Investigative journalist says Canadians kept in dark by their leaders

Award-winning Toronto Star investigative journalist Rob Cribb called on the Canadian public to demand greater government transparency at a lecture at UBC’s Robson Square campus last week.

“The public must demand greater openness and transparency from public officials,” he said. “Without this, we remain in the dark.”

Cribb, who is also the Canwest visiting professor at the UBC School of Journalism, is responsible for groundbreaking investigative reports that pry open the bureaucratic vault of secrecy on key public safety issues – exposing problems with daycare, airline maintenance and restaurant regulations.

While journalists act on behalf of the public as a watchdog on government, Cribb argued that a culture of secrecy and silence at all levels of government has frustrated journalists’ attempts to find out the truth.

Information laws at both the federal and provincial levels establish the rights to public access to government-held documents, a 30-day deadline for response and an appeal procedure if access is denied and also detail limits to these rights.

But public records that should be easily attainable through freedom of information legislation are kept hidden through destroying records, delays and flat denials.

Even when a request is granted, Cribb said, bureaucrats assign exorbitant fees for accessing information. In one case Cribb relayed, the government told him it would cost $1200 to transfer data onto a disc.

Academic research, including one published by the Campaign for Open Government, shows that Canadian institutions are taking longer to process requests and are less likely to release information.

A black hole of information results when public bodies are not adequately covered by access to information legislation.

Some governmental bodies that are not held accountable to the public, because they are exempt from access legislation, include Airport Authorities, the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, The Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation, Foundation Genome Canada, Canadian Blood Services, NAV Canada, and others.

Cribb also reported that “more than half” of requests for court record documents are routinely denied. The greatest indictments against the public interest are committed through these information black holes.

When information is uncovered, it can have enormous public interest. Through his digging, Cribb found that the College of Physicians was dealing with 99 per cent of patient complaints and reports of malpractice in secret, and doctors with complaints filed against them were often given light reprimands, in private, with no transparency.

He said there are also “attempts to silence whistleblowers”, and “economic pressures to avoid delays overruling safety issues” that much of the public may be unaware of.

Cribb said that former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein had denied journalists access to public records, a “strategic way of undermining the public interest”, and that Stephen Harper’s staff attempt to manage news conferences by “picking which journalists get to ask questions.”

“We are dealing with the most hostile government in recent history,” he said of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s relationship with the Ottawa press corps.”

The chill on communication is achieved through gag orders on Ministers. Requests to speak to the media must be approved by the Prime Minister’s Office and information on “sensitive issues” must be approved by the PMO, which adds to the backlog of access to information requests.

In addition, requests from journalists are often flagged and automatically deemed sensitive, restricting debates surrounding important information from entering the public sphere.

Cribb is frustrated that this culture of secrecy is a “sleeper issue in Canadian society”.

He said journalists, acting on behalf of the public, are “dealing with…antiquated legislation and [a] cultural problem. The only way things change is through public pressure…but [it’s] rarely on the public agenda”, he said.

Cribb called for amendments to Freedom of Information legislation, judicial appreciation for journalists’ relationships with confidential sources, and adequate whistleblower protection.

Communication Breakdown at a University Lockdown

An RCMP Emergency Response Teams swarmed the University of B.C. campus on Wednesday, January 31. With bulletproof vests and dogs, they spent the better part of the afternoon in the biological sciences building.

Neither the public nor people inside the building were told what the police were doing. The RCMP taped off the building and surrounding area and dispatched a helicopter to monitor from above. Students in the building reacted, as suggested by police, by locking themselves in classrooms and offices. They were reportedly not allowed to go to the bathroom or do anything else. They were told these measures were for their safety, and that was all they were told. All over campus, shocked students and faculty watched, waited and wondered what could be happening.

Before long, clues and rumours abounded. Students became citizen journalists as they blogged reports from inside the biosciences building. The citizen journalism website Nowpublic.com published reports that a suicidal assailant was loose in the building, threatening people’s lives. One blogger said that, “According to an email released to faculty and graduate students working in the building, a suicidal student has been displaying threatening behavior.” As part of that same update, the blogger said a witness outside called him saying that the “assailant might have a gun.” That quickly turned the onlookers’ thoughts away from a bomb threat and toward a suicidal gunman. However, at that point the police had still confirmed nothing about the nature of the threat. The only verifiable story was the police presence. Attempts by JournalismEthics.ca to contact the blogger about the accuracy of the statements have yielded no response.

JORDAN CHITTLEY is in his second year of a master of journalism degree at UBC. He completed a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver where he was the editor of his school newspaper. He is now the sports editor and multimedia coordinator for the Ubyssey newspaper and freelances for various outlets in print, online and television. He helped shoot, produce and edit a piece for Dan Rather Reports and is currently helping with a piece for Business Nation on CNBC.

It was not until March 3 that the public got any substantial information about the crisis when police announced the arrest of 19-year-old UBC student Hwi Lee on charges of uttering threats and mischief. Police said the decision to stay mum was key to their investigation. But they’re still not saying anything about the nature of the threat because the case is now before the courts.

On January 31, local media outlets published stories on their websites that a police incident was occurring and a building had been locked down. All over campus – not just in the locked-down building – staff and students were told to stay where they were. Games of telephone tag yielded rumours that included a bomb threat, the aforementioned suicide gunman and even a drill.

Since I work for the student newspaper, students inside the building and outside were calling me with questions saying that media were reporting these rumours. My girlfriend received a call from her parents telling her that there was a bomb threat. Scared I was in danger, she called me while I was on the scene.

Parents from around the country frantically called their children, haunted by images from Virginia Tech and terrified of imminent violence. At about 4 p.m., mass emails circulated, stating the situation was ‘resolved’ for the rest of campus. Police began slowly releasing trapped students and faculty and by 8 p.m. the building was cleared. The actual danger wasn’t known at the end of the day, and is still not known. The police were tight-lipped. The less they said, the more rumors soared.

We often talk about how changes in technology are changing the way media operates. It is changing everything from the immediacy of spot news to citizen journalism. From Virginia Tech to the London bombings, ordinary people have begun documenting extraordinary events with the help of their cell phone cameras and blogs. However, the chaos at UBC last month is a perfect place to examine how these new tools can be used prematurely and mishandled.

Is citizen journalism really a benefit to citizens? Citizens were not informed by last month’s citizen journalism, they were merely terrified by it. And the rigid police silence fueled the fire.

There are many instances where citizen journalism adds to the available information and takes the gatekeeper element out of news. Recently, when a fast food restaurant was blown up overnight on a main street in Vancouver, the damage and location were quickly reported by citizen journalists. Viewers could see the damage and know to avoid that area during their rush hour commute. News agencies only have so many reporters and can only be in so many locations, but with sites like Nowpublic.com, reporters can be everywhere.

However, in an event like the UBC lockdown, citizen journalists were feeding the public unsubstantiated rumours. RCMP Cst. Annie Linteau and UBC spokesman Scott Macrae told me, along with a horde of other journalists, that nothing could be confirmed. All they said was that the building was being locked down for the student’s safety. We did not hear how the police received the threat, the nature of the threat or how many people were affected.

