Interview with Allan Thompson, professor of journalism at Carleton University and editor of the book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide.
The 1994 Rwanda genocide is undeniably one of the most atrocious events in recent history. But during the most tragic, deadly days in the small African nation in 1994, most media organizations failed to report on the events. Even worse, Rwanda’s own RTLM radio station actually incited people to commit mass killings.
In The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, scholars, journalists, and lawyers – including retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire who led the UNAMIR mission – present their own perspectives on the media and the events. Allan Thompson is the editor of The Media and the Rwanda Genocide.
Francis Plourde met with him during his stay in Vancouver, where he spoke about the media’s responsibility in the genocide. Thompson worked for 17 years for the Toronto Star and now teaches journalism at Carleton University. He is also the founder of the Rwanda Initiative, a partnership with the National University of Rwanda.
You had a long career as a journalist at the Toronto Star before taking an academic turn and focusing on Rwanda. How did you become interested in Rwanda in the first place?
I was not in Rwanda in 1994. At the time, I was at the foreign affairs bureau in Ottawa for the Toronto Star. It should have been my job to go there, but I didn’t. I was not engaged, the story didn’t capture my attention. Since then, I think I have been trying to make amends for not having been there in 1994. I went for the first time in 1996, to report on the repatriation of Hutu refugees. Back in Canada in 1996, I made it my mission to know more about Roméo Dallaire and to write about him.
You’re here to promote your book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. What are the main lessons readers should take from this book?
People were made familiar with the [Rwandan] media’s responsibility in the genocide through the “media trial” [against RTLM], but not enough attention was drawn to the role of the western media in 1994. They are part of the equation. The international community missed the most important story that year, even though there was compelling evidence of what was going on. In the US, we were covering the OJ Simpson trial and Tonia Harding’s story. In South Africa, it was the end of the Apartheid. There was still a war in the Balkans. When the media left [Rwanda] in April 1994, the killings intensified immediately. In physics, there’s the Heisenberg effect – a theory according to which the observer influences the behavior of his subject. I believe the media can have the same impact. In 1994, by not reporting the story, the international media contributed to the inverse. The perpetrators could act with impunity.
The media seem to share a great deal of the criticism…
Some journalists could do a good job, but the media at large failed to make it the big story of the day. In April and early May, there was no coverage. But in April 1994, 8,000 to 10,000 people were killed every day! Later, in July, hundreds of news organizations covered what was going on in Rwanda to some degree – the elections in South Africa were over then — but they were covering the story of the refugees. The problem is that people think it was the story of the genocide. It wasn’t. We have to go back and look more closely at the process of selecting what is news and what is not, because it was not always logical.
You also say that the media misunderstood the nature of the killings in Rwanda. They portrayed it an instance of tribal warfare rather than a genocide. What’s the difference?
In the news coverage, there was a sense of two ethnic groups killing each other indiscriminately. But it was a fairly organized massacre of one group by another one. It’s still a massacre, but it’s different. Mark Doyle [the east Africa correspondent in 1993-1994 for the BBC, who wrote a chapter in Thompson’s book] states that there were clear references to government-backed massacres in the first couple of days of the killings. [Doyle] was one of the first to use the word genocide, at the end of April, but he started reporting it initially as chaos and indiscriminate killings. The recognition of the genocide gave it a sense of morality.
You also refer to RTLM – its leaders were convicted in 2003 – to explain how media failed. How can we set rules to avoid another RTLM?
RTLM is probably the most extreme case of media failure. It was a radio station that was specifically created to spark the genocide. They had good music, they were different from Radio Rwanda, and they incited the population to hate the Tutsis and commit murders. Roméo Dallaire was aware of the impact of RTLM, but for some reason his mission had no media capacity. Now, most of the UN missions have their own radio stations to counter the effects of these messages. I’m reluctant to suggest that we regulate the media, but we have to try to build a professional media, so the extreme media are marginalized. I’d rather add something than take something away; it’s easier and it’s less problematic.
Carleton University created the Rwanda Initiative in 2004. Can you describe its main objectives?
In 2003, I went to Rwanda as a freelancer, and I organized a conference at Carleton University. I invited someone from Rwanda [to talk about the state of journalism in Rwanda]. We agreed that we should continue to work on something after the conference. He said there weren’t enough teachers to teach journalism in Rwanda. It’s how the Rwanda Initiative started. We sent 12 journalists and 12 journalism students last year. And we intend to do the same this year.
You went to Rwanda to help train media in 2006. How was the experience?
It’s still fragile. The media will report about the ministers and the policies, but they won’t criticize the president [Paul Kagamé – who was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1994] directly. Despite the self-censorship and lack of professors, though, I have hope that things can get better. There are good students, and I hope they do good journalism.
With movies being filmed and books getting published, the Rwanda genocide is getting a momentum, but the media seem less likely to point out the events in Darfur. Are we repeating the same mistakes?
We have not fully absorbed the lessons from the genocide yet. At the technological level, we are in a much better position for Darfur than for Rwanda. In 1994, we didn’t have a phone network, and we didn’t have the Internet. But there are still the same problems. There are no journalists there, it’s far away, the resources for international reporting in the newsroom have decreased. There are only four or five Canadian journalists covering Africa: the Globe and Mail, CBC, CTV, Radio-Canada, and that’s about it. There is no other full-time journalism devoted to Africa.
How can we, as journalists, prevent another event like the Rwanda genocide?
With the 24-hour news trend, it’s becoming harder and harder to bring an issue onto the news agenda, but I think that individual journalists have to be more influential. They have to try to make a difference themselves. They have to fight for their stories rather than being passive players.
Here’s a news flash: the wheels of justice turn slowly. If you’ve spent any time covering the courts, you’ve seen ample evidence of this fact. The result? Trials are drawn out, alleged criminals are tapped out (lawyers don’t come cheap, after all), and victims are out-and-out amazed that they’ve been drawn into a system that can intrude on their lives for years on end as a case makes its way from initial investigation to last avenue of appeal. This slow march to completion of a criminal case or civil dispute is one of the most criticized aspects of the legal system.
