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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Global

Duty of care: Newsrooms must address psychological trauma

As 2016 draws to a close, organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists are preparing their final tallies of the number of journalists killed over the past year. The CPJ has provided systematic data on the deaths of reporters since 1992. Groups like Reporters without Borders and the International Safety Institute also provide information on these casualties, hoping to raise awareness about the dangers that journalists face in the field and at home.

These grim statistics are vital to the broader conversation on journalistic safety. Because of these yearly tallies, news industry practitioners and members of the general public can understand the hard, cold facts: Reporters often die in the process of seeking the truth and sharing it with the world.

But journalists also face another danger, and you won’t find many organizations publishing yearly statistics on this particular peril. The unseen wounds of bearing witness are harder to track. It has become increasingly clear in recent years that psychological trauma is a major risk in news reporting. Because journalists cover things like car accidents, shootings, natural catastrophes and war, they are potential victims of the emotional fallout that can range from minor symptoms of stress and anxiety to full-blown PTSD.

Luckily, a number of organizations are speaking out about this problem. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is one such group. The Center conducts research on the issue, aggregates research conducted elsewhere, and provides encouragement for journalists who recognize that they are not functioning the way they once did.

Freelance journalist Nadine Marroushi is one person who benefited from the Dart Center’s help. She found herself suffering from PTSD after covering the 2013 Rabaa Square massacre in Cairo, and later, the conflict in the North Sinai region of Egypt.

“All I knew is that I felt very, very sad all the time and could not feel happy. It’s a feeling that I’ve not had since I’ve come out of that. It’s just that you are constantly sad and you constantly just see black, black and white. You feel hopeless about everything,” Marroushi said.

It was the Dart Center staff that helped Marroushi identify her problem and get the proper help. But as a freelancer, Marroushi had to pay for her own therapy — a cost that was crushing, and, in her view, unethical.

“They [news organizations] need to have much more of a sense of a duty of care toward their freelancers. Look, even if you’ve written for them once, they’ve used your story. They’ve paid you. It shouldn’t just end with, ‘Well, we’ve paid you your money, and that’s it’,” Marroushi said.

The duty of care

Marroushi’s invocation of the “duty of care” raises a number of questions that are central to journalism ethics. News industry commentators have increasingly discussed the ethics of covering trauma, crucially arguing that journalism schools need to add this topic to their curricula. But the news industry rarely represents the mental health of the journalists themselves as an ethical issue in its own right.

There are a couple of reasons for the omission of reporters’ own trauma from the conversation on journalism ethics. Looking at the U.S. news industry’s major ethical codes, one reason becomes particularly clear.  The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states in its preamble that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” Because of this, the SPJ defines ethical journalism as a practice that “strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”

In other words, the SPJ sees journalism ethics as a relationship between the individual journalist and the public. The journalist is the one who must act ethically, and the public is the beneficiary of this ethical action. When the SPJ calls for ethical journalism to “minimize harm,” the idea is that the journalist will minimize the potential harm faced by news sources, or members of the public more broadly. The notion of “harm” does not concern the journalist him or herself because the journalist is responsible for the public and must engage in the best possible practices on the public’s behalf.

But if journalism ethics is all about “best practices,” then aren’t there a set of best practices for the protection of the journalists themselves? Who is responsible for the journalists?

Where the question of physical safety is concerned, news editors and executives have slowly united in their efforts at preventing the injuries and deaths of reporters in the field. For example, a number of news outlets recently co-signed a set of principles for ensuring the physical safety of freelancers in the field. But this document doesn’t mention the type of emotional trauma that freelancer Marroushi experienced.

“But if journalism ethics is all about ‘best practices,’ then aren’t there a set of best practices for the protection of the journalists themselves?”