First and foremost, it was the lack of information and the complete silence out of the RCMP that were a root cause of the numerous rumours. This case serves to show that in our age of communication, police need to provide more information. They can no longer keep their mouths shut and expect people to think the best. They may claim that their silence was critical to their investigation, but from where I stood, their silence was not in the public interest: it led to public panic. Almost 30 officers, a helicopter, ERT and a K-9 unit can no longer just show up at a school without an explanation.

The police silence led to a situation where the press wanted and needed to report something, but had nothing to report other than that there was a threat made and there was a police presence. Members of the media looked to what students were saying and looked to citizen journalists and the Internet. Some mentioned what bloggers were saying. Technically, as long as media reports cited bloggers, they were accurate, but readers must remember to read such sources with extreme skepticism.

Luckily nothing happened on January 31 and all the students and faculty inside the building were safe. But events like this will force people to reconsider any trust they may have had in bloggers. With the elimination of the gatekeeper function traditionally held by journalists and editors, people must spend more time deciphering the news to find what is accurate. While citizen journalism is oft-hailed – and rightly so – as a boon to freedom of expression and democratization of media, we can’t forget that it’s no replacement for good old fashioned accuracy.

Ignorance Is Not Bliss: Impacts of Trauma on Journalists

“It was a cool Tuesday in December 2005 and I almost got on board a C-130 plane, which was bound for a war-game zone on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf,” remembers 38-year-old Iranian TV journalist, Behrouz Tashakkor.

He was almost at the airport when the newsroom decided to replace him with another reporter. As Tashakkor was going to the scene of another news event, he saw the same plane crash into a residential complex near Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport, and he was the only journalist at the scene who could report live on the incident. To be more precise, he was the only journalist left alive at the airport – the 64 other journalists were on board that plane to cover the war-game.

“I had reported on plane crashes before, but this time I had to report on the deaths of my own colleagues,” says the war journalist who, more than two years after the tragedy, is still suffering from that “never-ending nightmare.”

“I think recalling those harsh moments is natural, because it was one-of-a-kind. That incident aside I feel unaffected by the other tragedies I have reported on. I think of each story as being separate,” says Tashakkor.

Putting feelings into compartments

Director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, Roger Simpson, challenges those who repress such feelings. “Journalists often talk about compartmentalizing the experience. The experience happens and then as soon as they are away from it and the story is reported, the walls of the compartments close and then they’re onto something else and try to forget it. That’s a false explanation,” he says.

“I do not call into question journalists’ reasons for adopting personal coping strategies,” he says. “If you’re going to continue in a challenging, risky job like this, you have to survive.” He emphasizes, however, that some of the strategies that journalists adopt, like compartmentalizing memories or repressing emotions, might not favour them in the long run.

Of such strategies, repressing emotions is apparently more popular among journalists. According to Charles Figley, director of the Florida State University Traumatology Institute, “Many journalists tend to repress their emotions in times of trauma and they do that by detaching themselves from the tragic event they are reporting on to the extent that they go some place psychologically in which they can be objective and focus.”

The Iranian Radio and Television’s Bureau Chief in Turkey, Hassan Mirbaha, remembers how he struggled to put a lid on his own emotions when he arrived in the northern Iranian city of Manjil on June 20, 1990, two hours after a 7.3-magnitude earthquake leveled the city and killed 40,000 people. “Everyone was either trying to rescue family members trapped under the debris or was screaming in grief. I wasn’t prepared for this. Then I told myself that I was not there to mourn. I told myself that I had come all that way to report and inform others of what had happened there, what the survivors desperately needed.”

Naeemeh Namjoo, an Iranian journalist who covered another killer quake in the central Iranian city of Zarand in February 2005, says, “In those terrible conditions you should learn how to circumvent the impacts of the tragedy by not recounting the traumatic moments you have gone through during the day.”

And still others come up with different tactics of confronting the trauma they report on. Ensiyeh Sameni, the first female TV journalist to arrive in the southeastern Iranian city of Bam after it was shaken by a 6.7-magnitude earthquake on December 26, 2003, explains how she got around the problem: “Before arriving at the scene I was only focused on how to handle the job professionally but once we landed in the area and were exposed to the tragedy, I fell apart emotionally.” With only two hours before her first live report from the destroyed city, she knew that she had to overcome the emotional part and prepare for the professional part. “I had spent almost all of the two hours crying, hugging surviving kids, and sympathizing with bereaved families, and then all of a sudden it was the airing time,” she says.

One chief editor at the Iranian television’s satellite channel for which she was reporting refers to that first report as “absolutely amazing,” saying that, “She clearly had the impression of grief on her face, and even nearly choked on the air but that made it all the more natural. She kept doing the job perfectly, for more than 10 minutes.” While this journalist had not been able to avert the immediate emotional effects of the trauma on her own spirit, she had managed to survive professionally by immersing herself in the tragedy.

But is surviving professionally equal to surviving the impacts of trauma? Simpson answers, “No. We as journalists do have the means to repress the emotions associated with awful events for a time, but if we don’t adequately deal with the problem, the likelihood is that those repressed emotions surface to trouble us sometimes. So you might experience something terrible today and the compartmentalization factor comes in. But six months from now something will trigger those memories of the experience and it’ll be a very unpleasant recollection.”

Figley also believes that trauma memories can hardly be circumvented. The trauma psychologist compares concealing those memories to trying to store food in a container “which is not airtight.” He argues, “If it’s not airtight then it’s not going to be effective in storing the food. It’s the same way with these memories.”

Many journalists might be carrying disorders from as early as their first traumatizing assignment without even being aware of them. Many even go into denial. A documentary about reporters titled Deadline Iraq: The Uncensored Stories of the War shows how, in their early accounts of reporting on the war, the journalists interviewed deny the impacts of trauma with one of them, a grizzled veteran, even speaking of how absolutely emotionless he was as he witnessed deaths and destruction from close range.

But as Figley puts it, “Whether or not journalists deny that such a thing as trauma [among journalists] exists does not change the fact of the matter; it’s really how they go about conceiving or processing the experience that is the most important thing.”

When trauma overrides journalists

The C-130 plane crash and how it was reported on is still talked about by many Iranian journalists who are grappling with the effects of trauma on themselves. Behzad Tahmasbi, the Iranian News Network’s trauma reporter, comments, “There is no way that I can detach myself from that incident. We were all close friends. And what worsens things is that there is no positive side to it. When reporting on an earthquake you speak of survivors or reconstruction; here you become speechless. It’s a disaster all over.”

Figley explains that the strong difference in impact is because deaths of the people we work with as journalists might change our perception of the profession. “When you are a journalist, there is a certain degree of separation from the people that have been affected,” he says. “There is this veneer, this thin layer between yourself and the people that you are reporting on.” Based on his logic, when we hear or see the death of a colleague, that thin layer disappears all of a sudden. There is more of a sense of our own mortality because “it reminds us more dramatically of how vulnerable we are to death.”

