Commenting on the calls at a United Nations conference in Indonesia at the weekend for media to play a more active role in promoting peace and tolerance, BBC journalist Mark Easton warned bluntly that it’s not the job of journalists to celebrate diversity. Our role, he says, is to stick to the facts. If we start taking a point of view it might alienate parts of the audience.
He has a point. The cardinal principle of journalism is to provide accurate, reliable and impartial reporting of events and not to take sides, even in favour of worthy causes.
But in a world where people increasingly get their news in an instant feed from Internet sources, such as social media, the role of journalism is less about reporting facts and more about delivering what the Internet does not provide – reliable context, background and intelligent analysis. These are the vital ingredients of ethical journalism that help us better understand the impact of events.
It’s not possible to really understand what’s happening in Ukraine, or Gaza, or Pakistan without providing careful and sensitive reporting of the back story including the historical context; a rational assessment of the political and social forces at work; and some thoughtful consideration of what may happen next.
We can do this without, as Easton fears, taking sides. But being impartial does not mean that we always have to seek contrary opinions, particularly on issues where there is an established and overwhelming expert consensus such as climate change and the impact of HIV/Aids.
In order to make these fine distinctions journalists need to be well-trained, better informed and, above all, free to work without undue pressure from politicians and campaigners.
But sometimes special interest groups can help. One excellent example of this came at the UN Alliance of Civilisations (UNAOC) conference where a useful and detailed Glossary on Migration for Media was launched by Panos Europe.
Migration is just the sort of story where journalists are encouraged to take sides.
It’s a story about humanitarian rights and the aspirations of people who are seeking to improve their lives, seeking refuge from injustice and tyranny, or are on the run from war and conflict at home.
And it is also hugely controversial. In Europe and the United States, for instance, attitudes to migration fuel deep political divisions. They are a breeding ground for unscrupulous and intolerant politics.
For this reason it is vital that journalists tell the story as it is – in context and with careful handling of the facts.
Whether it is a story being reported on the borders of the United States and Mexico; or from the Mediterranean where boatloads of desperate people risk their lives to start a new life within the European Union; or from the refugee camps sprouting around the conflicts in Iraq and Syria; it is essential that journalists are sensitive in their use of words and images.
Too often journalists are ill prepared for this story. Often they don’t know the difference, for instance, between who is a migrant, an internally-displaced person, an asylum seeker and a refugee, and the difference in their status and rights under international law.
When this is the case, how can they begin to provide stories that properly explain the story of migration?
This glossary helps by providing simple explanations. From asylum-seeking to xenophobia, the terms and issues in the migration story are touched upon. It won’t provide all the answers, but it points journalists and media in the right direction. And if it helps us to tell the story with compassion and clarity that will be something to celebrate.
Click here to view video footage of the UNAOC event.
Click here for view to the Glossary on Migration for Media