That’s not to say that a slow, methodical process is by definition a bad one–work refined over the course of years can benefit greatly as a result. Professor Dean Jobb’s text Media Law for Canadian Journalists is an example of instructive and engaging writing, borne and developed over time. The ideas and methodology that inform the book are drawn from Dean’s 15 years of teaching media law and justice system fundamentals to students in the journalism program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, and more than 20 years as an award-winning newspaper reporter.
Before the accolades, let me provide a necessary bit of disclosure: This text is required reading in the course I currently teach at King’s College – I picked up where Dean left off, teaching “The News Media & the Courts.” I’ve known Dean Jobb for more than a decade, back when we both covered the criminal courts.
I only wish I had this text back then–it’s only now, with the benefit of hindsight (and a law degree) that I realize how little I knew when I was first sent to court. I had no training, and had never even seen the inside of a courtroom prior to covering my first high-profile trial. My experience is not unique. Despite the complexity of legal proceedings and the potential for costly and damaging errors due to inaccurate reportage, the court beat is often thrust upon neophyte reporters. Media Law for Canadian Journalists is an invaluable reference for journalists who cover the courts and journalists who want to stay OUT of court – that is, not getting sued or cited for contempt.
Dean is particularly adept at figuring out how much detail his audience needs to understand a significant bit of case law or legal principle. But he resists the temptation to get bogged down in the abysmally arcane aspects of legal reasoning. After all, this is a text for journalists, not lawyers.
The text covers the basics of how the courts function, including the distinction between criminal and civil law, and the nature, scope and function of different types of publication bans; how to avoid getting sued for defamation or cited for contempt of court, as well how to gain access to hearings, documents and records.
When it comes to reporting on court proceedings, there’s little that’s intuitive, so Dean educates his readers through real-life examples, showing where reporters’ assumptions of what was happening and why caused them to miss the point entirely. Among the many common misapprehensions and mistakes laid bare by the text are the following:
- Reporting on the maximum sentence that may be imposed for a crime without ensuring that readers understand that the maximum is rarely imposed, since it is reserved for the most serious situations and worst offenders;
In a criminal trial, there’s nothing shocking, surprising, or even unusual about the fact that an accused person may not take the stand in their own defense. After all, it’s up to the Crown to prove the case against the accused. The accused does not have the responsibility of disproving the Crown’s case; and
When criminal charges against an accused person do not proceed because a court determines that evidence was obtained in a way that violated the accused’s Charter rights, reporters should not frame this as “a mere technicality.” Holding police to the standards set out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is of benefit to us all.
If, at a minimum, all new crime and justice reporters were required to read the chapters that explain how the courts work, and how to cover the criminal courts, the most common blunders would be avoided.
One critical lesson the text brings home to my students is that they may well face legal challenges or problems from Day One on the job. These issues aren’t solely the concern of investigative journalists or highly-placed newsroom decision-makers. The most routine of assignments may give rise to an opportunity to challenge an existing law or policy or, conversely, to find oneself in contempt or facing a defamation action. One striking example Dean uses to make this point is that of a local newspaper reporter assigned to cover a police sergeant’s remarks at a conference, where the sergeant spoke of possible connections between Hells’ Angels and two small-town Nova Scotia motorcycle groups. The reporter diligently reported the officer’s comments–undoubtedly operating under the misapprehension that all was safe. I mean, the officer said it himself, didn’t he? And then, to make the story even sexier, the editor who reviewed the story (who was also apparently oblivious to the defamatory nature of the sergeant’s comments) set up the story with the following headline: “Watch Out For Big-Time Crime: Criminal Gangs Affect Us All, Police Warn.”
Dean effectively employs this example as a jumping-off point for an explanation of the murky area of defamation law that is as lucid and accessible as any I’ve ever read. This career journalist doesn’t let his years in the reporting trenches colour his assessment of defamation law. Many members of the media (as well as the lawyers who represent them) often fret about “libel chill,” a concept Jobb defines as one in which “important stories are toned down or ignored for fear of attracting an expensive defamation suit.” Let me be clear: Prof. Jobb has little time for these whiners; instead, he tells journalists to suck it up (OK, those are my words, not his) and to practice their craft more effectively. They should do so not by living in fear of lawsuits, but by using the integral intellectual tools of skepticism, restraint, and precision.
Maybe it’s because Dean is exercising the very restraint he preaches, or perhaps it’s that I’m more cynical than he, but I do believe the text is lacking a frank description of how some of the major players in the system tend to view the media. I know judges, lawyers, and court support staff who understand the role of media in a free and democratic society. I have observed and, in some cases, met and interviewed victims, plaintiffs and defendants in high-profile civil cases and even criminal accused who likewise understand their role in the public sphere.
But, during my time covering the courts, I have also had many negative interactions. I have been confronted gatekeepers who act capriciously, who are motivated by self-interest, who ignore the role of media as public surrogate, or who are simply irked that the media are intruding on THEIR turf. I’ve heard learned judges suggest that my work is solely about my self-interest in garnering more viewers, or crafting more inflammatory headlines–not about informing people and shining a bright light on a system that is of concern to us all. I have had to bite my tongue as I listen to yet another lawyer make yet another sweeping statement about the nature of media–observations based on a single experience with “some reporter” (there’s never a name–reporters are all alike to them) many years ago. I’ve been spit on (and yes, I mean that literally) by criminal defendants, and jostled and threatened by their supporters in court house foyers.
Covering the court beat is fascinating. The issues are challenging, and the stories are rife with human drama. For journalists who understand their role as educators, it can be a satisfying environment in which to learn, and to share. But it’s often not a pleasant environment. I’m not sure that Media Law for Canadian Journalists paints an appropriately accurate/bleak a picture of the environment many new legal affairs reporters will face. But, hey, they’ll sort that out on their own soon enough, won’t they?
When my students eventually face that reality, they will have the tools, and the understanding of how the system works, thanks to Dean’s efforts. I anticipate this text will sit on their desks, closely-guarded and well-thumbed, as they make their own way through the system.
On his most recent visit to Afghanistan in June, Jas Johal met a 27-year-old soldier from Kingston, Ont.
The soldier was married with a two-year-old son and expressed dedication to his mission.
The two clicked right away and struck up a friendship, said Johal, a television reporter for Global BC. At the end of his six-week stay with the troops in the Kandahar airfield, Johal packed up his belongings, said his goodbyes and left to return to Canada.
