“Only the truth, the full and unvarnished truth”

Thomas Barat
The Foreign Press asked Thomas Barat, Director of Ethics and Compliances of Association of Foreign Press Correspondents USA, and the Editor in Chief of the eCCO Magazine, about the ethics of journalism, the role of the correspondent.
Thomas Barat summarized his answer as follows: “When you speak, what you say, should be always the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Only full and unvarnished truth.”
The full interview was published on Foreignpress.org.

Thomas Barat
Thomas Barat

Thomas Barat is a journalist, photojournalist, foreign correspondent/editor, and Head of the NY Branch Office of a Hungarian-based Press Agency (WBPI) and TV Channel (Heti TV) in New York. He is the Director of Ethics and Compliances of Association of Foreign Press Correspondents USA. He is the Founder Editor in Chief of CCO MAGAZINE – the Magazine of the Chief Communication Officers. He has expertise in writing, editing, and publishing. He was a TV talk show host on one of Hungary’s tv-channel called Budapest Television. Thomas Barat is a retired Professor of Communication, and he was the Education Director of the European Media and Communication Institute. He wrote seventeen books in the field of Applied Communication. Thomas Barat was the President of the Ethical Committee of the Association of Hungarian Journalists and the President of the Media Self-Regulatory Body of Hungary. He is a member of different professional organizations. Among others: Society of Professional Journalists USA, Association of Hungarian Journalists, Hungarian Public Relations Association, Chartered Institute of Public Relations the UK, he is the Founder and President of the American Hungarian Chamber of Commerce.

As a foreign correspondent in the US, you combine decades of journalism and communications experience. What do you see as the major challenges media face today?  

As a practicing journalist and as a retired university professor who has taught several forms of applied communication, I see the present bitterly, although I am optimistic about the future.

Having previously taught Public Relations, Marketing Communications, Mass Communications, Journalism, TV Programming, and Media Ethics, all of which I have practiced as a practicing professional, the communications profession faces important challenges. If I examine the question in terms of any of the subjects I teach, my answer is remarkably similar.

I would like to summarize the challenge briefly: how can professionals respond to the questions of truth and honesty?

A few years ago, there was a survey among journalists and students studying journalism. (American Press Institute) In this survey, most respondents indicated the most important challenges:

  • “The flood of opinion and false information on the internet”,

  • “The economic model for news is broken”,

  • “Traditional media companies need to adapt faster to new technology”,

  • “Media owners have focused too much on profits”,

  • “The public doesn’t care about quality journalism.”

I think if we were to prepare a similar survey today, we would get related results. Fake news has been one of the biggest challenges in the last four years for the US especially because of Trump’s communication.

The same problem has appeared in Europe. In 2017 I attended the European Communication Summit Conference in Munich, where fake news was the key issue.

The following statement was made at this conference: “The greatest danger of communication is false news”. This is especially dangerous due to its frequency in social media.

I would add that there is an important reason for this: today, everyone can be a journalist since the spread of social media. Even though many have no idea about the basics of the journalism profession, they still behave like journalists, such as many of the bloggers.

Last year, the Association of Foreign Press Correspondents in the USA and the National Press Foundation organized an online seminar in this topic, as well. It was said at this webinar that misinforming audiences around the world is a critical concern for professional journalists everywhere. Uncontrolled misinformation is becoming more common, in social media, but unfortunately, it can also occur in official media outlets.

At this event, I referred to Dr. Parell, a professor at George Washington University, who reported at a webinar that only 1% of the population believes in what appears on social media sites. According to the research, even media announcements are received with skepticism.

Journalism can only respond decisively to this: The media can only get the public to trust the media information with honesty. It is a challenge for many journalists to meet the expectations of publishers.

Everywhere in the world, publishers set the direction for the media. This is true in the case of print, and in the case of electronic (TV, Radio, Online) media, as well. The publisher decides what orientation they want to give their media. And in this decision, political and profit play the most key role.

I don’t like polarized journalism. I do not think it is right that there is right-wing or left-wing media. But the facts must be considered. Yes, there is a right and there is a left-wing journalist and publisher, media. And that decides many questions in the world today. This is especially true in countries that are not fully democratic. I would like to emphasize that in countries that are not completely or not at all democratic, this issue is even more dangerous.

The press is not so objective that there can be no word in a pro-government press that criticizes the government. This is especially true in countries where most of the press is owned by the government. The opposition press in these countries is preoccupied with government bureaucracy, but rarely judges the opposition because of “wagon camps.”

It has already happened to me that due to a positive report I wrote about the Hungarian Opera House’s performance in New York, the left-wing press criticized me and wrote about me that “I went to bed on the right side”. In another case, I was criticized for writing a review of a book that appeared in a left-wing paper.

These criticisms, from whichever side they come from, and wherever I look, cannot be called objective journalism.

Thomas Barat interviewing Henry Kissinger.

Thomas Barat interviewing Henry Kissinger.

As a foreign correspondent in the US, how has your work changed the way you interpret and analyze the news from America as well as the developments in Hungary, your country of origin? 