Simpson, however, believes that fear of death or self-mortality might not be the sole reason for journalists’ different view of colleagues’ death as compared to other fatalities. “Each of us has a sense of what the world is like,” he says. “So if I’m a journalist, I have an understanding of what journalists face, what I face. And those other journalists are also a part of my life. When I witness a journalist’s death my sense of my mortality has changed, not because I’ve been intact but because people I’ve counted on being in my world are no longer there.”
Some progress

Despite extensive research on trauma and its impacts on various working communities, it seems that journalism has not yet received enough attention from the trauma experts and even the news organizations. Studies by the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma show that while emergency workers have recognized the need for self-care and organizational safeguards, particularly in the last decade, journalists may not yet have been recognized as potential candidates for employee safeguards and increased support.

Major news networks such as Reuters, BBC and AP have begun holding trauma training programs and counseling sessions for their journalists, but the trend is far from common at the international level. As Stephen Ward, professor of journalism at the University of British Columbia says, “The myth still exists that journalists shouldn’t need trauma programs because journalists are supposed to be ‘tough as nails.’”

Nevertheless, it seems that it is journalists themselves who can take that most important first step in reducing the adverse effects of trauma on them by increasing their level of awareness of the disorder. They will be better prepared once they know the psychological hazards of the job. And once they know them they can handle them much more easily than before, sometimes as easily as talking about the effects that covering violence and other traumatic events has had on them.

But if they do not have a knowledge of the impact trauma can have, coupled with a supportive environment to deal with its effects, it will be difficult to begin to address their emotional challenges.

Protecting freedom of information in B.C.

The first BC Information Summit on September 29, 2006 will bring together academics, legal experts, journalists, elected officials and experienced Freedom of Information requesters to explore the challenges and solutions of creating an open government and a free flow of information to the public.

Carolynne Burkholder spoke to organiser Darrell Evans about the Summit and the Freedom of Information and Privacy Association’s new Campaign for Open Government.

What are the challenges to the free flow of information today?

The challenges are that governments want to control the information that the public can have–or essentially anyone who might be a critic of government policy. To control information is to control the agenda and the social discourse to a great degree. Although the government may see it in its short-term interest to block access to certain kinds of information, it’s very unhealthy in the long-term for the society.

What’s the history of the BC Freedom of Information Act?

It was passed in 1992, proclaimed in 1993, and the first four years were the glory days when the government was really on board, with the Glen Clark administration.

[During] the second four years things started to gradually fall apart, and, in effect, they started to slow down the access to information. [It] became…more expensive and less timely.

It accelerated even further under the Liberals so that it’s gotten extremely expensive, extremely slow and there are many barriers. It’s declined drastically in its usefulness as a tool, and many people are abandoning their requests because it takes so long and they give up in frustration.

Do you think this trend will continue?

The history of these things is the pattern they always follow is some government passes an FOI act or approves an FOI act in order to clear the air from a previous government.

The most recent case is Stephen Harper who came into office promising this accountability act and one of the main parts of that was to strengthen the Access to Information Act. Those are the opportunities you get to strengthen it.

Absent that, it’s a downward slide because governments gradually learn how to resist requests and they reassert their strong desire…to retake control of the information. It’s just automatic; it’s just the way things are with our competitive democratic system.

So we’re trying to do something here that hasn’t been done without a major disaster, which is to reverse the government’s thinking and stop that downward slide.

What’s the main goal of your campaign?

Reform of the Act itself because it needs to be brought into the 21st century with access to electronic information and just more routine release of information. Also we want the government to reform [the] terrible way it manages and handles requests for information.

How are you going to accomplish this?

We’re going to put pressure on [the government] through various means. We will do the usual things like letter writing and petitions, but we’re going to release focused reports on specific aspects of freedom of information and how the government’s doing all along the campaign.

Journalists who retell violence relive trauma, too

When he was sent to cover the war ravaging Sierra Leone, reporter Ian Stewart had little knowledge or interest in the conflict – until he saw it unfold before his eyes.

On November 10, 1999 a child soldier shot Stewart in the head.

The bullet left him with paralysis and some brain damage. It was then that Stewart, former West African Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, realized that journalists are not passive observers. They are active participants who impact their surroundings and whose surroundings impact them.

In February, the University of Western Ontario hosted the Canadian Journalism Forum’s inaugural conference, Journalism in a Violent World.

The conference welcomed reporters, producers, news managers, media analysts, journalism instructors, students, and mental health professionals. They discussed the impact of violence and emotional trauma on journalists and their audience.

“It is emotionally taxing to relive violence through our notebook, our lens or our darkroom,” says Stewart.

Stewart faced violence every day he reported in Africa. He says he felt a sense of failure as he wrote stories about rebels who killed and raped innocent people daily, while his articles were never picked up by any of the 1600 North American newspapers that subscribed to the Associated Press wire service at the time.

He read from a journal entry he wrote while in Sierra Leone, “Why should God care if we don’t?” he asked. It was not until Stewart was shot that the world paid attention to the stories. This added to his sadness and distress.

Stewart was later diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

According to Dr. Anthony Feinstein, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, rates of PTSD among reporters are 25 to 28 percent compared to the general population who experiences PTSD at rates closer to four or five percent.

Feinstein explained that for many years there was a “culture of silence” about how covering crime, war, and accidents impacts journalists.

“Journalism is not a profession that is governed by a professional body or code like the medical profession,” says Cliff Lonsdale conference co-organizer and television journalism instructor at UWO. As a result, questions on how to deal with traumatized journalists have flown below the radar and, subsequently, journalists have often been left to fend for themselves.

“For years we didn’t pay nearly enough attention to what these violent situations were doing to our journalists short of getting them killed. Similarly, we haven’t paid much attention to how we extract these stories from victims who have survived traumatic situations,” Lonsdale says.

Documentary filmmaker, Giselle Portenier agrees. She shared her views on the ethics of interviewing the victims of social cleansing, rape and violent regimes. She emphasized the importance of sensitivity toward victims during the interview process and ensuring that they will not become more vulnerable as a result of speaking publicly about their story.

She followed death around the world, producing documentaries about violence against women in Guatemala, social cleansing in Colombia and honour killings in Pakistan but Portenier says she is most haunted by her memories of the survivors.

The conference served as an illuminating experience for journalism students who may find themselves in similar situations one day soon.

“I think that the awareness factor has been left out of the equation for many years,” says Anna Drahovzal, journalism student at Western. “We got to understand the impact of trauma first-hand. You can see it in them, on their faces, in their stories,” she says. Awareness that journalists need to look out for themselves and their colleagues is something Drahovzal believes students learned from the conference.

Unlike soldiers and first response teams, journalists are not formally schooled in dealing with the violence they may witness or endure. As such, journalists who have been traumatized often ignore or hide how much they have been impacted by what they have seen.

CBC cameraman Brian Kelly shared the story of how his co-worker Clark Todd was wounded and killed during heavy crossfire in Lebanon in 1983. Kelly and the rest of the crew had to leave Todd behind.

For a long time, Kelly thought he was fine and continued with his life and his career. One day in an edit suite, moments before he was set to shoot an interview, Kelly broke down and cried for hours. It was then that he realized the profound impacts of all that he had witnessed. For a long time he could not utter a word about Lebanon without crying.

Kelly recently went back to Lebanon to the scene of the incident for the first time since Todd’s death. The trip he said, did not offer him closure.

“Closure implies that it ends,” says Kelly. “But you never leave it behind.”

