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The truth hurts - but should you be called a liar because you're doing your job?


Journalists are paid to reveal the truth, and to speak it. But increasingly, that’s a very dangerous thing to do, writes Rebecca Levingston

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When you ask questions for a living, you’re bound to annoy or upset someone.

“You’re a disgrace,” was one message I got this week from a listener. It was a text message in response to a question I’d asked. I was interviewing a private charter pilot who was picking up passengers from NSW to fly into Queensland now that border restrictions have relaxed.

I asked if she was vaccinated. The pilot declined to answer which is her prerogative. We continued the interview before respectfully saying goodbye.

I was grateful for her time and her candour. I didn’t think it was a disgraceful question to ask and I don’t think she did either.

Seeking answers to questions is key to a civilised society. Disagreement doesn’t necessarily mean failure.

Finding truth isn’t always easy. Listen to any interview with a politician and you’ll hear the verbal gymnastics in response. It’s never a reason to stop asking questions.

But recently there have been an increasing number of incidents where journalists are being met with aggression for doing their job. Or just getting coffee.

Last week, a colleague of mine at ABC was at a cafe in Mackay when a member of the public took exception with her workplace. Melanie Groves shared the exchange on Twitter.

“Everyone is allowed to have their opinions,” said Melanie, rather politely I thought.

This week in Melbourne a Channel 7 reporter was harassed outside Victorian Parliament by a group of people protesting COVID restrictions.

“Tell the truth,” one protestor yelled. “How do you sleep at night?”

Journalist Leigh Sales pointed out that Nick McCallum was being threatened for doing his job.

In Brisbane, TV journalists Jim Malo and Jessica Rendall were confronted by a gentleman (using the term loosely) at an anti-lockdown rally.

“Fake news,” was the cry. Credit to Donald Trump.

“Liars… should we form a bit of a circle around them?” Credit to Jim and Jess for walking away.

Intimidation and threats are now part of life for journalists. That should cause all of us to ask questions.

Opinion, expertise, facts and feelings are now swimming in the same information soup. You’d struggle to find a journalist who isn’t passionate about pursuing truth while reflecting the views of many. Sometimes the truth is tragic.

This week Walkley award winning journalist Mark Willacy shared extreme reactions to Rogue Forces, the book he wrote exposing Australian war crimes in Afghanistan. Disturbing.

One “reader” poured petrol on the book before setting it on fire. Another used Willacy’s work for target practice at a shooting range.

Audiences should absolutely ask questions, disagree, react and respond. That’s the sign of a healthy democracy in which journalists play an integral role.

But without respect, civility quickly unravels. What happens next? That’s up to everybody. Perhaps we can all help answer that question.

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