13th March 2017
By Tom Law

Does neutrality mean indifference?

What does neutral journalism mean when the issues at stake are fundamental ones of democracy or humanity? Thomas Kent, formerly standards editor of The Associated Press, is now president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. In this piece, he looks at this question from the standpoint of RFE/RL and the Western media in general.

Thomas Kent

Journalists who cover international affairs sometimes find themselves in a tricky relationship with neutrality.

Neutrality means reporting all sides of an issue without favouring any one of them. It can be easiest to attain with domestic stories when all sides share common values, and the controversy is not about the final goal but how to achieve it.

International stories, however, can involve sharply different views of world order and human rights. They can even turn on issues that are existential for the press itself.

When journalists cover matters as stark as these, can they be truly neutral, as if they’re indifferent to what will happen? Or must they abandon their professionalism to campaign for values they consider morally indisputable?

Is there a halfway house between the two extremes?

We’re sometimes asked this question at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a private media company based in Prague that operates in 26 languages and is funded by the U.S. Congress. (Despite its historic name, RFE/RL these days is devoted mainly to television, the web, social networks and mobile apps, though radio is still important.)

U.S. international broadcasters like RFE/RL are required by law to be “consistently reliable and authoritative, accurate, objective and comprehensive.”

At the same time, RFE/RL’s mission statement says we must promote democratic values and institutions, and combat ethnic and religious intolerance.

Are objective journalism and promoting our values incompatible? We think not. In our services, which provide local news for the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, we follow what we consider a particularly straightforward and transparent form of journalism that combines both balanced reporting and support for our values.

In covering the news, our standards are identical to those of other professional news organisations. We tell the truth. We acknowledge opposing views. We cite authoritative experts and authentic local voices. We believe in objectivity — not just the transcriptive kind that quotes everyone, but the muscular kind that holds newsmakers to account for their statements and deeds.

At the same time we focus, through the choice of subjects we cover, on matters central to our mission. For us, democracy and tolerance are the world’s most newsworthy topics. Advances and setbacks for those causes are our natural editorial priority.

Readers who follow our work should find each of our stories professionally done. The selection of stories points to the subjects we consider essential. The goal is to serve our audiences’ need for reliable information while also chronicling the progress of free expression, clean government and tolerance.

This reflection of our values is actually not very different from the practice in other media. Editors around the world commonly devote prime space to stories they consider particularly important.

And although many editors consider themselves neutral, most Western media also reflect a basic belief in liberty and tolerance.

For instance, media frequently edit extremist videos to minimise their impact on impressionable viewers. In doing so, they show they’re not indifferent as to whether extremists gain new recruits.

Similarly, Western news outlets rarely write stories in a tone that leaves the audience unsure whether dictators, extremists and corrupt officials are the good guys or not. Their reporters’ belief in democracy and honesty shines through.

Many reporters might also agree to respect “operational security” if their own country’s army invited them on a raid against an extremist training camp. It’s unlikely they would help protect extremists’ element of surprise in a raid against the army.

Such choices by news media fall short of strict neutrality, but they’re natural and defensible. At the level of basic values, few media truly have no opinion about corruption and butchery. There’s also the matter of self-preservation; a free press itself cannot survive if tyranny and extremism triumph.

Sometimes there’s a reluctance by publications to lay out their thinking on such subjects, fearing openness about them will suggest they are biased on other issues. But there’s value to being transparent with audiences on the thinking behind editors’ most crucial decisions. It’s possible to be objective in news coverage while still defending basic values.

Thomas Kent is an advisor to the Ethical Journalism Network.

Main photo: Salih Mohammad Salih, a reporter for Radio Azadi (RFE/RL’s Afghan Service) interviews a citizen in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. (CC BY-SA 3.0)