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Updated: November 11, 2013 01:32 IST

Of election reporting and shedding hate

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A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan
The Hindu A.S. Panneerselvan. Photo: S.R. Raghunathan

Over the past five years, Bali has become an exciting site for mutual learning in journalism. I am fresh out of the Bali Media Forum where 70 representatives of editors, journalists’ groups, press councils and media support bodies from 24 countries gathered to discuss a vexatious issue: taking hate out of the media and politics. The issue confronts not just the media but societies as well in a year of elections across continents and cultures.

The context for the meeting was the undeniable reality that election reporting is the biggest challenge for independent, impartial journalism. According to Bettina Peters, Director of Development, Thomson Foundation, politicians across the world have the propensity to say almost anything if it will get them headlines and media exposure.

Key questions

The forum recognised the inherent dual use nature of the digital technology when it framed the questions before media practitioners. How to be vigilant in the age of Twitter and Facebook and instant email responses where media-savvy politicians use every information trick they can to get their message across? How to call the bluff of politicians who accuse the media of “bias” if they feel their point of view did not get enough positive coverage? Are there means to resist the increasing pressure to just follow the chatter on Facebook and Twitter rather than digging deeper into claims made by politicians during election campaigns? How to protect journalists from the threat of violence if they are too critical of powerful politicians in some countries?

Outsourcing morality?

These were hard questions and it was evident that the answers were not in purely a legalistic and regulatory framework. According to Tom Kent, Standards Editor of The Associated Press, ending hate speech is not a task that can be simply outsourced to the U.N. or any other government. He said: “for one thing, government is often a blunt instrument, subject to whomever comes to power next. But even more important, outsourcing morality to government divests society of a broader responsibility.”

He gave four implementable ideas to keep hate speech at bay in day-to-day reporting. “Conscientious journalists believe that coverage of hate speech issues shouldn’t consist simply of repeating it, or quoting an equal amount of hate on the other side. Stories need to analyse what gives rise to hate speech, and to fact-check the claims of haters. Intolerant voices in a community should be balanced by tolerant voices that may exist as well. We should never grant anonymity to those who speak with hate.”

Aidan White of the Ethical Journalism Network made a very important distinction between free expression and journalism. “Journalism is not free expression, it is a constrained expression — you can’t just say whatever you want to say.” On the other hand, Aidan reiterated, good journalism is guided by cardinal principles that include truth, independence, impartiality, accountability and journalists must display humanity in the way they do their work.

During the three-day deliberations, one thing emerged clearly. Though each country had particular challenges, there could be some common principles to tackle hate. Most of us felt that media and editorial leaders should prepare well for elections by developing reporting guidelines and ensuring that their staff are well trained, informed about the procedures and rules of the election, and made aware of their ethical obligations.

There was unanimity to the call to the media leaders to guard against all forms of unscrupulous interference in editorial work including attempts to use media to spread malicious lies, hate speech and any information that is deliberately designed to incite violence and disputes between communities.

Social media: a word of caution

While all of us acknowledged the enabling potential of Online sources and social media to allow different voices to be heard at election time, there was also a timely caution that social media networks are no substitute for ethical, informed reporting. We agreed that the media should create effective structures for monitoring and moderating comments to eliminate rumour, speculation and hate-speech.

Some of the other significant recommendations we arrived at were: to review and constantly update election coverage to correct errors and to strive for honesty and balance in reporting, to ensure that all candidates and parties — large and small — are treated with equal consideration and that minority opinions and the views of marginalised and vulnerable groups are also heard.

Defining common approach

We felt that the need of the hour is for effective cooperation among media organisations, editors and journalists’ groups to define a common approach on how to cover the election. This approach should include seeking guarantees from government and political parties about safety and security of journalists; being vigilant to all attempts to manipulate media or use corrupt processes — such as paid for journalism — to distort coverage; and establishing common standards of reporting that will avoid all forms of political speech that is hateful or inciting violence.

It is important for all media houses to put in place internal systems of governance to avoid conflicts of interest, to promote transparency and editorial independence. I am convinced that ethical media coverage of elections is the best way to ensure that the vitals of our democracy are not undermined by bigotry and avariciousness.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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