Journalism and Intolerance: Setting Standards for Media Action Against Racism
May 31, 2001 - By Aidan White

In a world where ethnic conflict, racial strife and terrorism linked to extreme nationalism feature strongly on the news agenda, journalists are more conscious then ever about the dangers of media manipulation by racists and warmongers. Nevertheless, some journalists still make political propaganda for racist groups and media still become weapons of intolerance.

The outbreak of conflict in 1992 in the Balkans, genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and simmering conflicts based on religious rivalry and ethnic differences in the Middle East, Indonesia and the Indian subcontinent are a reminder that human rights law, journalistic codes and international goodwill appear to count for little when politicians make violence and hatred the benchmarks of community relations by fuelling public ignorance and insecurity through compliant media.

It is not unusual to find mass media recruited to support the cause of intolerance. Certainly, in wartime many journalists sacrifice professional standards and independence to support their side. This holds true for almost all wars, but universal notions of press freedom are compromised anytime journalism is subject to political manipulation.

The problem of intolerance is a constant threat to good journalism anywhere in the world. Racial violence in urban communities in North America and Europe – often characterised by incidents of terrorism – the rise in influence in the West of extremist right-wing political parties, the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in many countries of Eastern and Central Europe, widespread religious intolerance in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and widespread prejudice and discrimination against national minorities on the basis of language and social status, are all part of the global landscape of daily news reporting.

In this complex news environment journalists are sometimes casual victims of prejudice and political manipulation. Too often, ignorance and a lack of appreciation of different cultures, traditions and beliefs lead to media stereotypes that reinforce racist attitudes and strengthen the appeal of political extremists.

How do news media strengthen professionalism against outside pressure? What can journalists do to improve ethical standards, particularly when they are in the crossfire of social conflict? What is the role of unions and associations of journalists and publishers’ groups? What standards do media professionals need to set for the training, recruitment and editorial policies that will bring balance and equality into the internal social and employment structure of the media?

Journalists are ethically bound to respect the truth, to be independent and to consider carefully the consequences of what they report and how they report. Media managements have to ensure that discrimination within journalism is eliminated and that populist and dangerous ideas are not exploited purely for commercial gain. The rule should be to set standards for reporting which ensure people get the information they need, without lashings of bias and prejudice.

But how? As a modest start, the International Federation of Journalists launched the International Media Working Group Against Racism and Xenophobia (IMRAX) six years ago to foster better understanding among journalists and other media professionals about intolerance and racism issues.

The IMRAX starting point is a recognition that within media we need to raise awareness and promote changes that will strengthen quality in journalism. One hesitates to say never again about Rwanda, where unspeakable atrocities were carried out under media direction, or about the Bosnia war, where extreme nationalism turned local broadcasters into war-mongering propaganda, however journalists can do better when they work without undue pressure either from outside or inside the newsroom.

There is, happily, a growing awareness within journalism. The world’s first international conference on racism and journalists – Prime Time for Tolerance: Journalism and the Challenge of Racism in Bilbao in 1997 – was attended by journalists groups from more than 60 countries. And the IFJPrize, a Celebration of Tolerance in Journalism, has been raising awareness of the problem for the past six years

Codes and Guidelines: Do They Work?

Ethical codes will not solve all the problems of intolerance in media, but they may help journalists focus on their own responsibility. By setting out the ideals and beliefs that underpin independent journalism codes of conduct encourage journalists to act according to their conscience.

Codes of ethics begin with sweeping generalities but tend finally to require particular attention to local context and to particular facts. That is how, in the end, ethical dilemmas are resolved. In matters of tolerance, journalists need to place the broad sweep of aspirations and values set out in ethical codes firmly in the context of their day-to-day work.

They must constantly remind themselves that regulating ethics is the collective business of journalists, not principally of the corporations which commission and carry their journalism, and especially not of governments.

Governments have a legitimate role in regulating media structures to try to ensure the diversity necessary for freedom of expression to flourish, but journalists' ethics are a matter of content, and when it comes to what news media write or broadcast, governments have no role to play, beyond the application of general law.

Ethics have to be actively supported. Journalists have to act ethically, not merely memorise and parrot ethical codes. The standards or rules of codes are useful and work most of the time. But sometimes genuine conflicts arise – the story is true, but will publication at this moment create more conflict, perhaps violence, and serve the public interest? – and ethical decision-making is required.

