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Gender, Conflict & Journalism: A handbook for South Asia

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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.

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January 25th, 2020 at 12:08 am

Posted in News

The Media’s Failure in Rwanda

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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.

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January 12th, 2020 at 11:56 pm

Posted in Feature

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Jobb’s Law Book is Indispensable for Journalists

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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.

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January 10th, 2020 at 12:09 am

Posted in Opinion

The reporter’s battle: Objectivity and independence on the frontlines in Afghanistan

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On his most recent visit to Afghanistan in June, Jas Johal met a 27-year-old soldier from Kingston, Ont.

Left to right: Evan Jonigkeit plays Specialist Coughlin and Tina Fey plays Kim Baker in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot from Paramount Pictures and Broadway Video/Little Stranger Productions in theatres March 4, 2016.

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.”

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January 3rd, 2020 at 10:12 am

Posted in News

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