Wednesday, April 24, 2013

PJ ethics take center stage at Cal State-San Marcos

If peace journalism means not inflaming passions, then why do peace journalists tell emotional stories? Aren't peace journalists biased?

These tough questions were posed by attendees at my keynote address last night at California State University-San Marcos. It was gratifying to see about 130 people in the audience for my presentation, "The Ethics of Peace Journalism: Serving a Higher Calling."
I answered the questions about emotional reporting by drawing a diagram on the board. I wrote the word ‘EMOTIONS’, and drew two lines coming off of the word. One line led to ‘CONSTRUCTIVE’ and the other to ‘DESTRUCTIVE’. Underneath the chart, I wrote, ‘BIAS?’. My explanation was that traditional journalists who sensationalize stories use emotions to anger, inflame passions, divide people, and sometimes, to mislead. They’re more interested in selling a story than in the consequences of reporting in a needlessly emotional way. This is destructive. Peace journalists also use emotions as they tell stories, but these emotions are used in a constructive way. I played two radio stories that I produced. These reports use emotional hooks to shine the spotlight of publicity on problems like displaced persons and forgotten orphans. These stories were crafted with the consequences of this reporting squarely in sight. Those consequences, I hoped, included getting help for those profiled in each story.

Some of the attendees commented that the sort of constructive reporting that I did reflects a bias. Perhaps it does. I responded by talking about objectivity, and the fact that journalists’ biases are reflected in the hundreds of decisions they make every day—what to report, which words to use, where to place stories, which quotes to use, etc. These are the criteria that journalists use to judge newsworthiness. Jake Lynch calls them filters. I suggested to the audience that journalists should add one more criteria (filter) as they make editorial decisons: what are the consequences of my reporting? Is it constructive or destructive?

For about a half dozen students in the crowd, this answer was not satisfying. These students left believing that peace journalism is just as biased and manipulative as traditional journalism. We ran out of time before I could elaborate on my response.

As the keynote finished, I presented a list of 5 questions I wanted the attendees to consider and discuss. (See below). I’m hoping these questions provide grist for many discussions in Cal State-San Marcos classrooms in the coming weeks.

Peace Journalism and ethics questions

1. Should journalists be responsible for the consequences of their reporting?

2. Do journalists have a higher ethical responsibility to peace?

3. Do the ends--peace--justify the means, if those means include ignoring some of the traditional ethical guidelines of journalism?

4. Does the instantaneous and potentially viral nature of every social media post carry extra responsibility for journalists? If yes, how?

5. Is objectivity the ultimate goals of journalists? Is fostering peace more important than maintaining absolute objectivity?

1 comment:

  1. thank You Steve for talking about this very sensitiveissue, religion and media issues. most times we the journalists fuel conflicts when we do not filter hatred religious content. Especially when the journalist belongs to the religion, they will never want to screen any content. They choose to report it just the way it is not knowing they are inciting some one out there.
    Example. In my place here in Fort portal 3weeks back a conflict broke up in one of the villages when a family lost 2 members mysteriously in one week. They called in prophets to pray and tell what could have been the cause; the prophets said God had shown them 3 families that were behind the death of the two people. When I talked privately to the prophets they told me the 3 suspected families, I then cautioned them about saying out such to already angry people, since their God who told them that is only known to them. I tried to talk to them about Peace and love.
    That same evening another journalist who belongs to the same faith, reported a story about the prophets exposing cannibals by names, and the next day one old woman was set ablaze, banana plantations cut down and 2 houses burnt. The whole village got violent until when police intervened to rescue the situation.
    A situation that would not escalate into conflict turned into a deadly conflict by only one journalist who reported with out thinking twice just because he thought people would think that his faith and prophets are True and real.
    its always important for the reporters to filter religious content even when they believe in the same.

    Betty Mujungu.