Wanted, urgent: Reporters Sans Labels!

DW GMF 2009
A top European Union official recently cautioned against the concept of ‘peace journalism‘, under which journalists actively promote peace as part of their coverage of conflicts. His views resonated much with my own reservations about this particular brand of journalism.

Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, made the remarks in a written contribution to the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, held in Bonn, Germany, from 3 to 5 June 2009. I wasn’t there in person, but have been reading up some of the presentations and media coverage of the event.

Javier Solana
Javier Solana
In his wide-ranging talk, on ‘Conflict prevention in the multi-media age – The EU’s role in the world‘, Solana asked: should we incorporate peace journalism into our conflict prevention strategies? Yes, he said, “if this means striving to give as much impartial, quality information as possible to the press and media, in all their forms”.

The Spanish physicist-turned-politician added: “We all want to promote peace, reconciliation and conflict resolution and we want the media to help us in this. The best way in which they can do this is to inform us. This is the journalist’s fundamental task.”

He then sounded a word of caution: “The reporter is there to report. We should be careful not to weigh down the media with additional responsibilities over and above their primary task of providing information. A healthy media environment is diverse and plural; it is there to explain but not take sides. The profession of journalism needs no justification and no sophisticated qualification.”

Solana also referred to the early notion of ‘development journalism’ that was promoted in the 1970s, which called upon journalists in the developing countries to always support their governments’ development efforts. Such uncritical cheer-leading, which resulted in many ‘sunshine stories’ that glossed over problems, eventually did a lot more harm than good: development journalists became mere propagandists for governments pursuing wrong development models that squandered natural resources and brought misery to millions.

In fact, after having been part of the media and communications profession for over two decades, I no longer like to box myself into any category. For some years during my first decade of working life, I proudly called myself an ‘environmental journalist’. I still cover environmental issues with the same interest and passion, but now question whether the growth of environmental journalism as a media specialisation has, inadvertently, ghettoised environmental issues within the editorial considerations of media organisations. I also feel that at one point we became too ‘green’ for our own good.

Show things as they are!
Show things as they are!
This is not to argue against journalists specialising in environment or other sectors such as health, gender, peace or human rights. As issues become more complicated, journalists require a great deal of background knowledge, sustained interest and context to do their job well. But it’s poor strategy to leave sustainable development issues entirely in the hands of ‘environmental journalists’. Or coverage of conflict to ‘peace journalists’.

At best, such specialist journalists can only weave part of the much-nuanced, multi-faceted tapestry of sustainable development. To grasp that bigger picture, and to communicate it well, we need the informed and active participation of the entire media industry -– from reporters, feature writers and producers to editors, managers and media owners.

What we lack – and urgently need – is plain good journalism that covers development, conflict and other issues as an integral part of human affairs. Noble intentions of saving the planet, or making world peace, sound good at beauty pageants. But these catch-all lines don’t give anyone the license to engage in shoddy journalism that lacks accuracy, balance and credibility – the core tenets of the profession. It applies equally to mainstream and citizen journalists.

So it’s time to take a few steps back, grasp the bigger picture ourselves, and then show it as is to our audiences. We need Reporters Without Labels.

The only label worth aspiring to is a good journalist. May their tribe increase!