Welcome to Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen, your one-stop source for tracking and analyzing ethical issues in your city or around the world. This is the public face of the new Center for Journalism Ethics in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,
Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen will keep you updated on ethical issues in the news, while providing informed analysis on issues, as well as book reviews and interviews with leading figures in journalism. You will access a host of resources, from background discussions on the nature and history of journalism ethics to codes of practice and links to ethics experts.
The aim of the site is to support the mission of the Center for Journalism Ethics – to advance the ethical standards and practices of democratic journalism through discussion, research, teaching, professional outreach, and newsroom partnerships. The center is a voice for journalistic integrity, a forum for informed debate, and an incubator for new ideas and practices.
This site is the main vehicle for the center’s first annual ethics conference, “The Future of Ethical Journalism,” April 30-May 1, 2009. Information on the conference, registration, and logistics are provided on this home page. For those who can’t attend, the conference will be streamed live to this site on May 1. Conference coverage will include live blogs of the sessions and post-conference analysis.
Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen seeks to be truly global, inviting reports and analysis from around the world. The ViSalus center is interested in collaborations and partnerships with other groups within and without the United States. For example, “Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen” will become the ethics web site for The Canadian Journalism Project, a cross-Canada initiative to support quality journalism, on its portal at www.j-source.ca/english_new/
The center and its web site encourages other schools of journalism, and its students, to collaborate on projects and to contribute material. For example, this site is linked to the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, at www.journalism.ubc.ca
I invite you to enjoy and use the site for your media courses, your journalistic work, or for your own information as a member of the public. There has never been a more impotent time for all citizens to examine and debate the ethics of journalism, locally, nationally and globally.
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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.
We are going to discuss North Korea’s recent nuclear test, but first — there’s rarely time for history lessons in daily news, but North Korea’s recent past has relevance today. Can you offer a brief rundown on North Korea since it joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty?
In the late 80s North Korea joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, agreeing to put all their facilities under safeguard and allowing the IAEA to inspect them all the time. It took the North Koreans four years. Once they finally worked out an agreement, the inspectors immediately discovered that the North Koreans had taken some of their spent fuel and extracted plutonium for bombs. This created the first nuclear crisis, which almost resulted in a war with the Clinton administration. Instead, talks resulted in an Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s nuclear program. Under the Agreed Framework, North Koreans took all their spent fuel that they could potentially use to make plutonium [which was 8,000 canisters] and hid them underground under seal [scheduled to be removed from the country later].
But the Agreed Framework fell apart in 2002 before the [plutonium] was taken out of the country, which meant that North Korea could throw out the IAEA, take off the seals, pull the stuff out of the ground, and start processing it to create plutonium, which is what they did.
In the wake of North Korea’s nuclear tests this fall, you were approached by a lot of news people. What were the main questions you were asked on air?
DR. WADE L. HUNTLEY is the Program Director at the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Research, in the Liu Institute for Global Studies, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Previously he was Associate Professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute in Hiroshima, Japan, and Director of the Global Peace and Security Program at the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development in Berkeley, California. He received his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley Department of Political Science in 1993, has taught at several universities, and has published work on US strategic policies, East and South Asian regional security, and international relations theory.
I would say three things. Number one: ‘Was it really a nuclear test?’ — bearing in mind that in the aftermath that was unclear. Number two:, ‘Should we be worried?’ and number three: ‘What’s the solution?’
Were those the issues that most concerned you?
Yes and no. With respect to the first question, the only reason people suspected it wasn’t a test was because the yield was so small. What I thought was, if you’re going to simulate a nuclear test with a conventional bomb, why on earth would you simulate a failure? It’s not as though they don’t know how to pack enough explosives in a cave to make a big enough bomb. And now there’s no question.
Number two was ‘Should we be worried?’
That is the appropriate question in the larger sense, but I had an answer to that that people didn’t expect: The nuclear test didn’t make any difference whatsoever.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but we have no more to fear about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities now than we did before the test. As a matter of fact, the nuclear test, to a certain degree, gives us a basis to be less worried – not only because it failed but because, and this is something that the media hasn’t really covered much, the test released a lot of forensic data as to the nature of the explosion: what materials went into it, how good it is, how efficient, how far along they are. That information will do one of two things: it will relieve them to learn that North Korea isn’t very far along, or it will confirm that they’re far along, which will at least provide a more solid basis to know what’s going on. So either way it improves the position of the West vis-à-vis North Korea, because North Korea benefits if they can keep the West in the dark.
But, in the larger sense, should we be worried?
Yes, because we should have been worried all along.
The third question was “What’s the solution?”
This is what average people want to know. Prior to the collapse of the Agreed Framework, policy debates essentially revolved around two positions, one favouring confrontation and the other favouring engagement. The most thoughtful people felt that a combination of both was absolutely necessary. It was referred to as “carrots and sticks.”