In the US, as a foreign correspondent, I learned a different approach.

The way of thinking in the former socialist countries has not fundamentally changed much, even though there has been a change of regime for thirty years. However, it is important to note here that the American image of socialist countries is fundamentally flawed. There is talk of communism in the US to this day, even though communism has not been established anywhere in any former socialist country! Moreover, I will go further, socialism has not materialized in all countries. Thus, Hungary was not a socialist country either, it merely built socialism. And this is a negligible difference from America, but it was not in these countries.

I note: In the first ten years after the Second World War, Hungary was not a communist country, but a Stalinist one. This meant a Stalinist dictatorship. From 1956 to 1967, the situation gradually changed significantly, although the leadership followed Moscow and continued to build socialism, but from the period of the new economic mechanism of 1967, the changes began. From 1967 to 1989, the situation was ripe for a major change.

This was also visible in the Hungarian press. I started working intensively with the press in the seventies. I’ve never had a boss tell me what topic I can’t talk about, write about, and what I can. When I started my career as a photojournalist, of course the editor told me what to report on, but I was able to realize my own reporting ideas. Later, as an editor, editor-in-chief, I was able to define the topics I wanted to work on myself. The publisher has never told me what not to process.

On the other hand, nowadays my Hungarian colleagues report that if they do not write or say what the publisher commands, they will lose their jobs. If, on the other hand, journalists perform as expected, a higher position awaits them, with a higher salary as a reward.

I also have an ethical example of this. There was a serious ethical issue earlier, which was discussed by the Ethics Committee of the Association of Hungarian Journalists. One of the TV-editors demonstrably falsified a piece of news that reported an event. The TV recording of the event proved the fact of forgery. As the fact of falsification became proven, the editor was condemned by the Ethics Committee. In contrast, the editor was appointed editor-in-chief in recognition of state-owned TV bosses.

In the past as editor-in-chief, I had to deal with other challenges. Such was the producer dilemma. It should be noted that the role of the television producer at the time was different from today’s U.S. interpretation. As editor-in-chief and producer at the time, it was also my job to earn advertising revenue for my television show. In other words, I was also responsible for organizing my ads. And I considered these two tasks to be clearly incompatible, and I still do today.

For example, I also found myself in such a difficult position that there was an advertiser company who said that he would only advertise on my show if a positive interview was given about them. Although the owner of the TV was specifically angry about it, I did not undertake the publication of the given advertisement, as I would have published an interview about the given product only if we could not only praise, but objectively inform about the product.

This was a challenge not only for me at the time, but also for my other colleagues. Of course, there were journalists with a capitalist view who did not understand what the problem was.   It was at this time that I began to take the issues of media ethics seriously.

For me, the work of American correspondents made it clear, as I knew before, that the socialist thinking I had been part of for decades differed from the world of a democratically functioning press in several respects (e.g., accuracy, content of information).

It is important to understand that the Public Relations mindset is not satisfied with the news about “Who, What, When, Where, and Why” asking and answering questions. It also raises the question, “How did it happen”?

The timing of the communication is also important. When digital media allows the viewer to become aware of what is happening at the same time, the speed with which news is communicated is of utmost importance. But from another point of view, the question of timing is also true. For example, information about a publicly traded share hold company can only be published after 9 a.m. New York time, as this is when the NY Stock Exchange opens. If sensitive information were published sooner, it would even negatively affect stock performance.

In Hungary, you have written several books. How can authoring help you become a better journalist? 

Yes, I have written 17 books in the areas of applied communication. My favorites wrote about marketing communications and Public Relations. Book writing and newspaper writing are not much different in my practice. In both cases, the key is to be thorough. Let me go around the topic as much as possible. This, of course, involves a lot of research using libraries in the past, and now using the internet. It is important to look at the data and find the background to the topic.

I recently received a request to write on a broader topic. It was not the writing itself that took a long time, but the research I did for the writing. I had to investigate the details of American history, and frankly, since I didn’t learn American history in my studies, I had to read a lot of information to do so. Personally, I went to Philadelphia to get to know the subject better, and to Washington DC as well. I think the research, the trip was worth it to me, and not just to write the requested writing.

The basis of the author’s role is thoroughness, for me the research and the interpretation and explanation of the facts.

You have devoted much of your career to ethics in journalism. As of today, you are the director of Ethics and Compliance for the Association of foreign press correspondents. In a world where online media is driven by clicks and impressions, how important is ethics compliance in journalism? Can journalists fully adhere to all ethical aspects of their profession? 

My short answer: On the one hand, it is important, but on the other hand, I find that many people do not adhere to basic ethical standards.

Let’s look in more detail

I don’t believe in the number of “clicks” and “likes”, in the omnipotence of these.

Many times, I come across a few likes with particularly essential information. Few like it just because few people are interested in the topic.

Let me give you an example: I have a Hungarian-language blog that is visited by very few people, considering that the topic is discussed in Hungary as a whole. Five hundred people are engaged.

