Is ethical journalism possible in a contested place?
by Allan LEONARD
27 May 2019
At a public lecture event hosted by the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, at Queen’s University, Professor Steven Youngblood (Director, Center for Global Peace Journalism, Park University, Missouri) discussed the ethics of journalism in a contested place like Northern Ireland. Youngblood also spoke at Ulster University and held separate workshop sessions, all supported by the US Embassy.
Youngblood asked the room of practising journalists what they held as absolute ethics. Replies included: double-checking your facts, protecting your sources, and telling the truth.
He then reviewed the code of conduct guidelines by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). Item 8 says don’t accept bribes. But what if you live in an environment, like Moldova, where accepting a bribe means the difference of literally feeding your children. Kathryn Johnston, deputy editor of View Digital magazine, approached this another way — how the financial power of advertising can curtail story selection; she gave the example of how Northern Ireland newspapers’ receipt of Northern Ireland Assembly advertising placements correlated with the newspapers’ non-interest in a story about how the reduction of government funding resulted in the collapse of a women’s aid organisation. The journalist, Lyra McKee, had to seek out a newspaper outside Northern Ireland, Private Eye, to publish the article.
Youngblood also reviewed the editorial guidelines published by the BBC, including the item on reporting acts of criminality to the police. He gave us an example of where a Ugandan radio station, where combatants would ring in to demand that they broadcast where they were going to attack next. I replied with the still current practice in Northern Ireland of media outlets using codewords agreed with paramilitary actors, to verify call-ins of planned bombs and other security alerts. Professor John Brewer likened this to an institutionalisation of “rule-following violence” and argued that the worst atrocities during the Troubles occurred when the rules weren’t followed or otherwise broke down.
Unethical journalism was categorised by Youngblood as:
- Hate speech
Johnston remarked that during the Troubles, it was journalists who had to guard against warmongering by security services; she discussed a campaign called “Clockwork Orange”, which feed journalists false information. Youngblood described how the perpetuation of hate speech via Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines didn’t cause but certainly exacerbated the genocide in Rwanda. He also spoke about how the media can hype a story that leads to an irrational fear, such as the case of constant coverage of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 plane crash. Finally, partisanship and tribalism can be underlined by linguistic difference; at least most of media presentation in Northern Ireland is in a common language of English.
Youngblood then presented arguments for the case of peace journalism as a remedy.
He immediately acknowledged that “peace journalism” is a loaded term, with many misinterpreting it as an agenda-driven form of journalism. Youngblood responded that peace journalism is not about advancing an agenda of peace, but that it could lead to a discussion of peace and possible solutions in regards to how to live together:
“Peace journalism can facilitate conversations to help build bridges,” offered Youngblood.
A short definition of peace journalism is “when editors and reporters make choices that make peace more possible”, by the consideration of word choices and framing of the story. Providing context behind the news events is seen as crucial, as it can provide more than one dimension to the story. This is assisted by ensuring balance (reaching out beyond your own community), rejecting propaganda, and debunking stereotypes.
So why so much antagonism to the concept of peace journalism in Northern Ireland?
There was a discussion on the term “peace journalism” and its like, such as “conflict-sensitive journalism”, “solutions journalism”, and “constructive journalism”. Brewer distinguished between applying peace journalism in a context of conflict, where the objective is to end violence [“peacemaking journalism”?], versus a post-conflict context [“peacebuilding journalism”?], “where the job is learning to live together”. In the latter case, Brewer suggested the term “socially responsible journalism”. Youngblood informed the audience that there is a forthcoming book by the same title that explores all of these terms.
I dared to ask whether we were truly a “post-conflict” society — while we were not in outright violent conflict, our peace is a type of “negative peace”. Indeed, in the audience Sean Brennan said that we are more of a “post-ceasefire” society, marked at times by a “violent peace”. To put this into context, he added, peace journalism would investigate the social circumstances that contributed to the recent murder of Lyra McKee, but instead “there are vested interests that would rather wish to export Northern Ireland as a success story in peacemaking.”
So if the term “peace journalism” remains contentious, there appeared to be a consensus on its principles, especially as a productive means of developing dialogue for negotiated futures — “conflict transformation journalism”, if you will.
Regardless of its label, the motivation is for reporters and story tellers to be more cognisant of their actions. Words and context matter, especially so in contested spaces.