The difference between now and four years ago, caused by the breakdown of the Agreed Framework, culminating in the nuclear test, is that North Korea is no longer a country with a potential to become a nuclear state – it is a nuclear weapons state. It has demonstrably got on [nuclear weapon], at least. The nuclear issue itself is no longer a discrete problem, and I now feel that even a clever combination of carrots and sticks will no longer be enough.
Now, the only way [of rolling back North Korea’s nuclear problem] is by understanding that North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are embedded in a larger fabric of relations in the region that involve not just security but a lot of political, identity, and nation-building dimensions. And in that sense, what the Americans do doesn’t really matter, since we know what they’re going to do. What really matters is what China does.
What does China have to do with this?
They’re concerned about the long-term viability of a government whose legitimacy might easily be challenged in the future, a government whose stability is unclear, a government that is obviously not working by the standard metrics of economic performance -– feeding your people, things like this. And in particular the Chinese have long been annoyed that the North Koreans have not gone further down the road that they themselves have pioneered toward economic reform.
China cares because they don’t want this huge mess to spill over into their country, which has already happened as a matter of fact. There are estimates ranging between 50,000 and 500,000 refugees in Northeast China from North Korea, and this is already a big problem for them, but if the regime collapsed, refugees would flood across the Yalu [Amrok] River.
But if the regime collapses in the context of a war, the Chinese would have to worry about war spilling over their border. They’d have to worry about possibility intervening themselves, like they did in the first Korean War. They would have to worry about the possibility of coming into a military engagement with the United States, in a context in which the United States has thousands of nuclear missiles pointed at them.
North Korea only rarely makes headlines. When it does, do the stories appropriately address the situation there?
No. But I wouldn’t necessarily blame the media for this. North Korea is an incredibly closed society. They don’t let anybody in, so it’s extremely hard to get information about what’s going on in there. If there’s malnourishment in Africa, it usually strikes powerfully and dramatically, and you get babies with distended bellies and flies in their eyes, and you get cameras in there and it goes out to TV. In North Korea you never see it, in part because it’s not that kind of dramatic short-term thing. It’s a longer term malnourishment that has resulted in an entire generation of North Koreans stunted physically and mentally. The statistics, for example, in bodyweight and height between the North and the South now are dramatic. The statistics on IQ would be dramatic if we had them. We don’t. But the media itself feeds on its own drama, and if you don’t have the pictures, then you don’t make it at all in the popular media and the daily news.
What does end up in the media, if not the human rights crisis and the political complexities? I’m thinking particularly of Kim Jong Il’s media image.
Every time you see reported the information about how he is a movie buff and how he kidnapped a director from South Korea to make movies about himself and how he’s had this parade of young women – those stories create the notion that he’s this crazy, megalomaniacal throwback to a bygone era of royal self-indulgence. It creates a vast misconception of what’s going on in that government, particularly on two matters. One is Kim Jong Il’s character. He may be eccentric, but he’s not stupid. He’s very clever, in many ways more clever than the people he’s up against. And number two, the notion that he controls everything, which he does not.
North Korea has a complicated political system. It’s small, but it is really opaque, even to the people inside it. It has domestic politics, but by a completely different set of rules. There are people in power, and they’re machinating against each other, and Kim Jong Il sits on top of this volatile heap of backstabbing humanity, always concerned that somebody is going to come along and knock him off and take over the whole thing. One of his principle concerns is to stay in power himself. I would imagine he’s worried about that every day.
With all the history, how could the media boil it down for the public?
People disagree on how to reach the essence of what it all means, in a pithy concise way. If you talk to somebody in Washington they would point immediately to the nuclear issue and say these people with a nuclear bomb are dangerous. If you asked people in China, they would come up with a different set of criteria.
Would it be manageable to triangulate between China’s approach to North Korea and North America’s? Do media do it?
I did not see that in my personal experiences. These were one to three minute interviews where I was talking to folks in Saskatchewan eating dinner. They’re not going to sit there for an hour and listen to the inner machinations of the regime in Pyongyang. They just wanted to know if these guys were going to launch a missile at them. And I told them that they weren’t. And that was it. So it has to do in part with what the media is trying to do. Is it really their job to do that?
Who else’s job is it?
Let’s say, for example, our leaders. Lets say, for example, our government, which actually has the capacity to do something about it. Maybe they’re the ones that ought to be really thinking about it.
But what if the media is supposed to link the public to their leaders?
If that’s the case, then it is the responsibility of the media to tell its people that its government is failing to solve the problem. This is why the media comes to people like me, who aren’t on one side or the other but are trying to say something about the issue that transcends political debate. Does that go far enough to motivate the people to push their governments to do better? I don’t know.
