30 May 6. Let’s discuss:
- How do journalists find the balance between individual and public interest rights?
- How do we define ‘serving the public interest’?
At the heart of this case study is a difficult question – what does serving the public interest mean for journalists? As per the Canadian Association of Journalists ethics guidelines, what does it mean to put the needs of our viewers, listeners and readers at the forefront of our newsgathering and editorial decisions?
Does serving the public interest mean content warnings? Does it mean editing out details that make people uncomfortable? Or does it mean paraphrasing graphic details to soften their impact? Where do we draw the line in terms of the information we provide in telling these stories? In other words, where’s the balance between what is legally permissible, and ethically responsible to report?
Dean Jobb addresses the issue of fair and balanced reporting about court cases, when those cases include graphic evidence and language, in his book Media Law for Canadian Journalists. “Good court reportage conveys the horror of a crime and the reality of court proceedings, but with restraint. Writers who unduly exploit courtroom drama and emotion run the risk of distorting reality and may expose the media as a whole to accusations of sensationalising events to attract readers, viewers or listeners.”1 Jobb, Dean. Media Law for Canadian Journalists, third edition (Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications Limited, 2018); p. 171 Jobb is referring to court cases, but his advice could apply to any news story that includes graphic content.
Clearly, some reports are going to offend people and may include details that are triggering in some instances. Moreover, in the age of widespread social media, news stories can be copied and spread to people across the globe. It’s important to take these factors into consideration and think carefully about how we convey meaning when reporting on sensitive topics. Words matter. No one knows that better than journalists!
But there’s another side of this issue: something else that journalists must take into consideration. What if making our audience uncomfortable is putting their needs first? As Lisa Taylor points out, with regards to the 2018 news article about the man convicted of molesting his young daughter: “This…is a story we need to confront in all its ugliness. That’s why I will always…err a little more on the side of more detail, not less detail.”
News often contains ugly, disturbing information. The discovery of mass, unmarked graves of Indigenous children at former residential schools. Cases of horrific animal abuse. The police killing of unarmed Black people. Mass rape used as a weapon in civil wars. The photo of the washed-up body of a young refugee child, who drowned while trying to escape the civil war in Syria. 2Koksal, Nil; Mayor, Lisa. “The Family of Alan Kurdi, The Syrian ‘Boy on the Beach’ is Coming to Canada.” CBC News, 27 November, 2015. https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/alan-kurdi-family-canada-refugees-1.3338703 These are some obvious examples, but what about other, less obvious examples of reporting that may upset people? The archived complaints to the NNC reveal a long list of topics that are considered sensitive issues by some – from reporting on mental health to reporting on impaired drivers.3“Complaint type – Sensitive issues.” National NewsMedia Council. https://www.mediacouncil.ca/complaint-type-sensitive-issues/
- 1Jobb, Dean. Media Law for Canadian Journalists, third edition (Toronto: Emond Montgomery Publications Limited, 2018); p. 171
- 2Koksal, Nil; Mayor, Lisa. “The Family of Alan Kurdi, The Syrian ‘Boy on the Beach’ is Coming to Canada.” CBC News, 27 November, 2015. https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/alan-kurdi-family-canada-refugees-1.3338703
- 3“Complaint type – Sensitive issues.” National NewsMedia Council. https://www.mediacouncil.ca/complaint-type-sensitive-issues/