On July 4, six Canadian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were killed when their armoured vehicle hit a roadside bomb. After a detour on his return journey that cut him off from the news, Johal arrived home in Vancouver to find out one of the dead soldiers was his friend, Capt. Matthew Dawe.
“There was only a month left before [Dawe] was going to go home,” Johal said. “For the first time, it really hit me.”
Johal realized he had significant footage of Dawe out on patrol and decided to put together a segment about the soldier. It aired on Global National and implied a close relationship between the two men.
“You do your best to provide an accurate, objective view of what’s happening there,” he said. “But it affects you.”
Johal’s experience getting to know Dawe and sharing his story with the world isn’t necessarily characteristic of journalists reporting from Afghanistan, who do their best to maintain some distance from their subjects. But reporters sent to the conflict live directly with the troops, who in turn feed them and give them a place to sleep, write and edit. Journalism ethics are a constant issue because journalists must report critically and objectively on the soldiers who work to keep them alive and have to navigate the wishes of military public officials who make it tricky to tell the whole story.
“In a perfect world, you’d want to live separately,” Johal said. “That’s the toughest part. We go on patrol with these troops. You’re there to ask critical questions, but at the same time, they are responsible for your safety and security.”
Reporters who take a hard line with their interview subjects or pursue controversial stories can’t help but wonder if their tactics will result in decreased access to patrols and meetings.
Johal said it’s only natural to expect journalists embedded with troops to produce stories about soldiers, but these journalists also have a responsibility to expand their coverage.
This sometimes means hiring a fixer – a local guide and translator – in Kandahar and taking to the streets without protection.
“When we’re gone, we’re on our own,” Johal said. “We’re in the city doing interviews as much as possible. We do make a conscious effort to go out. You need to be on the front lines.”
Reporters might make the extra effort to find the untold story, but it’s the responsibility of their newspapers and networks at home to release the content, said Chris Waddell, an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“The ironic situation is that reporters might actually end up giving a sanitized version of war because legs that are blown off or incinerated, those images are deemed too disturbing to put on TV,” Waddell said.
Still, the concept of embedded journalists has been around since World War II, he said, and reporters today enjoy significantly more freedom in what they can print or show on TV.
“In embedded situations, you can’t report on issues of military significance and you can’t report on things that might benefit whoever the enemy might be,” Waddell said. “You can’t report on casualties before the family has been notified.”
Jonathan Fowlie, a Vancouver Sun reporter who spent six weeks in Afghanistan in the spring reporting for CanWest News Service, said it isn’t uncommon for military public affairs officers to recommend stories or ride along with journalists on patrol.
“There were a few times where I wrote things I was told not to write,” Fowlie said of the military’s close watch on the stories he pursued. “There was a bit of a distressing trend I wasn’t all that happy with.”
When one public affairs officer was unable to accompany Fowlie on a patrol, he asked Fowlie to email him his story before it was published so he might check for factual inaccuracies.
After a talk with his editor, Fowlie agreed to send his story to the officer and the CanWest News Service desk in Ottawa at the same time. When that officer came back with requests that he take out a quote and change the wording in a couple of paragraphs, Fowlie said no. Without any factual errors or details that might put the troops in danger, he wasn’t about to change the story.
“I told him, ‘I don’t feel anything you’ve asked for is valid,’” Fowlie said. “I printed it and it was fine. And the issue was, if you want to go out with the troops you have to go through [that officer]. I just didn’t like it.”
Fowlie knew his desk in Ottawa was ready to back him up, in case his decision to publish the story got him kicked out of his post.
“What if I had a desk that wasn’t willing to back me?” he said. “If you stand on principle and get kicked out, it means your papers don’t have coverage. And you have to live with that. My desk was behind me 100 per cent. I think most desks are like that.”
If there is a scandal in the making of the best-selling non-fiction book of 1966, it’s not about the facts contained in the 368 pages of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Virtually every detail about the brutal murder of the Clutter family has stood up to forty years of scrutiny. When it comes to Capote, the devil is not in the details; it’s in how he got to those details in the first place.
Capote lied to his interview subjects, defiled the corpses of the murder victims, arranged for legal representation for two cold-blooded killers, and may have even fallen in love with one of them. For Capote, the end justified his unscrupulous means, and he surely sent a message to some aspiring journalists over the years.
The film “Capote” hit theaters this winter just as The New York Times was parting with its reporter Judith Miller, largely over her inaccurate stories about Iraq’s weapons capabilities. Discredited journalists such as Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass have become household names, epitomizing the very worst of journalistic ambition. To some, the events portrayed in “Capote” represent the beginning of the end, the top of that slippery slope down which the profession of journalism has slid.
Capote, portrayed brilliantly by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, travels to a world both familiar and foreign to the Southern-born writer who had grown accustomed to the high life in New York. Hoffman does a dead-on Capote, with his high-pitched voice and a flamboyance that might even shock today’s more gay-friendly culture. It must have been downright unbelievable in the Eisenhower era. He and childhood friend Nell Harper Lee roll into Holcomb, a small Kansas prairie town, to report on the murder of a well-regarded farmer, Herb Clutter, his wife Bonnie, and two of their children, Nancy and Kenyon. The murder has clearly shaken up the community, and soon Capote will shake things up further.
PETER W. KLEIN is the CanWest Global Visiting Professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Journalism. For the past seven years, he was a producer at CBS News 60 Minutes, where he won several awards including an Emmy. He previously worked as a producer at ABC News, and as a print and radio reporter throughout Europe.
He has a Masters Degree from Columbia University and Bachelors degrees in philosophy, science and economics from Pennsylvania State University. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and three children.
In the police station, Capote has a confrontation with a local cop, not over police procedure or access to information, but over fashion. Noting that the detective was staring at his clearly-out-of-town scarf, Capote boasts: “Bergdorf’s.” A few beats later, the officer tips his hat to the writer and says: “Sears Roebuck.”
But Capote really gets the police stirred when he confesses that he is there to portray how this murder has affected the community, not the search for the killers. “Oh, I don’t really care if you catch them or not,” Capote says to Alvin Dewey, the lead detective and a close friend of Mr. Clutter’s. “I do,” shoots back Dewey, portrayed matter-of-factly by Chris Cooper.