Neither does the American Society of News Editors’ Statement of Principles.  This code of ethics follows the SPJ’s code in assuming that journalism ethics is a set of standards solely meant to protect the general public. When the ASNE statement discusses the concept of “responsibility,” it does so in terms of journalists’ responsibility toward the public itself: “These principles are intended to preserve, protect and strengthen the bond of trust and respect between American journalists and the American people.”

ethical treatment of journalists, more ethical journalism

There’s certainly nothing wrong with this dedication to safeguarding the people’s right to be informed. Our democracy (ideally) depends on this dedication. But there’s actually a direct link between the well-being of the journalist and the journalist’s ability to ethically serve the public. How can the journalist remain “impartial,” for example, when he or she is drowning in the symptoms of PTSD? How can the journalist “be accountable and transparent” when he or she cannot even process the horrors of the story?

News organizations have a “duty of care” for journalists’ mental health, not only because it’s the decent thing to do. They also have a “duty of care” for reporters’ psychological well-being because this well-being (or lack thereof) can decisively impact the journalists’ own ability to remain ethical. And as Marroushi bravely asserted, this duty of care does not only extend to journalists who are on the staff of a major news organization. It also extends to the freelancers who increasingly bear the brunt of the world’s most traumatizing stories.

In light of this issue, the field of journalism ethics shouldn’t stop at the analysis of the individual journalist’s responsibility toward the public. Journalism ethicists also need to study the ethical treatment of the journalists themselves. Governments, third-party organizations and especially news editors have a responsibility toward their employees. They should do everything in their power to keep their reporters as safe as possible, protecting them from the injuries they can see, and from the psychic wounds that are no less painful for their invisibility.

Lindsay Palmer is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison. She studies global media ethics from a qualitative perspective, especially focusing on the cultural labor of conflict correspondents in the digital age.

Charlie Hebdo Controversy Raises Ethical Questions on a Global Scale

The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is notorious for causing controversy. Long before the January 2015 attack on the publication’s journalists, cartoonists were raising eyebrows with images that some people found to be distasteful at best and racist at worst.

Apologists for the magazine have always responded by invoking the political power of satire, as well as the press’s right to free speech.

Now Charlie Hebdo is embroiled in another controversy, this one centering on the publication’s depiction of Syrian refugees struggling—often unsuccessfully—to make it safely to Europe. The social media sphere has exploded in debate, with some commentators asserting that Charlie is mocking Syrian refugees like 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, and others declaring that the magazine is actually criticizing the European nations that have failed to help the Syrian migrants.

This debate raises ethical questions that are inevitably global in nature. As the media ethicist Stephen Ward argues, “Global power entails global responsibility.” This means that a globally recognized outlet like Charlie Hebdo doesn’t get to simply be a “French” magazine anymore, speaking only to a French audience. In fact, this publication can’t even claim to be strictly “European,” especially now that people around the world have held vigils, saying “We are all Charlie.”

It’s time for publications like Charlie Hebdo to stop pretending that they only have a national or regional audience. That means paying more attention to the diverse perspectives of an increasingly global public. It also means being more transparent about who and what these cartoons are actually for. If “we are all Charlie,” then Charlie might benefit from thinking about all of us.

Protecting freelancers: A Conversation with Joel Simon of the Committee to Protect Journalists

When I first heard that the Committee to Protect Journalists had introduced a new set of standards on the protection of freelancers, I was skeptical. Would any of the major news organizations publicly embrace these standards? Even more importantly, would they live by them?

It’s not that news editors don’t care about the journalists they hire. It’s just that taking care of freelancers costs a lot of money, money that news organizations are scrambling to save in the era of budget cuts, layoffs, and the closure of international news bureaus. When we’re talking about “big brand” news reporting, in other words, we’re talking about huge machines—machines that are bigger than any individual news executive. Still, individual freelancers are dying more and more frequently, pointing to the timeliness of this new set of standards.

Only two months after the CPJ’s announcement, it’s still too early to tell what impact the standards will have. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma’s website provides a list of the news organizations that endorsed this call for reform, and the list includes some venerable names: The Associated Press and the BBC, just to mention a few. But it’s difficult to say exactly how these standards—remarkable in their breadth and commendable in their goals—will be applied.

