Monday, December 17, 2012

Post shooting, journalists must empower voiceless; set agenda

Journalism has a long, proud tradition of giving voice to the voiceless. In fact, this notion is spelled out in the Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics: “Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.”

Since Friday’s mass shooting, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the voiceless.

As I’ve taught peace journalism abroad, the voiceless have usually been the extremely poor, the displaced, and victims of war or famine. I’ve preached that by telling their stories, we are empowering them while simultaneously nudging officials to take action to improve the lot of the underserved. The Connecticut shooting reminded me that empowering the voiceless doesn’t only apply in chaotic developing countries.

I’m not alone in thinking about the victims, and journalism’s responsibility to them. On yesterday’s “Reliable Sources” on CNN, George Washington University Professor and former CNN correspondent Frank Sesno echoed my thoughts, asking rhetorically that if six or seven year old shooting victims aren’t voiceless, who is?

There is seemingly little dispute that we as journalists have an ethical duty to speak for those who can no longer speak, or who, though the fog of grief, have been unable to speak. I’ve been heartened by Anderson Cooper’s effort to inform us about the lives of each of the victims, for example. What is more contentious, however, is media’s role in shaping public policy after the initial shock has worn off.

Given the righteous anger that’s bubbled up since the shooting, some might call for open advocacy by journalists for gun control and perhaps improved care for the mentally ill. Despite the temptation, this would cross the line, abandoning objectivity and inserting journalists into a story that they’re trying to cover. The last thing journalists need to do, in my view, is add to the already deafening noise created by the pundits.

Instead, I believe that we as journalists, and particularly as peace journalists, have an ethical responsibility to use our agenda-setting influence to put issues like gun control and care for the mentally ill on American society’s front burner. This is not to suggest advocacy for (or against) gun control or enhanced mental health care. Rather, it means simply that we are journalists should exercise our agenda setting prerogative as we have done on other issues.

Agenda setting by the media is not a new concept. My local newspaper, The Kansas City Star, is agenda setting in an ongoing series about hunger among youth, while CNN has led discussions about bullying and human trafficking. These media outlets are not openly advocating specific solutions, but instead are using their influence to advance meaningful dialogues about matters of public importance.

After the shooting, the media-led discussions about gun control and mental health care are already underway. A Lexis-Nexis search shows 610 news stories about gun control published today (12/17), compared to just 64 stories one week ago, and 25 stories on the same day a year ago. A second search under mental health care shows 27 stories today, compared with 10 a week ago and just 9 a year ago. The real question is, will this discussion continue next week? Next month? I for one will be monitoring media one or two months from now to see if the media keep these issues on the front pages and at the forefront of the public agenda.

One of yesterday’s “Reliable Sources” panelists, media expert Lauren Ashburn, was skeptical that journalists could stay focused on these issues. She predicted that the media would turn away from gun control and mental health issues once the next crisis occurs. For the sake of the victims, the truly voiceless, I fervently hope her prediction is wrong.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn. To order my book about my time teaching peace journalism in Uganda, Professor Komagum, click here. --

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