What attracted Capote to the small Kansas town in the first place was the affliction that affects all good writers, the pervasive hunt for the next great story. The movie, directed by Bennett Miller and written by Dan Futterman, begins with Capote in New York scanning the paper and settling on the headline-grabbing tale of the Clutter murders. He phones his editor at the New Yorker and says he’s found his next assignment.
After having written Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Grass Harp, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and several successful films to his credit, Capote was looking for more. Making up characters and stories seemed, perhaps, too easy, but finding real characters with real stories brought an immediacy and truthfulness that the public was ready to devour. Shortly after the book came out, Capote told the famous editor George Plimpton that a “journalistic novel” was brewing inside him, “something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose.” He discovered what the rest of us real journalists figured out a long time ago – that fact can be far more interesting than fiction.
The film conveys Capote’s journalistic adventure. When Capote’s articles about the Clutters first appeared in print, as a multi-part series for the New Yorker, it was a sensation; readers were glued to the pages, and kept coming back week after week. Despite the success, the magazine’s legendary editor, William Shawn, reportedly hated Capote’s portrayal of the Clutter murders, and many prominent writers at the time agreed. Lewis Lapham, writing about this post-Cold Blood era of so-called “New Journalism,” called Capote and the writers who followed in his footsteps “a crowd of self-important Pharisees; the books (including In Cold Blood). . . I would name as the first spawn of the synthetic melodrama that leads, more or less directly, to Oprah and Geraldo.”
It is an appropriate comparison, given that, by 1959, Capote was a regular on the talk show circuit. What really distinguished the successful novelist and screenwriter as an up-and-coming journalist wasn’t so much his tenacity or his reporting skills, but rather his fame. Capote flashed his name like a press pass, gaining access to the two killers in prison that no other reporter could get.
With fame, though, came fault. At the party celebrating his friend Harper Lee’s successful movie portrayal of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Capote could think only of himself, and reveals one of the many cracks in his ethical code of conduct, lamenting that the two killers’ death-row appeals are delaying the ending of his book. Lee smiles, disappointedly, then turns away.
Lee is the moral centre of this film and, one can imagine, for the real Capote’s life. In Holcomb, she smoothes over Capote’s social faux pas. But while we see her doing much of the initial legwork in Kansas, it’s Capote who walks into the funeral home and opens the caskets of the dead family members, examining their severed faces which were blown off by the killer’s rifle. Lee keeps her hands clean; Capote gets them dirty.
A defining clue of Capote’s ethical barometer comes when he spies one of the two killers, Perry Smith, in a small cell in the sheriff’s quarters. Smith, played by Clifton Collins Jr., asks Capote for an aspirin. The writer struggles with the request, but eventually brings him the pill. “I could kill you if you got too close,” Smith jokes, but Capote doesn’t blink. Soon, we see the writer feeding the young inmate baby food after Smith goes on a hunger strike in jail.
At what point Capote crosses that fuzzy line is unclear, but, by the end of the film, one has the distinct sense he has left it far behind. Does bringing porno to Smith’s more violent partner, Dick Hickock, constitute an ethical breach? What about encouraging Smith to keep a journal, knowing full well Capote planned to read it? How about hiding the transparent title from the two killers,leading them to believe he is writing about their unjust trial?
Despite Capote’s access to the murderers, neither man has told the writer any details about the murder. The author realizes he needs time to draw it out of Smith, the gentler of the two, so he tells stories of his own childhood, which is strangely similar to Smith’s. He even marvels at one point, “It’s as if Perry and I grew up in the same house. One day, I went out the front door and he went out the back.” At times, the film suggests Capote has a crush on the macho killer, and it seems oddly reciprocal. While he drops off smut magazines in front of Hickock’s cell, he brings novels to Smith, who looks forward to discussing literature with the illustrious author.
However, by the time Smith and Hickock are convicted of the murders and sentenced to death, Capote still doesn’t have a firsthand account of the night of the killings. So he arranges for some prominent lawyers to represent the two convicted killers’ appeal in a bald-faced attempt to delay their inevitable hanging, so Capote can get the “money quote”.
It’s hard to imagine that the New Yorker sanctioned this obvious breach of journalistic conduct, but Capote was no ordinary journalist. Just as Judy Miller got away with her front-page reports about Iraq’s supposed weapons, and Bob Woodward successfully hid his involvement in the Valerie Plame inquiry, so Truman Capote was apparently able to throw the weight of his name around and get just what he wanted.
People like Woodward once represented all that’s good in journalism, and Hollywood loved it. “All The President’s Men” was a big hit, and painted a picture of reporters as heroes. So did “The Killing Fields,” about a crusading foreign correspondent in Cambodia, and “Deadline U.S.A.,” in which Humphrey Bogart plays a heroic newspaper publisher (written and directed, oddly enough, by Richard Brooks, who made the film version of “In Cold Blood”).
Someone in Hollywood must have seen a recent Gallup Poll in which barely half of respondents said they trusted the media. “Capote” capitalizes on that distrust. Indeed, it seems to be the right time for this film.
Perhaps the greatest hindrance to the development of a global journalism ethic is the inherent complexity of the concept. Two recently published texts in journalism ethics, one written by Canadian Nick Russell and the other by South African journalist Franz Kruger, underline this problem. The goals of the authors are similar, but their approaches diverge tremendously.
Russell, writing primarily for journalism students in this second edition of his well-used textbook, uses an interrogative style to focus his readers’ attention on the practical issues of the day. Ethical philosophy is generally absent, ousted by more practical musings on untrusting (and hard-to-please) publics, demanding advertisers, and the looming “bottom line.”
Kruger’s text is written for the practicing journalists of a newly liberated South African press. Free expression is so novel that the central theme in Black, White and Grey is outlining the (possibly idealistic) truth-spreading, myth-busting responsibilities of free-press journalists. The commodification of news that dominates Russell’s text is minimized. Instead, Kruger addresses journalistic ethics in terms of the duties inherent in the profession, rather than the decisions journalists are forced to make by the practicalities of the industry. As a South African, he writes from a background of longstanding civil unrest and decade of racial hatred. His book “attempts to measure the traditional standards of journalism against the demands of a changing society.” It was born of a debate over national transformation, and he sees journalism’s role as vital in that social and national task.