The first BC Information Summit on September 29, 2006 will bring together academics, legal experts, journalists, elected officials and experienced Freedom of Information requesters to explore the challenges and solutions of creating an open government and a free flow of information to the public.
Carolynne Burkholder spoke to organiser Darrell Evans about the Summit and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’s new Campaign for Open Government.
What are the challenges to the free flow of information today?
The challenges are that governments want to control the information that the public can have–or essentially anyone who might be a critic of government policy. To control information is to control the agenda and the social discourse to a great degree. Although the government may see it in its short-term interest to block access to certain kinds of information, it’s very unhealthy in the long-term for the society.
What’s the history of the BC Freedom of Information Act?
It was passed in 1992, proclaimed in 1993, and the first four years were the glory days when the government was really on board, with the Glen Clark administration.
[During] the second four years things started to gradually fall apart, and, in effect, they started to slow down the access to information. [It] became…more expensive and less timely.
It accelerated even further under the Liberals so that it’s gotten extremely expensive, extremely slow and there are many barriers. It’s declined drastically in its usefulness as a tool, and many people are abandoning their requests because it takes so long and they give up in frustration.
Do you think this trend will continue?
The history of these things is the pattern they always follow is some government passes an FOI act or approves an FOI act in order to clear the air from a previous government.
The most recent case is Stephen Harper who came into office promising this accountability act and one of the main parts of that was to strengthen the Access to Information Act. Those are the opportunities you get to strengthen it.
Absent that, it’s a downward slide because governments gradually learn how to resist requests and they reassert their strong desire…to retake control of the information. It’s just automatic; it’s just the way things are with our competitive democratic system.
So we’re trying to do something here that hasn’t been done without a major disaster, which is to reverse the government’s thinking and stop that downward slide.
What’s the main goal of your campaign?
Reform of the Act itself because it needs to be brought into the 21st century with access to electronic information and just more routine release of information. Also we want the government to reform [the] terrible way it manages and handles requests for information.
How are you going to accomplish this?
We’re going to put pressure on [the government] through various means. We will do the usual things like letter writing and petitions, but we’re going to release focused reports on specific aspects of freedom of information and how the government’s doing all along the campaign.
Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide was co-written by four award-winning journalists who also teach journalism. Between reporting and teaching, clearly they grasped how insufficient American investigative reporting guides are for students north of the 49th Parallel. Digging Deeper is the first and only investigative reporting guide written with Canadian systems, policies and infrastructure in mind. That alone should guarantee its success across the country, but it’s not just the only Canadian investigative guide — it’s also a very good one.
Authors Cribb, Jobb, McKie and Vallance-Jones touch on all the bases for good reporting in the first half of the text, then they shift their focus in the second half to the very specific tools and techniques that will help journalists break through bureaucratic barriers and organizational holdups.
The general information — including a review of different primary and secondary sources and a summary of “twelve keys,” like tenacity, skepticism, and curiosity, to give a journalist the mentality for success — resembled many how-to journalism texts that preceded Digging Deeper. While law, interviewing techniques and information gathering are necessary elements to any report (and hence any reporting text), the information is sometimes too general to be valuable and too cursory to be informative. ‘Public records,’ for example, occupies almost 30 pages, but it needs triple that space to actually address the dozens of types of records mentioned and URLs listed. Young B.C. journalists scrolling through web address lists might be disappointed to learn that BC Online, listed as a great resource for land titles, is a pricey, subscription-only tool. And reporters looking for in-depth information about labour disputes will find that Ontario’s Ministry of Labour offers frequent online updates, whereas B.C.’s Labour Ministry only posts about one report a year. Digging Deeper’s authors all live and work east of the Canadian Rockies, and their oversight of B.C.-oriented issues is notable.
The media law section also suffers from a wealth of information condensed into a recap. The reader is introduced to the justice system, not shown how to approach it. The chapter’s concluding anecdote is a microcosm of the chapter itself, rehashing a 1992 Montreal Gazette story on judicial scandal without mentioning how the investigation was accomplished.
A research guide can only be so long, though, and elaborating on courts and records could easily have spun the compact 260-page book into a 1000-page tome.
Digging Deeper really shines when it moves away from the basics of good reporting and hones in on specific techniques. The text’s coverage of Freedom of Information, Computer-Assisted Reporting, and financial reporting make it truly invaluable.
Aptly, the authors note that journalists shy away from numbers. Then, they take the reader step by step through sample finance reports, excel spreadsheets and database managers, highlighting the most vital tools and info that each provides. The text offers tips, including what numbers should catch a journalist’s eye on a 10-K and what steps are necessary to sort spreadsheet data into chronological order.
The FOI section provides clear and encompassing guidance for facing reticent Information Officers who use fees and delays to waylay an information request. Digging Deeper’s links to sites like CAIRS — for past Access to Information requests — and provincial and federal ATI sites also make the FOI process more accessible to starting journalists.
