Must the Media Always be "Neutral"?

Jannie Botes

Assistant Professor, Program on Negotiations and Conflict Management, University of Baltimore

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Another example of the idea that Geneva

Overrosler played with that I picked up maybe ten years ago was that in talking to their readers, the Christian Science Monitor in Boston asked about what do they think about their stories and a lot of people said that, we don't like reading your stories because it's all doom and gloom and terrible and it's like the world's going up in flames and it's horrible. At the same time you hear psychologists these days tell people that if they want to feel better and heal, that people should stop using so much of the media. And I've heard people say I don't read anymore, I don't get a newspaper anymore because it's this doom gloom and I can't do anything about it. So conflict reporting disempowers psychologically, it makes us feel powerless, for the reader and for the user of the news.

What the Christian Science Monitor came up with at the time - and I don't know if they still do this - was to make a rule for their journalists and that was for every story that towards the end of it, must have something about the future, what's being done about it, how this is being taken care of, so as to do away with that feeling of powerlessness. To give people a glimmer of hope that someone's working on this. That yes, it is a problem, that conflict's a natural part of life, but we're working on it, which I thought was very interesting.

Q: Now, you've talked a lot about the effects that journalism and the media has on conflict and I was going to ask you how journalists could avoid having an impact on a conflict, but I guess my first question is should they try to mitigate the effects that their story will have on a conflict?

A: I've become uncomfortable with the discussion about media and conflict because it occurs mostly from the conflict side. Journalists to a degree are not that interested in this debate and feel that we want to put some social science garble out there and expect them to use it, buy into it, make use of it. My feeling is that therefore, we've got to be very careful when we say things like should reporters be careful about making things worse, etcetera. Yes, they should, but they must be aware that what they do has an impact, but you can not ask journalists to be conflict resolvers and to contribute to making peace, etcetera, etcetera. This is because they have a different job to do and they do it under difficult circumstances, deadlines. So, it's more creating an awareness for me that there are angles of the story that can be reported that would be in the long run helpful like what has happened when there is no fighting? Who is behind the scenes working to do this? What is mediation and how is it occurring? I think because this discussion is occurring more from the conflict management side than from the media side, it's been largely rejected and that I find troublesome. We have not figured out a way to interact with the media, or to bring them into that debate, and one of the things that I'm thinking of doing more and more in order to get the media's side of this in as part of that debate is to start writing with journalists.

In other words, while I've been a journalist before, and while I've worked with journalism professors, I think that one way to legitimize this debate, not say here's what you need to do, is to make journalists write about this themselves. They have, but only in one area, war reporting. Because there is this huge debate about war reporting that's occurred mostly in Europe, I must add, and it had to do with, and I read this a long time ago and wish I'd done some more recent reading in order to have the immediate facts in front of me, but Bell, a British journalist who became a parliamentarian was shot, I believe, in Kosovo, started by writing a piece in which he basically argued and again if you're really interested in this we should tape this again, but he basically wrote a piece in which he argued that this whole idea of journalists as being neutral and just reporting the facts does not work under the situations of humanitarian crises and destruction.

If I as a journalist see that the Serbs are, this is kind of where it occurred, in the former Yugoslavia, I believe, is where this debate started. If I see so many people are being slaughtered through something that is not the normal actions of war, you know, rape of women, men being hanged; it's not a

normal battle. Do I not then in a sense break with my neutrality and call a spade a spade and do away with this issue of trying to be neutral as a journalist? The same questions were asked - I don't think with the same passion or strength - about apartheid. When you see social injustices like that do you still have to be a "neutral journalist" can you still be fair and impartial under those circumstances?

But that is where these debates have occurred and most of the places where journalists have really interacted in terms of where journalists themselves have written and interacted about this. I think his name is Alec Balvitch, he's written in Britain. This is an area that I know all about, but I haven't really updated myself on the names and places and the name of the theory, there was a theory that the Brits created around this. So it's around the area of war and humanitarian crisis that most of this writing has happened from journalists. But when it comes to just the average local conflict, a dispute like the one I mentioned, the one that occurred in Benton Harbor the other day. When I went to Benton Harbor and started asking journalists about how they report and why they report and what they report, it was very interesting to me that some of the responses I got was, gosh, these are really interesting discussions and we like talking to you about this and we always say we should talk about this, but you know, the pressures of the job, going onto a new thing, a new problem, something else to write about, these discussions never occur.