So, the importance of the information is not determined by the number of clicks. Of course, likes and clicks inform and orient in general, but these numbers do not indicate the quality of the press, but how many people may be interested in a particular topic.

Therefore, from an ethical point of view, I think that the number of likes, and clicks is indifferent.

It would be decisive if you had the opportunity for the reader, the viewer, and the radio listener to declare how ethical, true, and honest the information is. But that’s not in the interest of social media, so neither Facebook nor Twitter think about it. In this matter, these publishers have no profit interest.

As for the other side of the issue: unfortunately, many journalists do not acknowledge or even know the rules of ethical journalism. Many have not even read the requirements of codes of ethics. This is especially true on social media, particularly Facebook. Of course, it is also understandable since those who write their posts and comments there are not journalists.

This raised another important question: this is the question of the moderator, the administrator.

Previously, the ethics body under my leadership published a statement that is consistent with press regulation. The editor in charge of that medium is responsible for everything that appears on that page.

To explain this, I would like to clarify an ethical, compliance issue:

Previously, when social media did not yet exist, the “reader’s letter” still existed. These letters were edited by the editor at the time. He highlighted or omitted parts of it, or corrected typos, so it could be printed in newspapers and magazines. So, the editor-in-chief was responsible for these as well as for everything else that was printed. So, it is not surprising to decide why the expectation in online media would be different? It must be understood that a reader’s letter is the same as a post or comment these days.

Thomas Barat as a guest speaker at Heti TV Chanel, Budapest: “In a democracy, freedom of speech and the freedom of the press are included in the constitution.”

Thomas Barat as a guest speaker at Heti TV Chanel, Budapest: “In a democracy, freedom of speech and the freedom of the press are included in the constitution.”

What is the importance of the Association and Club of Foreign Press Correspondents to advance the career of foreign reporters in the United States? 

There is an important thing in common, which I believe is the achievement of a common goal.

Ask ourselves the question: What is our role as a foreign correspondent? And the best answer to this is that It is the correspondent’s job to inform his audience realistically. The correspondent is in an observer position – outside the event, not participating in it. Reality means that reporting must be accurate in facts and data.

However, from an ethical and appropriateness point of view, I would like to add that the opinion of the correspondent cannot be written in the report, nor can the political orientation of the medium sending the correspondent appear.

However, understanding that it is extremely important that the correspondent’s person authenticates the report of the incident.

Public Relations has an important principle: this is the reputation principle. What appears in practice is that a person or organization uses someone else’s reputation for their own reputation?

In the case of press correspondents, this is to be interpreted as meaning that the acceptance and recognition – reputation – of a given correspondent determines how authentic the correspondence sent by him/her is accepted by the public.

The fact that someone is a member of the Association of Foreign Press Correspondents strengthens his/her reputation as a journalist because the AFC-USA membership gives an endorsement, that is, it helps his/her recognition, his/her acceptance.

Over these decades, what lessons have you learned from your career as a journalist and foreign correspondent?

There are quite a few lessons to be learned: The job of a journalist has become easier on the one hand and more difficult on the other over the last twenty years.

On the one hand, our work has become easier.

At a communications conference in Toronto in the early 1990s, one of the speakers said that the twentieth century is the computer century.

The computer makes journalistic work easier. And here is not only the task of publishing but also the task of writing articles.

The prophecy also stated that the twenty-first century would be the telephone century.

Just over twenty years have passed since this century, and it is clear how the telephone has become, on the one hand, an everyday work tool and, on the other hand, an essential source of work.

The phone makes the work of correspondence easier, as it is not only a typewriter, but also a voice recorder (it can also play the role of a Dictaphone), and of course a photo camera and a video camera, as well. Today, we can also easily create video reports with a high-quality smartphone.

On the other hand, on the content side of the profession, our work has become more difficult. Expectations are higher. We have been presented with a bigger, more serious performance by the public. This is especially true for us, the press correspondents. This was perceived by us journalists when it became possible for historical events, such as war, to be broadcast live on television.

Personally, I understood this when, in 1992, a CNN correspondent in the Middle East took me to the camera stand installed on top of one of the hotels that was used during the 1991 battle of Tel Aviv. I was able to take my own photos from the same camera angle, the now peaceful Tel Aviv.

The tasks also became more difficult with the spread of social media. We need to recognize that we need to compete not only with our colleagues but also with those who are untrained as journalists and who call themselves journalists. They can also make reports with their own smartphones. Even if not in a professional way, but in speed they have become competitors.

And this is a new challenge for us.

How do you want to help foreign correspondents become successful in their profession? What tips and advice would you like to share? 

My top tips and advice for prospective, novice communication professionals and journalism colleagues. Never forget your communication should always be transparent, true. I believe that the duty of a journalist is so simple: When you speak, what you say, should be always the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Only full and unvarnished truth. I know I am an idealist, but I think the press work (articles, reports, etc.) are like sworn testimonies. Journalists, in my view, work well when they commit to the truth. A journalist, and especially a correspondent, is like a witness who bears witness to the truth, without omission, decoration, or change.