Sunday, March 22, 2009

Journalism standards matter

Warief Djajanto Basorie , The Jakarta Post, Tue, 02/17/2009

When the media covers a conflict, accusations of bias can land on its doorstep. A case in point is the three-week Israeli offensive into Gaza that ended in mid-January. The BBC received more than 11,000 complaints when, on Jan. 26, it decided not to broadcast a TV appeal by aid agencies for victims, particularly children, of Israel's assault on Gaza. BBC Director-General Mark Thompson denied he had been subject to the lobbying of pro-Israel interests. He maintained the corporation had a duty to cover Gaza in a "balanced, objective way."

Journalists on the ground could be influenced to take sides in witnessing distressed children left homeless and parentless.

To do so, though, might let their impartiality become hostage to the events they are covering. Indeed, every journalist should follow his or her own conscience.

Journalists should, however, exercise in earnest the paramount obligation common to all in their profession: Journalism's first obligation is to the truth. In Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel state that after assembling and verifying the facts, "journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning."

Further to this, journalism's first loyalty is to citizens. This means coverage is not slanted and with a commitment that it should present a representative picture of all constituent groups in society.

Observing the first two out of the 10 elements of journalism enumerated by Kovach, journalists should attempt to report on the opposing sides of a conflict situation. In Gaza, a Palestinian grandmother waves a white cloth but an Israeli soldier still shoots his automatic firearm and maims her grandchild. The BBC reports the event citing two independent witnesses. It then seeks a response from the Israeli military and a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Force replies the matter is under investigation.

It is this approach to reporting, covering all the pertinent sources, that sustains the credibility of the journalist. By providing credible reporting, the journalist has tried to convey a fair and reliable account. The coverage is not slanted and purposefully attempts to provide a representative picture of what happened.

It is not easy to cover conflict or a tragedy, or even a seemingly conventional news conference, and not be affected by it. Journalists can express emotions. An extreme case is Iraqi TV journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi angrily pitching both his shoes at then US President Bush in Baghdad on Dec. 14, 2008.

However journalists should exert self-control on the job to get the most worth out of the assignment. Covering a conflict should not lead to a conflict in conscience. One-sided coverage of the fighting in Gaza in favor of the Palestinians may be well-meaning to advocate their cause but it could stir resentment from those who perceive the reporting is unbalanced and lead to accusations of media bias. The danger of one-sided reporting is that it could foment an "us and them" mentality.

In Indonesia, such charges of taking sides in relation to the media's reporting of the communal conflict in the Maluku islands, for instance, are one example. More than 8,000 people died from January 1999 to 2001 in the violence that started in Ambon, the provincial capital, and spread to North and Southeast Maluku. The local media in Ambon split along communal lines. It got co-opted to be the trumpet of the contending communal groups and succumbed to carrying provocative news during the escalating conflict. Radio stations also became partisan.

It was only after the February 2002 peace agreement between the conflicting faiths, reached in the South Sulawesi hill town of Malino, that the reporting became less biased. The establishment of the Maluku Media Center by journalists concerned with unbiased and non-provocative reporting helped to restore the peace.

At the national level, "Indonesian journalists are independent in producing accurate, balanced and malice-free news stories." This call is underscored in Article 1 of the Journalistic Code of Ethics (KEJ) that 29 journalists and media organizations drafted in March 2006 and approved by the Press Council. The 11-Article KEJ should be a working guide for the balanced, unbiased reporting of Indonesian journalists.

The writer is a journalism instructor at the Dr. Soetomo Press Institute (Lembaga Pers Dr. Soetomo, LPDS) in Jakarta.

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