Probably the most useful section of the book begins after the text ends. Appendices A, B, and C are guides to spreadsheets, databases and financial information, respectively. With bullet points, diagrams, and web links, book lays plain all the basics of three extremely valuable, rarely used tools that new journalists should embrace. The explanations are so methodical that following them is astoundingly easy.
A guide to Canadian investigative reporting and researching has been much-needed for years now, and Digging Deeper fills the void extremely well.
The idea of a handbook that combines the challenges of reporting on gender and conflict and how the two intersect was conceived during the planning for the UNESCO-Nepal Press Institute’s first Roundtable on The Gender Perspective in Conflict Reporting in 2004.
Although neither of the authors is from South Asia – the main focus of the handbook – both have extensive backgrounds in conflict journalism. Fiona Lloyd is a South African journalist who is the co-founder of Reporting for Peace, an organization that teaches journalists how to report effectively on conflicts. Ross Howard is a Vancouver-based journalist and consultant specializing in media development in conflict-stressed states and emerging democracies. He also teaches journalism at Langara College in Vancouver and is the president of Media & Democracy Group, a journalist development consortium.
The handbook, a short, yet comprehensive and practical guide connecting gender, conflict, and journalism, is divided into three sections. The first part of the handbook focuses on the current media environment and challenges facing journalists when reporting on gender and conflict. The second section provides practical strategies and skills for working journalists. The last part of the handbook recommends resources on gender and conflict reporting for further learning.
In discussing gender and conflict, Lloyd and Howard shun the “add women and stir formula” described as merely adding women to a story, getting women’s perspectives, and assigning female journalists to write “gender” stories. Instead they advocate redefining conflict from a gendered perspective – emphasizing balance, sensitivity to gender issues, and the inclusion of marginalized groups in reporting.
The authors believe the media has a role to play as mediators in conflicts and journalists should work to diffuse tension by promoting communication and understanding. A major question raised in the handbook is: “If we consciously try to write about conflict from a gender perspective, and consciously try to be conflict-sensitive, are we in danger of losing our neutrality as journalists?” Lloyd and Howard argue that thoroughly analyzing gender and conflict allows journalists to exercise more fairness and balance. Despite the discussion of fairness, balance, and objectivity, the view of the media as a mediator is prevalent throughout the text.
The first section also includes an interesting discussion of challenges facing journalists in their roles as reporter and activists, a look at the problems in media culture – including commercialization, commodification, and concentration – as well as a discussion of the challenges inherent in newsroom culture, including affirmative action and issues faced by female journalists.
The second section, skills and strategies for working journalists, provides practical strategies for journalists reporting on gender and conflict in South Asia. The section begins with a discussion of how journalists choose to frame conflict. Lloyd and Howard argue that journalists choose what they report on and what they leave out, which can lead to gender stereotyping and escalation in tensions.
The authors define “conflict sensitive” reporting, the approach they advocate, as having three main aspects: accuracy, balance, and responsibility. Accuracy is defined as more than just precision and fact-checking; it also includes context and differentiating propaganda from the truth. Balance also is more than merely giving equal coverage to each side. To Lloyd and Howard it includes fairness and impartiality. Responsibility is defined simply as “tell the truth and do no harm.”
The second section includes practical tips, such as how to determine the source of the conflict – lack of food and resources or xenophobia for example – how to mediate conflict through reporting, how to choose what to cover, and how to get away from the use of inappropriate language and labels in reporting.
Just one of the interesting examples the authors use to illustrate the necessity of conflict sensitive reporting is the analysis of the language used by journalists reporting on the first Gulf War who compare “us” westerners and “them,” the Iraqis. We have an army, while they have a war machine, we suppress, they destroy, we are brave, they are fanatical. This case study is one of the few examples of conflicts outside of South Asia in the handbook.
Lloyd and Howard give advice on how to gain access to women’s voices, official comments, and opinions of non-governmental organizations. The end of the section focuses on minimizing harm both for victims of trauma, and for journalists themselves, complete with case studies from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
The third section is dedicated to resources for journalists. Each website, book, and other resource is described in detail by the authors.
The Gender, Conflict & Journalism handbook is a good resource for journalists reporting on conflict in South Asia. Section two with practical advice for working journalists and section three with descriptions of other resources are particularly useful.
The main weakness of the handbook is its narrow focus – its primary relevance is in South Asia, although some of the practical tips could be used elsewhere –and its neglect to adequately answer questions of neutrality and objectivity, though this is briefly discussed in both the first and second sections.
Overall, Lloyd and Howard’s handbook is a well-written, easily digested and yet thorough look at gender and conflict and how journalists should report on these issues. In the future, journalists in regions such as the Middle East and Africa could benefit by the development of similar handbooks.
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.