Despite the great differences in style and tone, Russell and Kruger adhere to the same basic principles and standards of media ethics, but they disagree on how and to what degree these standards can be attained. Both Kruger, a university professor, and Russell, a former professor, have distinguished histories as journalists, and they have spent a great deal of time immersed in discussions over journalistic integrity. Kruger certainly believes in a global journalistic ethic that would link South African journalism to Europe and North America, and Russell embraces the idea that as more voices participate in news more news will be successfully transmitted. Fundamentally, both authors aspire to a journalism unbiased by monetary enticements, racial, social, or religious prejudices, or government interest.
But beyond this basic understanding, the ethics of the two authors – and perhaps the two nations – part ways. The economic interests that sometimes seem to blind Russell’s ethics are conversely a blind spot for Kruger. In this divergence, the authors lay bare the shortfalls of each other’s conception of the ethical ideal. Russell’s audience is a public sphere that encompasses diverse interests, all of which must be considered in order to maintain circulation levels. Kruger’s audience is charged with regrouping and rejecting biases, regardless of public resistance or financial hardship.
“Money dominates journalism,” Morals and the Media proclaims. This fairly narrow view dominates Russell’s assessment of media ethics. News organizations compete for audiences, are owned by large corporations, and subsist on funds from advertisers. Russell notes that this may be problematic, but it remains questionable as to how journalists can maintain the ethical high ground if, as Russell notes, newsrooms must divide their loyalty between the public and the paycheck writers.
Given its economic pessimism, Russell’s Morals is extremely useful as a depiction of the issues that face Canadian journalists. It addresses – at least cursorily – almost every ethical obstacle from sexual bias to public distrust to financial woes. Russell emphasizes the public’s response more than the journalist’s duties. Morals is less about the ethical decisions involved in news-making than it is about news-making decisions in light of public ethics. He is pessimistic about the financial pressures on journalists and news organizations, and he believes that public money decides the news agenda more authoritatively than reporters and editors do. He councils his readers to be sensitive to what the public is ready to see, in terms of gender issues, race issues, and violence. Economics, emotion, and media-public relations are at the heart of his text.
In light of that economic pressure, Russell’s ethics reflect a public sense of propriety, because papers that displease the community won’t sell. His chapter title sums up his position concisely: “Bitch, bitch, bitch: news consumer’s prime complaints.” The complaints primarily address accuracy, fairness, sensationalism, and sensitivity. Russell, perhaps wishing to stay detached from his subject, does not let on that he finds these complaints reasonable. Instead, he notes that journalists can never “get it right” for everyone, and someone will always be disappointed with coverage of an event.
Russell promotes the idea of community involvement to fill the gap between the public and the news media. Civic journalism, empowering the public to make news, is among the options (and the option he favoured in the book’s 1994 first edition). Also recommended are peer condemnation, codes, and journalism reviews. Traditional journalism cannot stand alone; there must be a multimedia response. This, Russell claims, will help mitigate the public’s distrust for news media. It was surprising that Russell does not address the other possible effect of civic journalism: elevating the level of debate on important social issues.
Kruger’s approach to journalism stems from the opposite standpoint. The purpose of journalism ethics in Black, White and Grey is to edify a socially and financially stratified nation that has only a burgeoning understanding of democratic principles. He addresses journalism ethics in terms of public needs rather than public desires. Kruger stresses the journalist’s ethical duty to help remedy race issues, combat misogyny, and disperse dangerous rumors. When the press plays such a proactive role in society, it changes the basis for ethical decisions. He exemplifies this in his explanation of film footage aired as apartheid was breathing its last. The footage showed “rebels” shooting two AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, South Africa’s white supremacist right-wing political group) members at point-blank-range when their car, affixed with the Nazi-like flag, was stopped by the Defense Force. Despite the harm to the men’s families, “the significance of the incident was such as to make it unthinkable to withhold the footage. The hapless AWB men were caught up in a historic moment, and their tragedy was no longer private.” This type of coverage seems to run counter to Russell’s ‘saying’: “If in doubt, leave it out.” The ethical issue is not a matter distasteful imagery but of a hateful regime overthrown.
Death is a reality to any South African old enough to remember apartheid, so squeamishness is ethically important for Kruger. When he addresses AIDS, he addresses the responsibility of a journalist with a sniffle to cancel an interview with an HIV positive patient. This is not the sensitivity of semantics, but the sensitivity of humanity. When Russell addresses AIDS, he breezes over the semantics of copy (the section starts with the journalistic history of the word “condom” and goes little further). In Russell’s chapter on dishonesty, he includes April Fools pranks. Kruger’s discussion of lying includes toddlers being raped after rumors spread that sex with a virgin could cure AIDS. Russell’s gender issues tends to center around bikini clad bunnies and lexicons of misogyny. Kruger’s confronts sexist laws, chauvinistic judicial rulings, and the marginalizing of black female reporters.
This is not to trivialize the ethical dilemmas that Russell presents, but to note that the ethical dilemmas facing journalists might be deeper than he implies and that his public might need more reality than they are presently “prepared” for. Canadian children are raped and murdered; Canadian citizen groups are marginalized; AIDS – while obviously less rampant than in South Africa – is a problem in Canada. Russell vividly depicts the media landscape from Canada where economics play a key role in any function of a capitalistic, democratic society. But that should not relegate the ethics of reporting to second place, behind business.
The new editor-in-chief at the The University of Western Ontario’s Gazette, Canada’s oldest student newspaper, is starting the school year equipped with a clean slate of ethics and a fresh approach to campus journalism.
The paper, founded in 1906 at the London, Ontario campus, learned a grueling lesson on the limits of satire and free speech on university campuses after it published a contentious article in its April Fool’s Day spoof edition earlier this year.
For the past ten years, the legendary Gazette Spoof Issue has aimed to top the previous year’s edition by humouring and stupefying its readers with outrageously satirical articles.
“We had one or two controversial issues before but there has been nothing like this response,” said Allison Buchan-Terrell, who became editor-in-chief a month after the controversial article ran.
This year’s spoof edition made wild accusations about the university’s president Paul Davenport and other prominent staff, but an article called “Labia Majora Carnage” inspired an unprecedented degree of reader indignation.
