Advocacy vs. objectivity – Media and human rights | Global Media Forum | DW | 28.02.2012
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Global Media Forum

Advocacy vs. objectivity – Media and human rights

”Responsible journalism is committed to truthfulness“

Dr. Monika Hauser (Founder and Executive Member of the Managing Board of Medica Mondiale) © Deutsche Welle/K. Danetzki

Monika Hauser

A doctor who founded an organization to help women raped in conflicts thinks it's artificial and therefore wrong to treat objectivity and advocacy as opposites. Giving the keynote speech of the workshop, Dr. Monika Hauser, founder of medica mondiale, said reporters of both sexes often use language influenced by patriarchal gender images. “In German, for example, one word for rapist is 'Frauenschänder', which translates as 'defiler of women'. But surely it is the perpetrator who is 'defiled' and should feel shame, not the woman he raped.”

Hauser said communication with severely traumatized survivors of sexualized wartime violence requires empathy and sensibility, plenty of time, and compliance with certain rules of behavior in dealing with trauma victims. “Our experience in the last 18 years has often been different. From Bosnia in 1993 through to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011, our experience is that women have repeatedly been re-traumatized by insensitive interviews and other aspects of a journalism dominated by voyeurism and sensationalism.”

Hauser also said she would like to see reports that “show respect for the victims and a will to change the societal conditions which make these sexualized human rights violations of women and girls possible in the first place.”

Where is the dichotomy between advocacy and objectivity? Hauser asked. “For example, when the U.S. army marched into Afghanistan the violation of women’s rights was mentioned as an important reason for the intervention. In fact, they have never played a major role in the politics pursued in the country by the 'occupiers'.

“Does all of this really mean that good reporting cannot take sides? I don’t think so. After all, so-called journalistic objectivity does not really exist. Criteria of objectivity only play a limited role in the question of whether a piece of news makes it to the front page, to the comments page or to any page at all.

”Responsible journalism”, said Hauser, “is committed to truthfulness“. Journalists conducting independent research in a war zone will develop an opinion or stance. “Motivated media coverage of human rights violations against women and naming the perpetrators makes a contribution to restoring the dignity of these women. In turn, this then contributes to the dignity of journalists.”

Frank Smyth (Journalist Security Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), USA) © Deutsche Welle/K. Danetzki

Frank Smyth

Especially U.S. journalists cling to 'objectivity' as the quality that defines their craft, said session moderator, Frank Smyth, who has worked for prominent American newspapers and is now the Washington representative and journalist security coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists. But a prominent critic had derided the notion as a mythical view from nowhere. He referred to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera TV station as setting new positive standards. In covering conflicts it was letting people know where the bombs came from and where they were landing. He praised especially Al Jazeera's coverage of the Arab rebellions but saw it holding back on Qatar.

GMF Foto Eduardo del Buey Speaker Natalie Gravenor auf dem Global Media Forum 2011 Bildrechte: Verwertungsrechte im Kontext des Global Media Forums eingeräumt.

Eduardo del Buey

Canadian Diplomat Eduardo del Buey, Director of Communications and Public Affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat in the UK, noted that there is now so much information about that it is difficult to find the truth. “Journalists are looking for the truth. So there's a big difference between being objective and being truthful. There is no reason why a good journalist cannot feel like a human being and cannot transmit his or her views of what they're seeing in a way that is going to captivate the imagination of the people, all the while giving people the assurances that what they are saying and what they are seeing is the truth and not an opinion of the truth.

Alvito de Souza (Secretary General, SIGNIS, Belgium) © Deutsche Welle/K. Danetzki

Alvito de Souza

Alvito de Souza, Secretary General of SIGNIS, suggested throwing the word objectivity in the bin “because it's a myth”. He stressed the importance of community media. “Community media and their workers are a kind of linkage point between civil society action and media on the ground with small marginalized communities. Community media are on the first line of where abuses take place and often the community media workers are journalists on the first line of repression, but they are very often hardly ever looked at as serious media.

Supinya Klangnarong (Media Policy Activist, Thailand) © Deutsche Welle/K. Danetzki

Supinya Klangnarong

Supinya Klangnarong, a Thai media policy advocate, spoke of restrictions on the media in her country. One given is that no criticism of the monarchy is allowed, punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Thais are highly politically motivated and fight hard for their ideologies on hundreds of radio and TV stations. Thai media should pay more attention to human rights, she argued, and journalists should have more freedom to advocate. But another large group of society wanted restrictions because freedom of speech had been exploited.

Fred Andon Petrossians (Online Editor-in-Chief of Radio Farda, Iran Editor of Harvard Global Voices, Czech Republic) © Deutsche Welle/K. Danetzki

Fred Andon Petrossians

Czech Republic based Fred Andon Petrossians, online editor-in-chief of Radio Farda and Iran editor of Harvard Global Voices, focused on Iran, saying it was almost impossible to cover any story about that country without referring to breaches of human rights, but local journalists were not allowed to touch them, 150 had fled the country.

Aidan White (International Media Specialist, Belgium) © Deutsche Welle/K. Danetzki

Aidan White

Aidan White, an international media specialist based in Belgium, saw “a constructed conflict between advocacy and journalism, let's just get it out of the way. Advocates and journalists have exactly the same interest and the same responsibilities. The big question is about how we treat information. Respect the truth, be independent, respect your audience, do no harm.”

Thomas R. Lansner (Professor for International Media and Politics at Columbia University, US) © Deutsche Welle/K. Danetzki

Thomas R. Lansner

Thomas R. Lansner, professor for international media and politics at Columbia University in the U.S., said he wanted to drive another nail into the objectivity coffin. What was needed was accuracy, honesty and completeness. He quoted an American woman journalist of the past who said she had a cold eye but a warm heart. “Something all good journalists should aspire to is to be able to provide the dispassionate analysis, the facts, the accuracy, but to treat it with the passion of people who are also seeking the truth and justice.”

In response to a question asked from the floor by a woman from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, Aidan White was severely critical of FOX News as an example of how money can be made with unethical journalism. A German woman said by giving up her corporate media job and consulting NGO's on handling media “I'm now more of a journalist than I was when I was paid by a big German corporation”.

Thomas Lansner replied in response to a questioner that traditional journalists should work with any sources they can find – bloggers, citizen reporters, other people working with social media. “The new world of social media should be a goldmine from which traditional journalists look for resources, find new perspectives and can offer them moving into the mainstream media.