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The Media has a Responsibility?

Caroline Jaine's picture

The second day of the Global Media Forum for Media in Peacebuilding and Conflict Prevention in Bonn saw far more participation and lively debate from the delegates, which was very welcome. A fascinating debate about responsibility between a former Bureau chief at Al Hayat, a representative from Al Arabia and the Head of Programming at Al Jazeera ensued as part of a session on perception and prejudice in the Middle East. It seems that even amongst this eloquent group, a degree of intolerance existed and the moderator had a job to steer conversation onto issues of media and away from the legalities of the war in Iraq.

One thing has bothered me since the start of the conference and that is the image of a small boy holding an automatic weapon who stands behind the right shoulder of every speaker on the podium.  The image was taken from the photographic exhibition of child soldiers that was hosted by Deutsche Welle at the event, and I wondered about its place, branding a conference where we were exploring not just peace prevention, but peace building.  How useful are images of kids with guns in preventing conflict?  I asked around.   The Plenary Chamber was full of irked African’s at the time, who had witnessed a moving debate on African journalists caught between battle lines.  Many delegates I spoke to were appalled by the images and pointed out that the images in the Conference trailer also confused the issues, and did not promote peace journalism.
The trailer opens dramatically with, “The media have a responsibility” and people in the margins of this conference were starting to discuss what that really meant.  Israeli Editor David Witzthum appeared to take issue with the statement, and said his responsibility was simply to report news as accurately as possible.   A Kenyan academic pointed out that it was editors and not journalists who had the real responsibility – as they would ultimately make decisions about what stays and what goes.  Whilst I accept that the media have responsibility, I believe what media we choose to expose ourselves to, is the responsibility of every one of us.  There is so much “media” out there, that I know I can find a channel that will support my own political beliefs, no matter how extreme.  My own responsibility, I feel, is to take in a broad selection of media sources.  Sadly I think individuals tend to find the “news” that backs up their already preconceived ideas. So whilst Salameh B. Nematt may have been furious that Al Jazeera was glamorizing terrorism, the responsibility for this is complex – the audience has some responsibility to take – they are not passive in the process.  As I have written before, the responsibility lies with every single one of us.
With many thanks to Deutsche Welle for organizing this forum and generating such stimulating debate.


I also attended the fascinating panel at the Global Media Forum in which Israeli Editor David Witzthum admitted that "accuracy" is not his primary responsibility because he is telling the story in terms his society can relate to, and a representative of Al Jazeera said he would not label a suicide bombing in a crowded market in Baghdad an act of "terrorism" because he does not want to judge the event. Clearly, individual journalists, editors, and media owners have their own cultural biases. What I have found working in cause-oriented public relations is that preaching to journalists about their responsibility may fall on deaf ears. And when it does, some groups will be disadvantaged by the angle of reporting. When that happens, we as communications professional can help build the capacity of these groups to influence the conversation--to better respond to prejudicial questions, to get their own stories into the mainstream media, to pursue alternative sources of expression, and to use language, examples, and facts and figures that undermine the stereotypes. Caroline is right that the responsibility lies with everyone--including the spokespersons of groups (societies, minorities, religions) who find themselves misrepresented in the mainstream media.

Submitted by Martin Huckerby on
As another attendee in Bonn, I second the comment about the images used to promote the conference -- there were too many CNN-style promos, hyping violence, which did the event no favours. But the comment in the earlier post, on the lack of discussion of new media, was overtaken during the parallel all-day training workshop on the second day -- the afternoon session on Training for a Digital World covered many current issues (and did so with a bit of actual discussion, rather than just speakers addressing the audience). Not only were there interesting examples of how online tools are enabling news-gathering under oppressive regimes, but we also heard something about newer developments, such as the use of mobile (cell) phones to disseminate news. From other comments at the conference, it was clear that, in a place like Africa, where traditional landlines, internet access etc, can be rare, innovative media people are successfully using what is available -- the mobile networks -- to get messages to audiences.

I agree with you completely. I am espcially keen that people explore alternative sources of expression. Some people confuse "communications" with being simply about the media. There are many other innovative ways to get your message across!

Thanks, Martin, for adding this. There were too many choices that day and the bits I saw didn't deliver on new media - so I am glad you were impressed by their coverage of it. I am off to talk to the UN Public Information Team about mobile and SMS technology next week - so I think they are getting the message too!

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