Now, Kelly participates in various simulation exercises with other journalists to prepare them for the field and the possibility of a traumatic or dangerous situation.

Since he was shot in 1999, Stewart left his job as a reporter for the Associated Press. He is now a PhD student at the University of Michigan where he studies the impacts of trauma on journalists.

“It’s time we do something to make people realize how our jobs impact us,” says Stewart.

As a result of the conference, the Canadian Journalism Forum plans to expand its reach, making it capable of gathering resources for news managers, journalism instructors and journalists. Conference co-organizer, Lonsdale plans to establish a board of trustees to ensure that the forum remains sustainable.

“I think there is a responsibility for the leaders in the profession to take an interest in what we do and encourage more responsible practices surrounding the impact of violence and trauma on journalists,” says Lonsdale.

“We especially have a responsibility to the younger generation to make things better in our profession.”

Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide

Digging Deeper: A Canadian Reporter’s Research Guide was co-written by four award-winning journalists who also teach journalism. Between reporting and teaching, clearly they grasped how insufficient American investigative reporting guides are for students north of the 49th Parallel. Digging Deeper is the first and only investigative reporting guide written with Canadian systems, policies and infrastructure in mind. That alone should guarantee its success across the country, but it’s not just the only Canadian investigative guide — it’s also a very good one.

Authors Cribb, Jobb, McKie and Vallance-Jones touch on all the bases for good reporting in the first half of the text, then they shift their focus in the second half to the very specific tools and techniques that will help journalists break through bureaucratic barriers and organizational holdups.

The general information — including a review of different primary and secondary sources and a summary of “twelve keys,” like tenacity, skepticism, and curiosity, to give a journalist the mentality for success — resembled many how-to journalism texts that preceded Digging Deeper. While law, interviewing techniques and information gathering are necessary elements to any report (and hence any reporting text), the information is sometimes too general to be valuable and too cursory to be informative. ‘Public records,’ for example, occupies almost 30 pages, but it needs triple that space to actually address the dozens of types of records mentioned and URLs listed. Young B.C. journalists scrolling through web address lists might be disappointed to learn that BC Online, listed as a great resource for land titles, is a pricey, subscription-only tool. And reporters looking for in-depth information about labour disputes will find that Ontario’s Ministry of Labour offers frequent online updates, whereas B.C.’s Labour Ministry only posts about one report a year. Digging Deeper’s authors all live and work east of the Canadian Rockies, and their oversight of B.C.-oriented issues is notable.

The media law section also suffers from a wealth of information condensed into a recap. The reader is introduced to the justice system, not shown how to approach it. The chapter’s concluding anecdote is a microcosm of the chapter itself, rehashing a 1992 Montreal Gazette story on judicial scandal without mentioning how the investigation was accomplished.

A research guide can only be so long, though, and elaborating on courts and records could easily have spun the compact 260-page book into a 1000-page tome.

Digging Deeper really shines when it moves away from the basics of good reporting and hones in on specific techniques. The text’s coverage of Freedom of Information, Computer-Assisted Reporting, and financial reporting make it truly invaluable.

Aptly, the authors note that journalists shy away from numbers. Then, they take the reader step by step through sample finance reports, excel spreadsheets and database managers, highlighting the most vital tools and info that each provides. The text offers tips, including what numbers should catch a journalist’s eye on a 10-K and what steps are necessary to sort spreadsheet data into chronological order.

The FOI section provides clear and encompassing guidance for facing reticent Information Officers who use fees and delays to waylay an information request. Digging Deeper’s links to sites like CAIRS — for past Access to Information requests — and provincial and federal ATI sites also make the FOI process more accessible to starting journalists.

Probably the most useful section of the book begins after the text ends. Appendices A, B, and C are guides to spreadsheets, databases and financial information, respectively. With bullet points, diagrams, and web links, book lays plain all the basics of three extremely valuable, rarely used tools that new journalists should embrace. The explanations are so methodical that following them is astoundingly easy.

A guide to Canadian investigative reporting and researching has been much-needed for years now, and Digging Deeper fills the void extremely well.

The Media’s Failure in Rwanda

Interview with Allan Thompson, professor of journalism at Carleton University and editor of the book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide.

The 1994 Rwanda genocide is undeniably one of the most atrocious events in recent history. But during the most tragic, deadly days in the small African nation in 1994, most media organizations failed to report on the events. Even worse, Rwanda’s own RTLM radio station actually incited people to commit mass killings.

In The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, scholars, journalists, and lawyers – including retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire who led the UNAMIR mission – present their own perspectives on the media and the events. Allan Thompson is the editor of The Media and the Rwanda Genocide.

Francis Plourde met with him during his stay in Vancouver, where he spoke about the media’s responsibility in the genocide. Thompson worked for 17 years for the Toronto Star and now teaches journalism at Carleton University. He is also the founder of the Rwanda Initiative, a partnership with the National University of Rwanda.

You had a long career as a journalist at the Toronto Star before taking an academic turn and focusing on Rwanda. How did you become interested in Rwanda in the first place?

I was not in Rwanda in 1994. At the time, I was at the foreign affairs bureau in Ottawa for the Toronto Star. It should have been my job to go there, but I didn’t. I was not engaged, the story didn’t capture my attention. Since then, I think I have been trying to make amends for not having been there in 1994. I went for the first time in 1996, to report on the repatriation of Hutu refugees. Back in Canada in 1996, I made it my mission to know more about Roméo Dallaire and to write about him.

You’re here to promote your book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. What are the main lessons readers should take from this book?

People were made familiar with the [Rwandan] media’s responsibility in the genocide through the “media trial” [against RTLM], but not enough attention was drawn to the role of the western media in 1994. They are part of the equation. The international community missed the most important story that year, even though there was compelling evidence of what was going on. In the US, we were covering the OJ Simpson trial and Tonia Harding’s story. In South Africa, it was the end of the Apartheid. There was still a war in the Balkans. When the media left [Rwanda] in April 1994, the killings intensified immediately. In physics, there’s the Heisenberg effect – a theory according to which the observer influences the behavior of his subject. I believe the media can have the same impact. In 1994, by not reporting the story, the international media contributed to the inverse. The perpetrators could act with impunity.

The media seem to share a great deal of the criticism…

Some journalists could do a good job, but the media at large failed to make it the big story of the day. In April and early May, there was no coverage. But in April 1994, 8,000 to 10,000 people were killed every day! Later, in July, hundreds of news organizations covered what was going on in Rwanda to some degree – the elections in South Africa were over then — but they were covering the story of the refugees. The problem is that people think it was the story of the genocide. It wasn’t. We have to go back and look more closely at the process of selecting what is news and what is not, because it was not always logical.

You also say that the media misunderstood the nature of the killings in Rwanda. They portrayed it an instance of tribal warfare rather than a genocide. What’s the difference?

In the news coverage, there was a sense of two ethnic groups killing each other indiscriminately. But it was a fairly organized massacre of one group by another one. It’s still a massacre, but it’s different. Mark Doyle [the east Africa correspondent in 1993-1994 for the BBC, who wrote a chapter in Thompson’s book] states that there were clear references to government-backed massacres in the first couple of days of the killings. [Doyle] was one of the first to use the word genocide, at the end of April, but he started reporting it initially as chaos and indiscriminate killings. The recognition of the genocide gave it a sense of morality.