The article portrayed a Take Back the Night march in which the actual London Police Chief Murray Faulkner rapes a fictional feminist.
“He grabbed the loudspeaker from Ostrich’s wild vagina and took it into a dark alley to teach it a lesson,” the unknown author writes.
At the time, the Gazette had not considered the shaky ethical and legal ground in was embarking on in using anonymous authors but naming real people — and calling them rapists.
Days after the article was published, critics accused the paper of fostering an unsafe environment for female students on campus and condoning rape. Protests broke out across the University of Western Ontario campus, petitions circulated, angry Facebook groups formed and a multitude of letters to the editor poured in to the Gazette.
The paper was walking a tenuous line, Buchan-Terrell admits, but she says it is often difficult to gauge whether readers will determine an article has crossed that line.
“This generation has a different kind of humour. It’s more dry and in your face, like Borat,” she told JournalismEthics.ca in a telephone interview from the Gazette office in London, Ontario.
Although reporters pitched and brainstormed ideas for the issue, said Buchan-Terrell, who was a reporter at the time, only three people oversee decisions to run final copy.
“The rest of us didn’t have a say. There was debate only among the deputy editor, managing editor and editor-in-chief. And the possible angle was difficult to predict,” she said.
While an editorial board consisting of two male students and a female decided the paper’s fate on April Fool’s eve, the entire staff at the Gazette was painted with the same anti-feminist brush, said Buchan-Terrell. Despite the lack of consultation, the paper’s policy was to stand as a team, holding each staff member equally responsible.
The fact that the article was written by an anonymous reporter using the alias “Xavier” further blurred the ethical boundary.
Although there were calls to reveal the writer’s name, the paper’s editors considered it unsafe to do so because the paper was receiving threatening letters about the issue.
Nevertheless, Buchan-Terrell said she struggled with the decision to stand as a team.
“To be a woman and to be called a misogynist was tough. I’ve written articles on sexual assault and the lack of female faculty. It was hard because people were implying the paper was dominated by a jock culture, but there are a lot of smart women on the staff.”
Eventually, the national media picked up on the news at the restless campus.
Western’s president Paul Davenport accused the article of “attacking the safety of women.” The university’s administration was called in less than two weeks after the article ran to sanction the rogue paper.
At a town hall meeting on Apr.13, the Gazette staff and university administration agreed to a number of new initiatives to regulate the campus press including a new code of ethics and an advisory board comprised of journalism professors and professional journalists.
The Gazette’s new code of ethics, accessible on its website, gives the paper a unique status. Not only is it the oldest student newspaper and one of the only daily campus papers, but it is now one of the only university papers in Canada with an established ethical code.
The code, based on the Canadian Association of Journalists statement of principles, promises editorial independence and newsroom inclusiveness, in addition to staples like accuracy, balance and fairness.
However, the university was not satisfied with the motions passed by the University Students’ Council (USC). The Board of Governors (BoG) decided they needed more control to reign in the Gazette.
In May, the BoG passed a motion granting the university’s administration the power to withhold student fees to fund the paper.
It also recommended “that the distribution of the Gazette on campus be suspended, if they judge such suspension to be justified by an egregious violation of the Journalistic Code of Ethics.”
The BoG itself will decide whether any of the newspaper’s content violated journalism ethics, although there are no journalists on the board.
In the first issue of the Gazette’s 101st year, it announced it would comply with the university’s demands and more — its staff would also undergo formal equity training and the paper would launch a formal process for complaints.
The editorial staff admitted it had made a mistake. “We learned a hard lesson after the publication of the Spoof Issue about the power of the written word for good and bad and about the limits of good taste and free speech,” read an editorial in the newspaper. It promised that through practising responsible journalism the error in judgment would never happen again.
Buchan-Terrell says that doesn’t mean the paper will lose its independence or its edge. And she assures that neither the USC nor the BoG have any control over editorial content.
“We’re staying true to the tradition of the Gazette, we’re just improving it. We’ll tread carefully and make decisions based on our readership and based on good taste,” she said.
But the Gazette’s outgoing editor-in-chief Ian Van Den Hurk expressed concerns with the university’s reforms in an interview with the Queen’s Journal in April.
“I think it puts the paper in a tough situation. Does the Gazette feel afraid to run anything pushing the envelope now? What if the administration disapproves of something the student body has no qualms with?” he asked.
Neither editor, however, believes the incident has tarnished the reputation of the paper.
And the University of Western Ontario is doing everything in its power, including granting itself the unprecedented ability to withhold funding to the paper if independent attempts at ethics fail, to ensure the reputation of the preppy campus is unsullied in the scrutinizing eyes of the media, donors, alumni and potential students.
By Sunny Freeman
SUNNY FREEMAN is a contributing editor and writer for JournalismEthics.ca. While completing her Masters at the UBC School of Journalism, she freelances for the Tyee, the Thunderbird,The Ubyssey, the Metro News and the Feminist Media Project. She holds an honors BA in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario and a BA in English/Cultural Studies from McMaster University. Her passion for politics and writing drew her into journalism. She focuses her graduate studies on politics in media, and the politics of media.
Ethics іѕ a word thаt – like professional – іѕ used a great deal bоth hеrе іn thе region, іn оur profession аnd асrоѕѕ mаnу оthеrѕ, but whаt іѕ it? Whаt does thаt mеаn іn practice?
Ethics аrе a code оf conduct fоr аn individual, associations, corporations аnd governing bodies – designed tо stop thе abuse оf power, corruption аnd behaviour thаt іѕ deemed immoral.
Today thіѕ code оf conduct іѕ bеіng undermined аnd wе саn ѕее thіѕ еvеrу day оn оur news feeds wіth thе behaviour оf President Trump аnd hіѕ administration, tо Brexit, tо thе present UK Government, аѕ wеll аѕ оthеr leaders іn Europe аnd furthеr afield.
Setting аn ethical example
Thіѕ does nоt set a good example fоr uѕ аll аnd саn signal tо individuals, associations аnd corporations thаt it’s OK tо undermine thе principles bеhіnd ethics.
Thе bright spot globally іѕ thаt bесаuѕе оf social media аnd thе ability today tо hаvе platforms thаt open оur views, opinions аnd ideas uр tо a muсh wider audience thаn friends, relatives аnd colleagues – corporations аrе mоrе accountable thаn thе people іn politics.
