Media guidelines potential remedy for damaging past reportage
by Allan LEONARD
5 March 2019
The project team of “Victims and Dealing with the Past” at Queen’s University Belfast hosted a launch event of two complementary media guideline publications: one for victims and survivors of the Northern Ireland conflict on how to best engage with the media, and another for journalists, editors, and educators on how to best engage with victims and survivors and report on legacy issues.
Judith Thompson (Commissioner for Victims and Survivors) explained that the production of the guidelines is an output from the Queen’s project — Voice, Agency, and Blame: Victimhood and the Imagined Community in Northern Ireland — which was supported by CVS and the Victims and Survivors Forum.
Thompson saw these guidelines as “a significant source of empowerment and influence contributing to building a better future for victims and survivors and wider society”.
She also felt that the guidelines can encourage local and national media to develop “trauma-aware journalism that engages with victims and survivors in the spirit of profound dignity and respect that they need and deserve”.
Thompson shared that she has heard from individuals and families that media reporting of the past has caused anxiety and upset, particularly the use of imagery, choice of language, and factual inaccuracies. She wants reporting to be informed, diverse, balanced, and accurate, but especially victim-centred and victim-led.
She argued that adherence to these guidelines will be critically important in the months and years ahead, a period likely to be characterised by an increased frequency and level of scrutiny on historical investigations and information recovery relating to the many traumatic events of the Troubles.
Thompson also made the point that although the guidelines are not legally binding, “they represent good, practise-based advice that can support the wellbeing of victims as well as the journalists they engage with”.
Susan McKay addressed the audience by prerecorded video, speaking about her journalist experiences with victims and survivors of the Troubles. She is known for her book, Bear in Mind these Dead, which presents several stories of those whose perspective can be forgotten in the discussion of legacy and the past.
McKay said that ultimately journalism “depends upon the kindness of strangers” and that “without kindness, there would be no story”. She added that journalists have no right to expect kindness and thus must do justice to the stories that they receive.
Directing her comments to fellow journalists in the audience, McKay said:
“It is in the public interest to tell the stories of victims. Find truth where you can. Offer dignity and respect to victims and survivors.”
Lesley Veronica felt that the format of the guidelines, with specific advice and essential tips was very user friendly and got to the heart of the matter quickly and easily, without too much unnecessary reading or academic jargon.
She said that the importance of victims being able to talk for themselves is paramount:
“The tendency for organisations to speak on behalf of victims, often without any or only very limited authority, can lead to an unhelpful, narrow polarisation of victims issues, which leaves more nuanced voices out of the frame.”
However, in seeking such voices McKay pointed out in her presentation that there can be a conflict between victims groups organisations and journalists — the former seeing journalists as treating them as a dial-up victim’s catalogue and the latter seeing some victims groups organisations as gatekeepers for access.
Veronica continued by saying that when victims speak for themselves, they humanise the conflict, “and I personally see this as an important tool in preventing the glamorisation of conflict, which is always a risk amongst a generation who have no recollection of what it was actually like.”
She concluded by pointing out the guidelines’ reference to the need to ensure women are heard: “While the vast majority of victims were men, the vast majority of those left to pick up the pieces were women and … we have only just begun to unpick the many gendered impacts of the conflict.”
Veronica added by saying that women in Northern Ireland traditionally do not feel confident enough to speak out and are reluctant to do anything that may have negative consequences for themselves or their families: “The pressure to conform to often very sexist social norms can make it much more difficult for women to come forward … We have a rich reserve of personal experience that could be tapped into if women could be encouraged to share their stories and to recognise that their stories are important.” She hopes that the guidelines can help achieve this.
Paul Gallagher fully welcomed the new guidelines. For him, they represent not only setting out principles of do no harm, but as an inspiration for journalists and other media to do some good:
“I believe that they should counter the effects of ‘inappropriate earlier media coverage’ … with media coverage more suited to the needs of victims and survivors. They should tackle … ‘public indifference’ by helping the public to understand and empathise with those most affected. They should challenge the police who had earlier and are even now currently failing to investigate the crimes of the past in an effective human rights compliant fashion. They should shine a light on how the courts meted out further injustice upon those who sought accountability.”
Gallagher is seeking remedy for those who had been treated badly by the media in the past, by using the guidelines for a “more appropriate way of dealing with our fractured society”.
Here, he argued that he still wants journalists to do their job of the fourth estate — speaking truth to power — but to frame political issues for victims and not for governments. Gallagher noted that journalists rightfully won awards and plaudits for their investigative work into political corruption, incompetence, and duplicity, but run for cover under the security blankets of media neutrality and impartiality when it comes to reporting on the legacy of conflict:
“Instead, they should be partial when they see continuing injustice being meted out against those who have been harmed in the past. They should be focusing on the needs of the little old lady whose child was killed in the 1970s with the same vigour as they do for the little old lady who faces eviction from their nursing home.”
Gallagher called on journalists to use their power to “shine a bright light into the dark parts of our past”, in order to understand its harms, how it affects individuals, and to help rebuild a future that we can all be proud of.
Alan Brecknell continued this thought by saying that journalists should see the opportunity to speak with survivors as empowering for their own work.
He offered his own advice for journalists, such as checking in with your interviewee post-interview, as a matter of common courtesy. But also to look after yourself: “Don’t get immune to your work.”
Brecknell said that he sees more people who will want to come forward to tell their story, for a variety of reasons: “We need to be aware of this, whether as journalists or oral historians.”
He shared his experience of telling his story through the Theatre of Witness programme, which has run a series of playhouse performances by victims and survivors as the actors: “We can’t give everyone a Theatre of Witness experience, but we should give everyone opportunities to tell their stories.”
Kieran McEvoy moderated the Q&A session. The first question was, “If journalists don’t adhere to existing media guidelines, why would they adhere to these guidelines?” The response was an appeal to a sense of professionalism and that they serve to establish good practice and standard. For interviewees, the guidelines could serve as a good opening question, “Have you read these guidelines?”
Philip Bradfield (News Letter) explored how some of his newspaper’s readership take issue with the statutory definition of a victim. McEvoy explained that they had to have a definition, and the statutory one is the one that they are using, “but people are free to campaign against it”. Veronica added that victims themselves are not going to agree a definition; the statutory definition “is our starting point”. Gallagher asked, “What’s the innocent victim?” He described how his innocent status was removed by journalist misinterpretation, inaccuracies, and context.
Bradfield also asked about the situation whereby an interviewee’s language could be interpreted as carrying hurt (in contravention of the guidelines). Does this impinge on freedom of speech? The response was that it is a disservice if racist and sectarian statements go unchallenged, even if made by a victim. Rather, Veronica and Brecknell said that the guidelines are more about encouraging hitherto silent voices with practical advice.
The use of imagery in news stories was mentioned by several times. McEvoy explained that legally, you can go to the owner of the image (who holds copyright) and request that image is removed/not used, out of respect for the victim’s family. It was noted that for other images, copyright is unknown. There are also the pressures to produce an image for a story, regardless of source. Allison Morris (Irish News), in the audience, noted the competing desires of a particular image — what one family member may find painful another relative may purposefully wish to have shown, for impact. She suggested that any interviewee offer a more desirable image that they would be happy to be shown.
Morris made a final remark that summed up the launch event well:
“The fact is that vengeful [victims’] voices want to be heard. They may not be lovely, but they answer the phone. Let’s use these guidelines to encourage new voices and match them up with journalists using the guidelines.”