You also refer to RTLM – its leaders were convicted in 2003 – to explain how media failed. How can we set rules to avoid another RTLM?

RTLM is probably the most extreme case of media failure. It was a radio station that was specifically created to spark the genocide. They had good music, they were different from Radio Rwanda, and they incited the population to hate the Tutsis and commit murders. Roméo Dallaire was aware of the impact of RTLM, but for some reason his mission had no media capacity. Now, most of the UN missions have their own radio stations to counter the effects of these messages. I’m reluctant to suggest that we regulate the media, but we have to try to build a professional media, so the extreme media are marginalized. I’d rather add something than take something away; it’s easier and it’s less problematic.

Carleton University created the Rwanda Initiative in 2004. Can you describe its main objectives?

In 2003, I went to Rwanda as a freelancer, and I organized a conference at Carleton University. I invited someone from Rwanda [to talk about the state of journalism in Rwanda]. We agreed that we should continue to work on something after the conference. He said there weren’t enough teachers to teach journalism in Rwanda. It’s how the Rwanda Initiative started. We sent 12 journalists and 12 journalism students last year. And we intend to do the same this year.

You went to Rwanda to help train media in 2006. How was the experience?

It’s still fragile. The media will report about the ministers and the policies, but they won’t criticize the president [Paul Kagamé – who was the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1994] directly. Despite the self-censorship and lack of professors, though, I have hope that things can get better. There are good students, and I hope they do good journalism.

With movies being filmed and books getting published, the Rwanda genocide is getting a momentum, but the media seem less likely to point out the events in Darfur. Are we repeating the same mistakes?

We have not fully absorbed the lessons from the genocide yet. At the technological level, we are in a much better position for Darfur than for Rwanda. In 1994, we didn’t have a phone network, and we didn’t have the Internet. But there are still the same problems. There are no journalists there, it’s far away, the resources for international reporting in the newsroom have decreased. There are only four or five Canadian journalists covering Africa: the Globe and Mail, CBC, CTV, Radio-Canada, and that’s about it. There is no other full-time journalism devoted to Africa.

How can we, as journalists, prevent another event like the Rwanda genocide?

With the 24-hour news trend, it’s becoming harder and harder to bring an issue onto the news agenda, but I think that individual journalists have to be more influential. They have to try to make a difference themselves. They have to fight for their stories rather than being passive players.

Gender, Conflict & Journalism: A handbook for South Asia

The idea of a handbook that combines the challenges of reporting on gender and conflict and how the two intersect was conceived during the planning for the UNESCO-Nepal Press Institute’s first Roundtable on The Gender Perspective in Conflict Reporting in 2004.

Although neither of the authors is from South Asia – the main focus of the handbook – both have extensive backgrounds in conflict journalism. Fiona Lloyd is a South African journalist who is the co-founder of Reporting for Peace, an organization that teaches journalists how to report effectively on conflicts. Ross Howard is a Vancouver-based journalist and consultant specializing in media development in conflict-stressed states and emerging democracies. He also teaches journalism at Langara College in Vancouver and is the president of Media & Democracy Group, a journalist development consortium.

The handbook, a short, yet comprehensive and practical guide connecting gender, conflict, and journalism, is divided into three sections. The first part of the handbook focuses on the current media environment and challenges facing journalists when reporting on gender and conflict. The second section provides practical strategies and skills for working journalists. The last part of the handbook recommends resources on gender and conflict reporting for further learning.

In discussing gender and conflict, Lloyd and Howard shun the “add women and stir formula” described as merely adding women to a story, getting women’s perspectives, and assigning female journalists to write “gender” stories. Instead they advocate redefining conflict from a gendered perspective – emphasizing balance, sensitivity to gender issues, and the inclusion of marginalized groups in reporting.

The authors believe the media has a role to play as mediators in conflicts and journalists should work to diffuse tension by promoting communication and understanding. A major question raised in the handbook is: “If we consciously try to write about conflict from a gender perspective, and consciously try to be conflict-sensitive, are we in danger of losing our neutrality as journalists?” Lloyd and Howard argue that thoroughly analyzing gender and conflict allows journalists to exercise more fairness and balance. Despite the discussion of fairness, balance, and objectivity, the view of the media as a mediator is prevalent throughout the text.

The first section also includes an interesting discussion of challenges facing journalists in their roles as reporter and activists, a look at the problems in media culture – including commercialization, commodification, and concentration – as well as a discussion of the challenges inherent in newsroom culture, including affirmative action and issues faced by female journalists.

The second section, skills and strategies for working journalists, provides practical strategies for journalists reporting on gender and conflict in South Asia. The section begins with a discussion of how journalists choose to frame conflict. Lloyd and Howard argue that journalists choose what they report on and what they leave out, which can lead to gender stereotyping and escalation in tensions.

The authors define “conflict sensitive” reporting, the approach they advocate, as having three main aspects: accuracy, balance, and responsibility. Accuracy is defined as more than just precision and fact-checking; it also includes context and differentiating propaganda from the truth. Balance also is more than merely giving equal coverage to each side. To Lloyd and Howard it includes fairness and impartiality. Responsibility is defined simply as “tell the truth and do no harm.”

The second section includes practical tips, such as how to determine the source of the conflict – lack of food and resources or xenophobia for example – how to mediate conflict through reporting, how to choose what to cover, and how to get away from the use of inappropriate language and labels in reporting.

Just one of the interesting examples the authors use to illustrate the necessity of conflict sensitive reporting is the analysis of the language used by journalists reporting on the first Gulf War who compare “us” westerners and “them,” the Iraqis. We have an army, while they have a war machine, we suppress, they destroy, we are brave, they are fanatical. This case study is one of the few examples of conflicts outside of South Asia in the handbook.

Lloyd and Howard give advice on how to gain access to women’s voices, official comments, and opinions of non-governmental organizations. The end of the section focuses on minimizing harm both for victims of trauma, and for journalists themselves, complete with case studies from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

The third section is dedicated to resources for journalists. Each website, book, and other resource is described in detail by the authors.

The Gender, Conflict & Journalism handbook is a good resource for journalists reporting on conflict in South Asia. Section two with practical advice for working journalists and section three with descriptions of other resources are particularly useful.

The main weakness of the handbook is its narrow focus – its primary relevance is in South Asia, although some of the practical tips could be used elsewhere –and its neglect to adequately answer questions of neutrality and objectivity, though this is briefly discussed in both the first and second sections.

Overall, Lloyd and Howard’s handbook is a well-written, easily digested and yet thorough look at gender and conflict and how journalists should report on these issues. In the future, journalists in regions such as the Middle East and Africa could benefit by the development of similar handbooks.

Conflict Sensitive Journalism in Practice

Conflict Sensitive Journalism in Practice

by Ross Howard, October 2005

The case for conflict sensitive journalism
The basics of conflict sensitive journalism
Examples and sources
Institutions and non-governmental organizations active in conflict sensitive
journalism

The case for conflict sensitive journalism

One doesn’t have to be a war correspondent to recognize that journalism and news media can incite violent conflict. In 1994, Radio Milles Collines in Rwanda incited genocide by employing metaphors and hate speech. Serbian state broadcasting during the 1995 and 1999 Balkan conflicts is almost equally infamous. Incompetent journalism and partisan news management can generate misinformation which inflames xenophobia, ethnic hatred, class warfare and violent conflict in almost any fragile state. The anti-Thai violence in Cambodia in 2003, triggered entirely by partisan media, is a more recent example. Radio Netherlands’ website on counteracting hate media indicates that hate radio is currently operating on five continents.

Less recognized, however, is the potential for journalism to influence conflict resolution. And less resolved is whether it should play that role. Is there such a thing as conflict-sensitive journalism? (To be clear, journalism here means reporting that seeks international standards of media reliability such as accuracy, impartiality or fair balance, and social responsibility.)

Although unremarked in the daily grind of news and in journalism education, the reality is that reliable journalism indeed contributes to conflict reduction. It is automatic or innate.

Reliable reporting, and responsibly written editorials and opinion, do things such as establish communication among disputant parties, correct misperceptions and identify underlying interests and offering solutions. The media provides an emotional outlet. It can offer solutions, and build confidence.

As Robert Karl Manoff of the Centre for War, Peace and the Media at New York University notes [1]: the regular journalistic activities are precisely the activities which professional conflict mediators conduct. Johannes Botes [2] at George Mason University similarly describes the parallels between the roles of professional journalists and professional conflict resolvers, such as diplomats and truce facilitators. Journalists and mediators both remain independent of the parties to a conflict. They share similar positions, functions and even attitudes. Of course, there are differences, such as journalists’ instinct for exposing anything secret.

As researchers Hannes Bauman and Melissa Siebert put it, in observing reporting on South Africa’s Truce and Reconciliation process in the 1990s, “journalists mediate conflict whether they intend to or not.” In other words, as journalists, when we do our jobs well, we do more than we think.

It is time to think about it more.

ROSS HOWARD is a Canadian journalist and consultant specializing in media development in conflict-stressed states and emerging democracies. He is president of the journalism development consortium Media & Democracy Group, a journalism faculty member of Langara College in Vancouver, and a freelance writer. He has trained journalists and conducted media assessments in countries including Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Nepal, Rwanda, and Burundi.

Howard is co-editor of The Power of Media (European Centre for Conflict Prevention); author of Conflict Sensitive Journalism, a handbook (IMPACS/International Media Support-Denmark), and An Operational Framework for Media and Peacebuilding (IMPACS-CIDA), and Media & Elections, a handbook, (IMS-IMPACS, and Gender, Conflic t& Journalism (forthcoming: UNESCO/NPI), and Radio Talkshows for Peacebuilding: A Guide (forthcoming: Search for Common Ground).

He is an award-winning former Senior Correspondent for The Globe and Mail newspaper and a former CTV Television editor. He has presented analyses on media and conflict/ democratization in Europe, Asia and North America. Ross Howard currently lives in Vancouver. Email: [email protected]

Conventional journalism training and development generally contains little or no reference to the wisdom of five decades of academic and professional study of conflict. Conflict analysis theory and skills are still not considered mainstream journalism prerequisites or practices.

However, at least in fragile and post-war states, some professional journalism developers are now broadening that mainstream. Their approach includes specifically recognizing what most cripples these stressed states, which is violent conflict. Often termed conflict-sensitive journalism, this training retains core journalism values and skills. But it includes an introduction to conflict analysis: the concept of conflict and most common causes, the forms of violence by which conflict is played out, and some insight into techniques of resolution. (See below, The basics of conflict sensitive journalism.) And in some cases it goes further, into interesting unconventional practices.

At the very least, these added capabilities create better story selection and much more insightful writing and broadcasting. At best, they substantially expand a stressed community’s dialogue and possibly offer glimpses of common ground.
Organizations within the $100-million-per-year journalism development sector, such as the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), US-based Internews, the Panos network, International Media Support, IMPACS, Media&Democracy Group in Canada and others now frequently include conflict sensitization modules within their programs in dozens of conflict-stressed countries. There is a nascent literature [3], and links to practitioners and conflict resolution organizations. As Robert Karl Manoff of the Centre for War, Peace and the Media at New York University notes, the regular journalistic activities are precisely the activities which professional conflict mediators conduct.

But Siebert and Bauman in South Africa in 1990 also argued that journalists should go beyond simply recognizing the roots of violence and their unintended roles as mediators. They argued journalists should consciously help manage conflict rather than exacerbate it, as was done by journalists selecting the right stories from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process to affirm the value of reconciliation.

Individually, many journalists will acknowledge a humanistic or moral willingness to reduce violence. When a CBC reporter recently seized a lighter from a gasoline-soaked protestor about to immolate himself at an Ottawa embassy, most colleagues justified it with references to putting human life ahead of just another protest story.

But applying that moral impulse as a collective or workplace obligation for journalists rarely wins endorsement from Western media professionals. [Interestingly, at the Carnegie Commission’s 2002 roundtable, “Journalists Covering Conflict: Norms of Conduct [4],” the strongest defense of moral obligation came from European reporters who had covered the Balkans conflict and ethnic cleansing, and from Jay Rosen, the American journalist-academic who leads the core-journalism restoration movement in the US.]

Nonetheless, as Jannie Botes reports in the IWPR book, Regional Media in Conflict [5], some journalists in the new South Africa walk a tightrope between ethical obligations to report without self-censorship, and social responsibility to avoid inflammatory or hate speech. Traditional journalists might remain wary of going beyond observing and reporting. But a newer generation raised on anti-apartheid experiences argue the media has a responsibility in reconciling groups in conflict.

Similarly, trainers and advisors working for CECORE in Uganda, Search for Common Ground in Central Africa, Panos in The Great Lakes region of Africa, and Internews in both Indonesia and in the Ferghanna Valley of Central Asia, have devised training to address violent conflict through journalism, rather than merely report it. In the Philippines and Indonesia, journalism which includes deliberately calming or conciliatory news is now competing with the conventional sensational fare, especially in rural communities, inspired by trainers from Internews, IREX and other large training organizations.

British journalist Jake Lynch is a leading proponent of deliberate media engagement in seeking peace [6]. With co-author Annabel McGoldrick, Lynch calls for journalists to address “their responsibility for the influence their coverage is likely to exert on what happens next.” His “workable ethic of responsibility” includes no specific imperative for news judgement, he says, but he also argues that “the choices [of influential news] we make will be based on what we actually want to happen – that is to say, peace.”

Sandra Melone and George Terzis of the European Centre for Conflict Prevention similarly argue that journalism should ensure balanced reporting but “cannot be neutral towards peace.” But neutrality is an old journalism code-word for objectivity, which itself has been replaced by words like impartial and fair. So do we sacrifice an essential journalistic core value, in moving to conflict-sensitive reporting? Probably not. But what about so-called peace journalism? Does it cross the line into advocacy? It’s debatable. But surprisingly few professionals in Western media seem prepared to debate conflict coverage at a time when sensationalistic and trivial reporting deserves new examination for its contribution to polarized, ill-informed and frightened communities.

However, some media development organizations go beyond debate and are making their intentions much clearer. They see and use journalistic techniques as a tool for transforming attitudes, promoting reconciliation and reducing conflict in war-torn countries. Organizations such as Search For Common Ground have pioneered intended-outcome programming, which uses news and entertaining broadcasting to change behaviour. Radio broadcasts such as soap operas, comedies, music shows and call-in shows can present information which helps break down stereotypes, exchanges viewpoints dispassionately, dispels myths and seeks commonalities in communities desperate for any media alternative to hate radio or state propaganda.

But is it journalism? By conventional definitions, no. Granted, the specialists at Search for Common Ground insist that they remain committed to essential elements of accuracy and responsibility in the information they provide. Certainly their material does not resemble propaganda, which relies on misinformation. And it is highly relevant to local situations, moreso than mere body-count news reporting.

Ultimately, as Francis Rolt of Search for Common Ground puts it [7] , organizations and individuals working in conflict zones have been blinded too long by these old arguments about whether journalism techniques should be used for conflict resolution. The media, in many forms, can be more than just news, Rolt argues, and can contribute to peace-building in many ways.

Footnotes
1. Manoff, Robert Karl: Role Plays. Track Two, Vol. 7 No. 4, December 1998.
2. Rubenstein et al: Frameworks for Interpreting Conflict, a Handbook for Journalists. Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University, 1994;
3. The Power of Media, A handbook for peacebuilders. European Centre for Conflict Prevention. Utrecht., 2002
4. Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, final report, New York, 1999.
5. Botes, Johannes, Regional Media in Conflict, Case Studies in War Reporting. Institute for War and Peace Reporting, London, 2000.
6. McGoldrick, Annabel and Lynch, Jake, Peace Journalism, in Reporting The World. Also available at www.transcend.org
7. Rolt, Francis et al, The Power of Media, A handbook for peacebuilders, European Centre for Conflict Prevention, Utrecht, 2003

The basics of conflict sensitive journalism

The relationship between journalism and conflict is a curious one. Although conflict – be it political, social or military – is a primary focus, often to the point of obsession for conventional journalism, most journalists know surprisingly little about it. There is, in most journalism training and practice, precious little familiarity with conflict as a social process. The consequence can be a reporting style that feeds on and repeats the worst stereotypes, the drama and the immediacy of conflict, and fuels their ignition into violence.

Journalism trainers and media developers in fragile or emerging states have increasingly recognized that conventional training is insufficient in preparing journalists in such places to report on what is often seen and described as intractable conflict and inevitable violence. Something additional to conventional standards such as accuracy, and skills such as interviewing and editing, is needed to overcome the legacies of authoritarian government, corruption, poverty and an absence of media diversity, editorial independence and a media-supportive legal infrastructure.

What has emerged is an expanded concept of journalism development, a sort of professionalism-plus approach, sometimes called conflict-sensitive journalism. It involves stressing the core values of professional reporting, plus sensitizing journalists to their innate potential as unintended mediators in conflicted societies, and introducing them to a rudimentary analysis of conflict. It argues that journalism which repeats simplistic or stereotyped claims about violence without seeking deeper explanations will mislead citizens into believing violence is the only recourse in all conflicts.

Conflict sensitive journalism can inject context, an appreciation for root causes, and a new capacity to seek and analyze possible solutions, to the otherwise daily repeating of violent incidents as news. At best, when reported reliably, these elements can alter a community’s handling of its own conflicts.

Essential elements of rudimentary conflict analysis for journalists often include these points:

• Almost all conflict emerges from a handful of causes, most notably inadequately shared resources such as food or housing, no communication between disputants, unresolved grievances and unevenly distributed power. Conflict turns violent when no common ground or shared interest can be established.
• Violence can emerge in several forms, including cultural practices such as widely-practiced hate speech and racial (or religious or gender) discrimination. The violence can also be institutionalized by legally sanctioned racism, sexism, colonialism, nepotism and corruption.
• Conflict almost inevitably ends because of one-party dominance, withdrawal and irresolution, compromise, or real transformation of a dispute into a shared solution. Journalists play some of the roles of a mediator, providing resources – information – to communities to resolve conflict. Successful resolution almost invariably requires an expanded number of interests with new interests, trade-offs and alternatives.
• Journalism risks being manipulated by narrow interests and unchallenged mythologies, especially from traditional elites. A basic analysis of a conflict broadens journalists’ insights, perspectives and sources of information, which produces more diverse stories.
• In acknowledging their innate capacity as mediators, and applying basic conflict analysis, conflict-sensitive journalists apply more rigorous scrutiny to the words and images they apply in their reporting:

• Avoiding emotional and imprecise words such as massacre and genocide, terrorist, fanatic and extremist. Call people what they call themselves. Avoid words like devastated, tragic and terrorized.
• Defining conflicts as multi-faceted, and seeking commonalities as well as points of disagreement among disputants, and seeking alternative perspectives and solutions to the conflict.
• Attributing claims and allegations, and avoiding unsubstantiated descriptions as facts.
• Avoiding the unjustified use of racial or cultural identities in stories and the exclusion of gender diversity in seeking perspectives and comment.

Training courses and modules for conflict sensitive reporting often provide examples of how traditional reporting describes a violent event, without verifying information or not going beyond bare facts, and using unnecessarily vivid and emotional words such as massacre. In contrast, a conflict-sensitive report would report what is known and give less emphasis to unverifiable claims. It would ensure both sides are included in the report, and it would include people who condemn the violence and offer solutions. It would not blame the conflict on ethnicity and would not repeatedly identify the combatants or victims only by their ethnic identity, if there are deeper underlying causes of the conflict.

Essentially, conflict-sensitive journalism is a reiteration of the elemental principles of professional reporting with added response to the situation of unskilled media workers accustomed to severe constraints, in environments prone to violent conflict. Conflict-sensitivity, however, need not be unique to emerging democracies’ media professionals. It is equally relevant to media coverage of any Western community’s strife.

Examples and Sources
The vast majority of specific examples of conflict-sensitivity training are contained within short or long-term international initiatives to advance media development as an element of conflict resolution and post-conflict democratization. Most initiatives are delivered by NGOs and consultancies.

• International Media Support (Denmark) presented a series of conflict-sensitive reporting workshops and seminars for journalists in Sri Lanka in 2002 following declaration of a truce in the country’s extended civil war. The program was designed to address highly unreliable and partisan reporting which was rapidly eroding public confidence in the truce, by media narrowly representing single viewpoints in the conflict.

• Search for Common Ground (USA) presented a week-long training course in Burundi in professional and conflict-sensitive reporting for radio producers and reporters from Central and East African countries which have experienced intense conflict, in 2003.

• International Media Support (Denmark) developed, in collaboration with local partner, The Nepal Press Institute, a program of conflict sensitive training for for journalists from traditionally highly politicized and competitive media outlets, who worked as teams to produce major non-partisan reports on significant national issues for simultaneous countrywide distribution in Nepal in 2003-2004.

• Internews (USA) initiated training for more than 200 radio and print journalists in handling conflict issues in their communities – to move beyond “body count journalism” –in recognition of the massively expanded but unprofessional media’s opportunity to play a pivotal role in de-escalating conflict in Indonesia in 2002-2003.