Authenticity delivers huge benefits tо thоѕе thаt practise іt consistently аnd thіѕ іѕ a lesson thаt mаnу brands аnd individuals hаvе learned, аlthоugh thеrе аrе examples tо thе contrary – Prince Andrew аnd Boeing tо nаmе but twо.
Authenticity іѕ acting ethically, honestly аnd transparently аnd companies аrе seeing thіѕ hаvе a positive impact оn thеіr sales аnd thuѕ bоttоm lines аnd shareholder dividends.
Sо wе nоt оnlу hold thіѕ dear internally but work hard tо ensure thаt оur clients ѕее thе benefits оf ethics аnd authenticity аnd act accordingly.
In thіѕ region, ethics, professionalism аnd corporate social responsibility аrе words аnd phrases thаt аrе used frequently аnd аrе оftеn – sadly – mere window dressing fоr brands аnd companies tо pay thе necessary ‘lip service’ tо thеѕе elements, but іn reality аrе prone tо interpretation.
Wе ѕее thаt mаnу wіthіn thе PR industry subscribe tо ethics, whеthеr іt іѕ оn thеіr websites оr іn thе associations thаt thеу аrе members оf, but іn varying degrees tend tо act іn thеіr оwn self-interest аbоvе аll еlѕе. Wе ѕее thіѕ іn thе area оf recruitment, pitches, client conflicts wіthіn thе ѕаmе agency аnd іn оur media relations work.
It іѕ subtle іn ѕоmе cases аnd mоrе obvious іn оthеrѕ, but thе fact іѕ thаt іt happens аnd іѕ reliant оn a self-policing mechanism, versus аnу recognised official bоdу оr mediation, аnd thuѕ does nоt hаvе thе ‘bite’ thаt іt does іn оthеr regions оf thе world.
Whеn уоu think оf thе mаnу agencies thаt claim thе title оf PR, іtѕ easy tо ѕее hоw thе issue оf ethics саn gеt lost – thеrе іѕ ѕuсh a wide range оf operations, frоm small оnе- tо two-person operations tо agencies оf 30-plus. Mаnу оf thеm аrе nоt subscribed tо аnу оf thе associations оr bodies thаt require аt lеаѕt ѕоmе guarantee thаt thеу operate ethically, ѕо it’s actually impossible tо say categorically thаt аn ethical approach аnd culture іѕ bеіng applied асrоѕѕ thе industry оr – іn ѕоmе cases – еvеn bеіng acknowledged.
It іѕ important tо state аt thіѕ juncture thаt mаnу іn оur sector dо operate ethically, but wе hаvе witnessed thоѕе thаt don’t аnd whilst іt іѕ frustrating, thеrе іѕ little wе саn dо but adjust tо thе inevitable costs оf thеѕе оn оur business аnd mоvе forward.
Onе оf thе responses tо thіѕ mіght bе thаt clients wіll work оnlу wіth agencies thаt subscribe tо аnd саn illustrate thаt thеу act ethically, but wе know thаt thіѕ isn’t thе case, wіth thе issue rarely, іf еvеr, raised bу clients working оr present іn thіѕ region аѕ раrt оf thе pitch process оr аt thе tіmе оf engagement.
Thеіr focus іѕ оn cost аnd wе аll know whаt happens whеn уоu try tо ‘buy cheap’.
Journalism ethics sites
This section contains links to major sites dedicated to media ethics and high-quality journalism, such as the Poynter Institute and the Project for Excellence in Journalism. It also has direct links to a number of major journalistic codes of ethics.
The Poynter Institute Online – “Everything you need to be a better
Online home of the Project for Excellence in Journalism
The Canadian Journalism Project’s online resource for Canadian journalism news and tools.
Canadian Association of Journalists’ principles and codes of ethics
Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
Federation professionelle des journalistes du Quebec
Radio-Television News Directors Association code of ethics
How to subscribe to the SPJ Ethics listserv
The Media Wise Trust, an independent charity set up in 1993 by ‘victims of media abuse’, is supported by concerned journalists, media lawyers and politicians in the UK.
BOOK: The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, New York: Crown Publishers, 2001.
In a global age, there is no master plan for advancing media freedom, writes Ward. There are only the precarious, pragmatic efforts of journalists to push the boundaries of societies that have been wary of the Western idea of press freedom. Ward explores the tensions between new and old practices by focusing on a radio talk show host in Dubai.
Around the world, dozens of organizations, from Freedom House to Reporters Without Borders, advance the ideal of a free press and a free citizenry. The ideal suggests there is one type of free press to be secured globally: the Western model of a constitutionally protected free press. What stands over and against the free press? The typical examples are the media systems found in China or Burma.
But this thinking is too simple for a global age. The attempt to develop a free press follows different pathways in different regions. New ways of combining media freedom and responsibility are evolving.
Consider the impressive development of media in the more liberal Arab states, such as Dubai. Rather than quote statistics, I will describe one journalist in Dubai who experiences daily the tensions at work as the Arab media evolve.
“Freedom” within limits
It is 10 p.m. in Dubai and I am a guest on “Nightline” – Dubai’s English-language radio talk show.
The host is James Piecowye, whose studio is in the radio station, DubaiEye, 103.8 FM, part of Arabian Radio Network. The network is one of the largest media conglomerates in the Middle East and owned by the ruling family of Dubai.
Piecowye is a Canadian who earned a doctorate in communication from the University of Montreal. He arrived in the United Arab Emirates a decade ago to teach at Zayed University, a college for Emirati women. About four years ago, he decided to try radio broadcasting after deciding that Dubai’s English radio was a “wasteland” of classic rock and pop stations.
Radio, and especially talk radio, is new to Dubai. Before 1971, there was no locally operated radio in the region. Citizens relied on the BBC, Radio America, and stations in Lebanon and Jordan. When radio was established, a Western style was often adopted.
Each night, on air, Piecowye carefully walks a tightrope between the listeners who call in and the state officials who monitor the show.
Some boundaries are clear: topics such as homosexuality, drugs, prostitution, abortion, and religion are taboo. When Dubai World announced recently it was $40 billion in debt, shocking the markets, Piecowye could not discuss the problem on his show. Even discussion of lifestyles, such as dating, is sensitive in a country that outlaws kissing in public.
