of the territory". The media (Daily News) applauded this measure as "business friendly" and severely criticized the environmental group for its actions. Thus, the newspaper editorial effectively ignored debate on the very significant issue of whether such government conduct shows a lack of trust and responsibility resulting in the current dismal fiscal and economic conditions of the territory.
Unfortunately, the First Amendment does not protect a community from irresponsible reporting. The Supreme Court has determined that there is a narrow class of expression which is illegal and also upheld laws shielding minors from media violence and hard-core sexuality. The First Amendment prevents government censorship of press and protects the media from lawsuits for certain harms suffered by persons.
All sectors of the population agree that St. Croix in particular suffers from a bad image. Granted, that image was not solely created by the media. However, acceptance of its ability to shape human behavior, balanced with the need to encourage robust debate on social issues, should lead the media to make responsible decisions regarding their role in the economic and social recovery of St. Croix and the territory.
What appears to be lacking is the notion that the role of the media must necessarily fit into a larger scheme which includes a deep moral responsibility to communicate with courage, conviction, respect and sensitivity.
I propose that the government and the media see each other as partners in that regard. Instead of perceiving each other as adversaries, the media and the government should make it a top priority to create and share a vision of responsible reporting in order to project St. Croix in a light favorable enough to encourage residents to participate, expatriates to return, and investors to bring their money.
Editor's note: Ronald E. Russell is a St. Croix district senator in the 25th Legislature and a lawyer.
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