The modern newsroom is a challenging place. In the competitive world of media information flies around at breakneck speed. There is little time for checking facts and images or corroborating information and virtually no space for laid-back discussions on the ethics of journalism.
But even when time is scarce, reporters and editors must pause and take a moment to judge the potential impact of offensive, inflammatory content.
The dangers of hate speech in journalism are well known and in many parts of the world they have had tragic consequences.
In Africa, for instance, some journalists have become foot-soldiers for propaganda and conflict. Many have played a deplorable role in regional conflicts and in some extreme cases — in Rwanda and Kenya, for example — they have contributed to acts of unspeakable violence between communities.
Whenever media are manipulated by politicians and others in defence of country, culture, religion and race, they have the potential to do harm. Even the best journalists can sometimes, inadvertently, do damage when they report controversial stories out of context.
A failure of principle in the newsroom and poor understanding of the potential impact of the words and images can lead to acts of journalism that encourage hatred and violence.
While most journalists understand that they have a duty to tell the truth and to report on what is being said and who is saying it, they often fail to balance that responsibility against another widely recognised cardinal principle of journalism, which is to minimise harm.
But how do journalists judge what is acceptable and what is intolerable? How do they embed in their daily work routine a way of assessing what is threatening?
It’s a tricky task to judge exactly what constitutes hate-speech. There is no accepted international definition and the tolerance levels of speech vary dramatically from country to country.
To find a way through this minefield journalists must take into consideration the wider context in which people express themselves. They must focus not just on what is said, but what is intended. It’s not just a matter of law or socially acceptable behaviour; it’s a question of whether speech aims to do others harm, particularly at moments when there is the threat of immediate violence.
The following five-point test of speech for journalism in context has been developed by EJN advisers and is based upon international standards. It highlights some questions to be asked in the gathering, preparation and dissemination of news and information that will help journalists and editors place what is said and who is saying it in an ethical context.