Still, Piecowye manages to provide interesting discussions using officials, scholars, and professors to discuss sanitation, traffic, education, and tonight’s topic – media ethics. He finds inventive ways to discuss sensitive topics.
For example, he cannot ask callers to discuss the drug problem. But he can invite the chief of the Dubai narcotics division to discuss what the division is doing to combat drugs. In Canada, using only official comments is considered one-sided and, well, boring. In Dubai, it is a way of putting the issue into the public sphere.
Working without a net
Yet, despite these precautions, any show can be cause for worry. “Offensive” is a terribly subjective word, even in a country with strict laws. “Often, I am never really sure where the line is between offending and not offending, and who will take offensive to what,” said Piecowye.
Having grown up with CBC radio, Piecowye adds: “I attempt to bring Canadian journalism values into my show.” He takes on the role of the neutral CBC-like moderator who seeks facts and “reasoned discussion.”
But here is the kicker: Piecowye works without a tape delay. Offensive comments by guests or his callers potentially can go straight to air. Luckily, this has happened rarely.
And what happens when officials do not approve of something on Nightline?
The radio station gets a call from a well-placed person who expresses official displeasure. Such calls are taken very seriously. Violations of media laws in Dubai can be a crime, leading to jail or swift deportation out of the country.
The danger is always there: One seriously offensive broadcast and Piecowye’s decade of service to Zayed University and Dubai could be in jeopardy.
So, on this night, I and three other international ethicists engage in discussion with Piecowye about global media ethics, the theme of a conference we are attending. We talk in general terms about what global media ethics is, and how media can be made more responsible.
We are fully aware that there is no tape delay. No one wants to get Piecowye in trouble by uttering an offensive comment or by raising a taboo topic. I find myself, like Piecowye, dancing with the sheiks and their monitoring officials — at least in my imagination. I find myself rephrasing comments before they come out of my mouth. Nonetheless, our group has a lively discussion on media freedom and responsibility, without directly attacking media restrictions in Dubai.
Piecowye later recounted an on-air anecdote that captured the experience: “One night I was struggling to not say something that couldn’t be said, and I got a text message from a listener. The person wrote, ‘We know what you’re trying to say, so why don’t you just SAY it!’”
This experience of ‘saying some things but not saying everything’ defines the working conditions of many journalists in Dubai and other Arab countries. It is not full media freedom but it is not insignificant, either. It should not be dismissed as odious self-censorship. It is an important and evolving experiment that runs counter to hundreds of years of tradition.
Dubai’s “Nightline” shows that we need a nuanced understanding of how to advance media freedom globally; there is no master plan. The evolution of media freedom will depend on the country’s media laws, the culture’s tolerance of free speech, and local definitions of what is appropriate and what is offensive.
In many countries, journalists will negotiate for increasing freedom, and learn to navigate around limits. In the new “hybrid” globalized societies, such as Dubai, media freedom will take on hybrid forms.
There is no guarantee that liberalizing forces will win; and no predicting how far they will advance. There is no saying how this dance will end. But Piecowye and other journalists continue to expand the boundaries of media freedom, working pragmatically within the limits of law and society.
Accuracy — to get the facts and context of a story right — is a fundamental norm of ethical journalism. Inaccurate reporting undermines important news stories and can mislead the public. Though accuracy is not the sole ingredient for truthful reporting, it is nevertheless indispensable.
Accurate reporting has never been easy, given journalism’s deadline-driven nature. But today, accuracy is further challenged, as news-making adopts the internet medium.
One of the greatest benefits of online journalism is its ability to reach millions of people almost instantaneously. But the pressure to keep news current – online within minutes of an event’s occurrence – can jeopardize the accurate reportingof even the most ethically-conscious journalist. Furthermore, the proliferation of news outlets – bloggers by the millions, of course, but also cable television, satellite television, web sites, and web broadcasts – has resulted in a multi-media race to get “the” story 24 hours a day. As the pace intensifies, so does the pressure to cut corners.
Adding to the pressure is the public’s increasing demand to see news as it happens. When a volcano erupts in Mexico, news will reach radio-listeners, web-news readers, and international bloggers within hours, if not minutes. Recently, Hurricane Katrina in the southern United States exemplified this situation. The whole world followed news-coverage of the disaster. Networks and newspapers competed to break the first and most heart-rending stories. In the race, however, many newsmakers incorporated unsubstantiated rumors into their reports. Rapes that never occurred were mourned on network news; accounts of mass deaths were aired, but the vividly-described corpses have not been found; one report claimed that a woman high-jacked a bus to rescue fellow New Orleans residents – she denied it three days later.
Laziness, lack of rigor, and other bad habits complicate the ethics of accuracy and speed. Journalists who, in the interest of time, report press releases as news do an ethical disservice to the populations they inform. Consider a July 25, 2005 story on Myanmar (Burma) by the Associated Press (AP). The article states that Shan State army leaders gave up their weapons in an arms-for-peace exchange. The story behind this event, however, is much more complex and interesting. For the five months prior to the “deal,” the Burmese military government had been pressuring Shan leaders to disarm, using means that included “confiscating” their cars to immobilize them in remore corners of the country (far from their public), imprisoning some, and instigating third-party militants to attack the Shan. The AP article was timely, and it accurately represented the NCLC (Burmese Government) press release, but it failed to inform readers of the surrounding events and circumstances.
How fast is too fast, when news must be more than mere glorified rumors? And how much accuracy is too much, when news must be current?
The same impatient public that wants speedy information also expects the news media to take pains to ensure their reports are as accurate and verified as possible. Almost every poll regarding news media credibility shows that the public expects accuracy from journalists, no matter how pressing their deadlines. See Report Card on Canadian News. This is neither surprising nor unreasonable, though it is certainly extremely – and increasingly – challenging. A balance is necessary between speed and accuracy. The public demands it, and so do journalistic codes of ethics. The consequences of disseminating falsehoods can be equally serious as the consequence of tardy news-dissemination.
JD Lasica’s interview/report on speed and accuracy in internet news, as well as his blog
The Poynter Institute.
Online resources, articles, and information