December 10, 2008

Mumbai and Ethical Journalism/Rights' Anniversary

The Indian government is leaning on media outlets to stop showing pictures and clips of the Mumbai attacks. While not quite a cease and desist order, it is pretty close to one.

So why should we care? That is India and we are the United States.

Bottom line: we should care -- as journalists -- because we know that it is wrong to have any government office decide what should be presented to the public.

Fortunately journalists are also human with human compassion. And if that fails, in the USA anyway, there is also the SPJ Code of Ethics to help guide a reporter, editor or producer on what to present and how to present it.

One cannot argue that random repeated use of the gory details of the Mumbai killings should not be done. (SPJ Code: "Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage." and "Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.") But this is not something any government can decide.

And the Indian media are stepping up to criticize the government for their directives AND calling on their fellow scribes to show some compassion.

And why should we in the USA be discussing this? Because, as noted earlier, we share concerns about avoiding government interference in the news-presenting, decision making process.

Let's not forget two important dates that directly relate to this issue: Dec. 10 and Dec. 15.

Dec. 10 is the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 19 of the UDHR states:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Dec. 15 is the 217th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. And for journalists, the First Amendment is key.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Both documents provide a clear statement of the right to print and say things without government interference.

So what happens when disasters such as Mumbai in India or the attacks of 9/11/01 in the States occur? What should the media do? Should scenes be repeated over and over on the television?

That is where we get back to humanity and the Code of Ethics.

Too often governments -- and the public -- will use episodes such as 9/11 and Mumbai to rein in the media. They will use the guise of "national security" or "public welfare." All we can do is our jobs to the best of our abilities and with the highest sense of ethical behavior.

We should stand with our Indian colleagues in the media. We should support them in pushing back against government intervention in the news gathering and reporting business. Why? Because we share values of press freedom and all the other freedoms and rights enumerated in the UDHR and the Bill of Rights.

And journalism students who are used to having the world at their fingertips, thanks to the Internet, need to understand that globalization is more than just cheap cars from Honda or low-cost goods from China. It is an interconnected web of rights and ethical behavior. (It would be pretty good if some working journalists would understand this as well.)

No comments: