In the competitive world of media, information flies around at break-neck speed. There is little time for checking facts and images or corroborating information and virtually no space for laid back discussions on the ethics of journalism.
The modern newsroom, therefore, has become a challenging place even for experienced professional journalists.
When time is scarce, reporters and editors need to pause and take a moment to judge the potential impact of offensive, inflammatory content.
The dangers of hate speech in journalism are well known and in many parts of the world they have had tragic consequences.
In places some journalists have become foot-soldiers for propaganda and conflict. Many have played a deplorable role in regional conflicts and in some extreme cases they have contributed to acts of unspeakable violence between communities.
Whenever media are manipulated by politicians and others in defence of country, culture, religion and race, they have the potential to do harm. Even the best journalists can sometimes, inadvertently, do damage when they report controversial stories out of context.
A failure of principle in the newsroom and poor understanding of the potential impact of the words and images can lead to acts of journalism that encourage hatred and violence.
While most journalists understand that they have a duty to tell the truth and to report on what is being said and who is saying it, they often fail to balance that responsibility against another widely recognised cardinal principle of journalism, which is to minimise harm.
But how do journalists judge what is acceptable and what is intolerable? How do they embed in their daily work routine a way of assessing what is threatening?
It’s a tricky task to judge exactly what constitutes hate-speech. There is no accepted international definition and the tolerance levels of speech vary dramatically from country to country.
To find a way through this minefield, journalists must take into consideration the wider context in which people express themselves. They must focus not just on what is said, but what is intended. It’s not just a matter of law or socially acceptable behaviour; it’s a question of whether speech aims to do others harm, particularly at moments when there is the threat of immediate violence.
The Ethical Journalists Network (EJN) has developed a check-list based upon international standards. It highlights some questions to be asked in the gathering, preparation and dissemination of news and information that will help journalists and editors place what is said and who is saying it in an ethical context.
Journalists are often accused of hate-speech, and indeed some commentators willingly indulge in provocative and abusive talk when it suits them, but in the vast majority of cases journalists and media are guilty only of reporting the foul-mouthed statements of others.
In particular, journalists and media are regularly trapped by media-savvy and unscrupulous politicians and community leaders. These skilful users of media stir up disputes and discord in support of their own prejudices and bigoted opinions and rely on media to give coverage to their sensational claims and opinions no matter how incendiary they are.
Journalists and editors must understand that just because someone says something outrageous that does not make it news. Journalists have to examine the context in which it is said and the status and reputation of who is saying it.
A rabble-rousing politician who is adept in manipulating an audience should not get media coverage just because they create a negative climate or make unsubstantiated and controversial comments.
When people who are not public figures engage in hate-speech, it might be wise to ignore them entirely. A good example is Terry Jones the Holy Koran-burning pastor in Florida who was an unknown person with marginal influence even in his rural backwater but who became an overnight global media sensation. On reflection most ethical journalists might say he was entitled to no publicity for his provocative threats.
Even when people are public figures media have to make sure they do not draw undue attention to politicians and other influential people whose only aim is to create a negative climate towards people whose rights should be respected, particularly those from vulnerable and marginalised groups. Often these rights are recognised under constitutional guarantees at home and globally.
In particular, journalists have to scrutinise speakers and analyse their words, examine their facts and claims, and judge carefully the intention and impact of their interventions. It is not the job of journalists to adopt counter positions, but claims and facts should be tested, whoever is speaking.
Freedom of speech is a right for everyone, including politicians and public figures and it is the job of the journalist to ensure that everyone has their say, but that does not mean granting a licence to lie, or spread malicious gossip or to encourage hostility and violence against any particular group. When people speak out of turn good journalism should be there to set the record straight for all.
Speech that is dangerous or controversial arises particularly when times are hard, social tensions are acute and politicians are at war with one another.
Journalists must take into account the public atmosphere at the time the speech is being made. The heat of an election campaign when political groups are challenging each other and jostling for public attention often provides the background for inflammatory comments. Journalists have to judge whether expression is fair, fact-based and reasonable in the circumstances.
Where we have doubt about directly quoting hateful speech it may be useful to report that insulting comments were made without repeating the exact terms of the insult.
Above all journalists have to be careful. They should recognise the context including where there are patterns of discrimination against ethnic and other groups, including indigenous peoples and minorities.
Such groups are not entitled to privileged media attention because journalists have to respect the rights of all, but these groups are often the victims of particular targeting.
An academic debate held in the context of discussion of research and controversial findings can be relatively innocuous or neutral but the same debate may become dangerous if it is held in the context of local and specific conditions, where people are uncertain and anxious about their security and future.
It is important for journalists to ask themselves: what is the impact of this on the people immediately affected by the speech? Are they able to absorb the speech in conditions of relative security? Is this expression designed or intended to make matters worse or better? Who is affected negatively by the expression?
A Checklist for Tolerance
1. When dealing with stories where political hate-speech is used it is vital not to sensationalise. Ethical journalists will ask:
· It may be outrageous, but is it newsworthy? What is the intention of the speaker?
·What will be the impact of publication?
·Is there a danger of inflaming passions and incitement to violence?
·Is the speech fact-based and have the claims been tested?
2 In gathering and editing controversial material, journalists should avoid a rush to publish. It is helpful to pause, even if only for a few moments, to reflect on the contents of the story:
·Have we avoided cliché and stereotypes?
·Have we asked all the relevant and necessary questions?
·Have we been sensitive to our audience?
·Have we been temperate in use of language?
·Do the pictures tell the story without resorting to violence and voyeurism?
·Have we used diverse sources and included the voices of relevant minorities?
·Does it meet standards set in editorial and ethical codes?
3. One last look and moment of reflection is always useful before pushing the button to publish:
·Have we done good work?
·Are there any nagging doubts?
·And, finally, should I ask a colleague?