This difficult skill is like all the other skills of journalism: it takes training, time and effort to become good at them. Individual journalists, employers, local journalists' associations and international media organisations have a responsibility to encourage good practice. The sort of ethical dilemmas set out above -- the conflict between the need to seek the truth and to minimise harm -- cannot be addressed unless journalists are better aware of the potential impact of their work.

There are many different models, but all ethical codes focus on the professional aims of the journalistic mission. They can be used like a checklist, even when journalists are working close to a deadline. They direct thinking and permit conscious decision-making that can be explained later if and when controversy arises about decisions.

The prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race or nationality is one of the most general features of professional codes of ethics agreed at national and international level

The Code of Principles of the International Federation of Journalists, for instance, was revised in 1986 to include the following article:

"7. The journalist shall be aware of the danger of discrimination being furthered by the media and shall do the utmost to avoid facilitating such discrimination based on, among other things, race, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinions, and national or social origins."

In addition a number of journalists’ organisations and a number of public broadcasting organisations, for example -- have established specialist working groups and published statements and guidelines for journalists revealing a commitment going beyond the good intentions of ethical declarations. At the same time national Press Councils have adopted codes which identify the issue of intolerance and have taken up complaints from members of the public about poor media reporting of race relations issues.

Good examples are the National Union of Journalists in Great Britain and Ireland (NUJ) and its Black Members Council and the initiative by the Netherlands Association of Journalists (NVJ) with the working group Migranten & Media to formulate some general recommendations for journalists. These groups have drafted guidelines for everyday reporting and have suggestions to reporters on how to deal with assignments that involve racist or extreme right wing groups that promote racism and intolerance.

Inside the Newsroom: Is There a Diversity Deficit?

To be effective, journalism must be inclusive, accountable and a reflection of the whole community. Journalists need to develop sources who represent the diversity of thought, feeling, and experience of the people they serve. Such quality and richness cannot be achieved by sitting in the newsroom waiting for an official news release from the Ministry of Information.

But do news organisations reflect the diversity of their community? A news organisation which employs people from different social, ethnic or cultural backgrounds will always be better equipped than those which do not. The arguments for internal diversity are not for "do-gooder" journalism, but for improved efficiency, professionalism and performance:

Ethnic diversity in editorial staffing and performance attracts a broader range of readers, listeners and viewers. When target groups sense the familiarity of media coverage with their own lives, circulation and ratings will increase

Journalism strives for objectivity and diverse ethnic representation in newsrooms can improve access to diverse sources of information from minority communities.

Higher minority representation in the workforce and more balanced coverage attracts consumers from different backgrounds. Advertisers targeting people from different cultural backgrounds will prefer outlets where minorities are more visible.

Journalists and media from different groups need to work together, to exchange information and to learn from each other. Dialogue within and between different media is as important as dialogue between media and society at large.

The IMRAX initiative has helped. It has led to the production of handbooks on equality at work and, in 1998, a joint statement by media employers and journalists in Europe on practical actions to combat intolerance.

The challenge to both trade unions of journalists and media staff and employers is to agree on concrete ways of moving towards equality of representation in the media. In the short term, employment quotas may help without diluting quality, but setting longer-term employment targets to ensure a balance within journalism at least equal to the relationship between majority and minority groups in the population at large is important. There is a growing recognition that this is one area where the media industry needs to improve its performance.

When it comes to intolerance and racism, journalists often score very badly on the basic questions. Training gives journalists confidence and skills, and raises professional standards. Too often though, skills training in reporting and editing fail to cover news gathering in an ethnically diverse community and reporting in areas of conflict.

To combat this a considerable amount of work has been carried out in some of the hot spots of conflict over the past ten years. The IFJ has supported Reporting Diversity, an initiative covering Russia, the countries of former Yugoslavia and the Balkan region of southeastern Europe. It has produced handbooks for journalists on covering minorities, has spawned numerous training seminars, and has established a network of training institutions from fifteen countries in the region.

The issue has also been a focus of work in Africa and Asia. The Media for Democracy projects in Africa have produced handbooks on diversity and covering ethnic conflict and more training seminars. In Asia, the conflict in East Timor led to urgent initiatives to provide professional assistance to journalists on the spot.

All of this helps, but much more needs to be done. There will, unfortunately, always be journalists ready to turn in propaganda in support of some of the most hate-filled and twisted political causes, but they can be isolated. It requires journalists to take responsibility for their own actions, to build professional solidarity and, above all, to avoid falling in with prejudice or ignorance of the world around them.

Aidan White is General Secretary of the International Federation of Journalists


Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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