• Internationally-supported Medios para la Paz (Media for Peace) has operated in Colombia since 1997 to address the difficulties of reliable reporting in the midst of violent conflict. Its activities include media professionals’ support and training based on the premise that media coverage can exacerbate a conflict or help reduce it. Much of its work focuses on reporting that can have a positive impact on efforts to achieve peace.

• Search for Common Ground, a US-based conflict resolution organization, presented a 10-day workshop in 2005 for senior radio talk show hosts from 20 African countries to consider techniques of broadcasting likely to retain and better inform audiences without exploiting conflict issues in their communities. A handbook on conflict-sensitive talk-radio was produced for international use.

Jobb’s Law Book is Indispensable for Journalists

Here’s a news flash: the wheels of justice turn slowly. If you’ve spent any time covering the courts, you’ve seen ample evidence of this fact. The result? Trials are drawn out, alleged criminals are tapped out (lawyers don’t come cheap, after all), and victims are out-and-out amazed that they’ve been drawn into a system that can intrude on their lives for years on end as a case makes its way from initial investigation to last avenue of appeal. This slow march to completion of a criminal case or civil dispute is one of the most criticized aspects of the legal system.

That’s not to say that a slow, methodical process is by definition a bad one–work refined over the course of years can benefit greatly as a result. Professor Dean Jobb’s text Media Law for Canadian Journalists is an example of instructive and engaging writing, borne and developed over time. The ideas and methodology that inform the book are drawn from Dean’s 15 years of teaching media law and justice system fundamentals to students in the journalism program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, and more than 20 years as an award-winning newspaper reporter.

Before the accolades, let me provide a necessary bit of disclosure: This text is required reading in the course I currently teach at King’s College – I picked up where Dean left off, teaching “The News Media & the Courts.” I’ve known Dean Jobb for more than a decade, back when we both covered the criminal courts.

I only wish I had this text back then–it’s only now, with the benefit of hindsight (and a law degree) that I realize how little I knew when I was first sent to court. I had no training, and had never even seen the inside of a courtroom prior to covering my first high-profile trial. My experience is not unique. Despite the complexity of legal proceedings and the potential for costly and damaging errors due to inaccurate reportage, the court beat is often thrust upon neophyte reporters. Media Law for Canadian Journalists is an invaluable reference for journalists who cover the courts and journalists who want to stay OUT of court – that is, not getting sued or cited for contempt.

Dean is particularly adept at figuring out how much detail his audience needs to understand a significant bit of case law or legal principle. But he resists the temptation to get bogged down in the abysmally arcane aspects of legal reasoning. After all, this is a text for journalists, not lawyers.

The text covers the basics of how the courts function, including the distinction between criminal and civil law, and the nature, scope and function of different types of publication bans; how to avoid getting sued for defamation or cited for contempt of court, as well how to gain access to hearings, documents and records.

When it comes to reporting on court proceedings, there’s little that’s intuitive, so Dean educates his readers through real-life examples, showing where reporters’ assumptions of what was happening and why caused them to miss the point entirely. Among the many common misapprehensions and mistakes laid bare by the text are the following:

  • Reporting on the maximum sentence that may be imposed for a crime without ensuring that readers understand that the maximum is rarely imposed, since it is reserved for the most serious situations and worst offenders;

  • In a criminal trial, there’s nothing shocking, surprising, or even unusual about the fact that an accused person may not take the stand in their own defense. After all, it’s up to the Crown to prove the case against the accused. The accused does not have the responsibility of disproving the Crown’s case; and

  • When criminal charges against an accused person do not proceed because a court determines that evidence was obtained in a way that violated the accused’s Charter rights, reporters should not frame this as “a mere technicality.” Holding police to the standards set out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is of benefit to us all.

If, at a minimum, all new crime and justice reporters were required to read the chapters that explain how the courts work, and how to cover the criminal courts, the most common blunders would be avoided.

One critical lesson the text brings home to my students is that they may well face legal challenges or problems from Day One on the job. These issues aren’t solely the concern of investigative journalists or highly-placed newsroom decision-makers. The most routine of assignments may give rise to an opportunity to challenge an existing law or policy or, conversely, to find oneself in contempt or facing a defamation action. One striking example Dean uses to make this point is that of a local newspaper reporter assigned to cover a police sergeant’s remarks at a conference, where the sergeant spoke of possible connections between Hells’ Angels and two small-town Nova Scotia motorcycle groups. The reporter diligently reported the officer’s comments–undoubtedly operating under the misapprehension that all was safe. I mean, the officer said it himself, didn’t he? And then, to make the story even sexier, the editor who reviewed the story (who was also apparently oblivious to the defamatory nature of the sergeant’s comments) set up the story with the following headline: “Watch Out For Big-Time Crime: Criminal Gangs Affect Us All, Police Warn.”

Dean effectively employs this example as a jumping-off point for an explanation of the murky area of defamation law that is as lucid and accessible as any I’ve ever read. This career journalist doesn’t let his years in the reporting trenches colour his assessment of defamation law. Many members of the media (as well as the lawyers who represent them) often fret about “libel chill,” a concept Jobb defines as one in which “important stories are toned down or ignored for fear of attracting an expensive defamation suit.” Let me be clear: Prof. Jobb has little time for these whiners; instead, he tells journalists to suck it up (OK, those are my words, not his) and to practice their craft more effectively. They should do so not by living in fear of lawsuits, but by using the integral intellectual tools of skepticism, restraint, and precision.

Maybe it’s because Dean is exercising the very restraint he preaches, or perhaps it’s that I’m more cynical than he, but I do believe the text is lacking a frank description of how some of the major players in the system tend to view the media. I know judges, lawyers, and court support staff who understand the role of media in a free and democratic society. I have observed and, in some cases, met and interviewed victims, plaintiffs and defendants in high-profile civil cases and even criminal accused who likewise understand their role in the public sphere.

But, during my time covering the courts, I have also had many negative interactions. I have been confronted gatekeepers who act capriciously, who are motivated by self-interest, who ignore the role of media as public surrogate, or who are simply irked that the media are intruding on THEIR turf. I’ve heard learned judges suggest that my work is solely about my self-interest in garnering more viewers, or crafting more inflammatory headlines–not about informing people and shining a bright light on a system that is of concern to us all. I have had to bite my tongue as I listen to yet another lawyer make yet another sweeping statement about the nature of media–observations based on a single experience with “some reporter” (there’s never a name–reporters are all alike to them) many years ago. I’ve been spit on (and yes, I mean that literally) by criminal defendants, and jostled and threatened by their supporters in court house foyers.

Covering the court beat is fascinating. The issues are challenging, and the stories are rife with human drama. For journalists who understand their role as educators, it can be a satisfying environment in which to learn, and to share. But it’s often not a pleasant environment. I’m not sure that Media Law for Canadian Journalists paints an appropriately accurate/bleak a picture of the environment many new legal affairs reporters will face. But, hey, they’ll sort that out on their own soon enough, won’t they?

When my students eventually face that reality, they will have the tools, and the understanding of how the system works, thanks to Dean’s efforts. I anticipate this text will sit on their desks, closely-guarded and well-thumbed, as they make their own way through the system.