September 19, 2016

Cătălin Tolontan on the ethics of journalism and the future of media

Cătălin Tolontan is one of the best known and most awarded investigative and sports journalists in Romania. Here are some of his principles on work and ethics.

Cătălin Tolontan has loved football since he can remember and believes sports has always played a decisive role in his life. He likes to say that books taught him what was right, while sports got him out of trouble whenever he didn’t follow the advice in books. After failing twice to pass his Law School admission, he got a job at the National IT Research Center, where he started writing football articles for the newspaper on a wall next to the elevator. In 1990, Tolontan started his journalism career at the student newspaper of the School of Commerce from the Bucharest University of Economic Studies. He worked for several sports newspapers and since 2001 he is the editor-in-chief and general manager of Gazeta Sporturilor.

Over the last 10 years, Tolontan and his colleagues worked on several high profile journalistic investigations, exposing corruption either in Romanian football clubs or involving high officials in key governmental institutions. Monica Iacob-Ridzi, former Minister of Youth and Sport, was removed from her position and prosecuted, following a 2009 investigation in Gazeta Sporturilor. Another investigation regarding the illegal financing of the Bute Gala lead to the formal prosecution in early 2015 of several people, including the former Minister of Tourism, Elena Udrea.

Following the fire at Colectiv Club on the 30th of October 2015, Cătălin Tolontan, Mirela Neag and Răzvan Luțac from Gazeta Sporturilor started what was to become the most important investigation in the national healthcare system in the last 20 years. It uncovered a corrupt system and tens of hospitals all over the country that were afflicted by nosocomial infections because of the dilution of sanitizers.

Tolontan speaks often about the future of media in the digital world and believes that the strategies upon which media corporations are currently being lead will bring about the vanishing of print newspapers – ”and this does not mean we are postmodern – as we might imagine -, anticipatory, avant-garde. We are rudimental. Newspapers will be gone because we can no longer produce reliable information, not because we are cutting-edge and we’re moving all information in the digital area.”

Part of his investigations’ success is based on the emphasis Tolontan places on ethics and on the relationship with sources and the audience. Here are some of his principles:

  • We are honest with our sources, very honest – from the beginning. There is a lot of “administration” to be done with them. It is a “human administration” that we still have to do for the following months. We cannot leave those people behind. And they use to call us and tell us all their theories, and you have to listen to them. Our readers only see the result: but what doesn’t come out is twice as more. The level of failure is somehow directly connected to the level of success. Behind every successful article there are some that did not work out.
  • Ethics is never charismatic, it has no charm, it does not sell, it is not spectacular in any way and yet it is continually being applied by many; by people that don’t know they’re applying it, even though they are extremely attached to rules and to the way a profession is done. […] Ethics is actually not something vague, it means internalizing and respecting the norms that you do not invent, but that come from a profound human experience of the guilds in this world.
  • “When the lights are out, when everybody goes one way, you go the other.” The best pictures from the Olympic Games are those of the photographer who goes left and up when everyone else goes right and down or who will find something unexpected on their way to the locker rooms.
  • If you focus on what the others – your competitors – are doing, you lose a great deal of energy and you can lose focus of what you have to do. When you start investigating others’ investigations, you are wrong. When you’re paying a lot of attention to what the rest is doing, you won’t be able to use the necessary energy to satisfy the people for whom you write.
  • [Through writing] I did not change governments, I did not send people to jail, I did not bring money to the [national] budget, because it’s not my business to do that. I only signaled some things. But I did do something: I remember a message someone posted on the blog saying that he likes the fact that, in our most strenuous times, we try to keep a dose of humanity and nuance. We try to be rational and look for the grain of humanity in every blunt situation. Every happening, however geometrical, has a dose of story in it. I believe this is part of journalism’s mission.
  • I am not sure that the journalist profession has said its last word. I believe that we have become excessively preoccupied with the question “on which platform will we express ourselves: internet or paper? Glossy paper or high-definition TV?”.. After all, it is not our business, as journalists, to worry about this. Our mission is to continue doing our job while holding tight to our principles. If we will hold tight to them, in such an atomized world, I believe that people will keep listening to our stories. And I believe that the true story creators will still have something to say.
  • I still have this irrational belief that people need to listen to their peers’ stories so they can identify with their own story. I am optimistic! I don’t believe that journalism will disappear. The danger is not that the press might disappear, but that we might dissolve the rules, leaving behind something that will still be called press. Those objects flying in the air not caring for the safety of the passengers are not called airplanes, but bombs. Abandoning journalistic principles is inconceivable in the democratic world. In Romania though, the risk is that it might become a general thing.