For media ethicists like me, the question of application is key. I specialize in global journalism ethics, and I want to think past the perpetual critique of what journalists should be doing for their public. While that question remains vital to the field of media ethics, it is also essential that we think about the ethical treatment of the journalists themselves. How are major news organizations grappling with the question of safety in the field, for example, and what do these organizations owe to the myriad news employees who do not possess that increasingly elusive title—that of the “staff correspondent?”

I recently spoke with CPJ executive director Joel Simon, and he made an important point: Even when we’re talking about the best practices for ensuring the safety of journalists, we should avoid abstract concepts. In order to do the question justice, we need to think more precisely about the historical, economic, and geopolitical context in which a given news organization is operating. Here’s an edited account of our conversation.

LP:       What could managing editors and news directors do to make war correspondents safer?

JS:       First of all, most of the violence committed against journalists is not committed against international journalists from newsrooms overseen by managing editors. Most of the journalists who are killed in conflict zones are local journalists, and they’re targeted because of their coverage. And a much smaller percentage of them are international correspondents, and most of those are actually crossfire incidents. So certainly when you’re talking about international correspondents and you have a historical perspective, I think safety training is very helpful. And there has been more of an acceptance and recognition of the importance of adequate security training and equipment. But if you look at the information ecosystem, then the role that managing editors can play is fairly limited because many of the folks who are in this ecosystem and providing information about conflicts are certainly not international or Western correspondents. And some of them don’t want to even necessarily self-identify as journalists.

LP:      So, in terms of this ecosystem, what would you say about how it’s been changing—the relationship between these big news brands and the outsourcing of labor to these less protected news employees?

JS:       Well, look. I spent my whole career as a freelance journalist in Latin America. So, this is not a new phenomenon. There’s always been a reliance on freelancers, particularly in these sorts of “second tier” conflicts, for the kind of things that may not have made the front pages every day, but you had to cover. But it’s become more pronounced for a variety of reasons. One is that the media industry is less financially stable because the revenue stream has been disrupted by technology, and so they have fewer resources to support fully staffed bureaus. And that’s been well documented, and everyone knows all about that. Then you’ve got the risk profile. In some parts of the world—this is not true everywhere, but certainly in some parts of the world—being a Westerner or being a Western journalist is so dangerous that you’re not able to move around in a way that would allow you to carry out the most basic kind of reporting. So you need to rely on local people who can blend in more easily. And the third thing is that the technology has made it possible for people who are in the right place at the right time to engage in journalism and feed this news cycle. There’s always been this kind of—now it would be called crowdsourcing—element to covering major global events. But now these people can participate directly. That changes the dynamic. And the last thing I would mention is that when you look at conflict zones and the role that journalists have played historically, what’s made journalists relatively safe in conflict zones is their utility to all parties. And that utility was a function of the collective information monopoly that journalists exercised. You wanted to communicate even if you were in a pretty rough neighborhood and you were kind of unsafe for yourself. You really didn’t have a choice other than to talk to the media. So the media was inherently useful, and that helped make journalists safe. And now that’s no longer the case. There are alternative ways of communicating, particularly if you’re communicating with likeminded people or supporters. And so journalists are less essential, and that’s also had a profound impact that sort of recalibrated the risk in many parts of the world.

LP:      What would you say is the responsibility for safety or care that should be taken, when it comes to these local news employees or freelancers?

JS:       We’ve developed guidelines, and they have been endorsed by a number of media organizations. And they try to lay out these responsibilities. They focus more on assignments, but they lay out pretty clearly what the obligations of editors and media companies are and what the obligations of journalists and the freelancers themselves are, in terms of training and professionalism. The issue is complex because you’re dealing with different communities. And you’re also dealing with different kinds of media organizations. Some are relatively large and have the resources to support training and pay at a level that allows freelancers to invest in the kind of equipment and training they need. And some are less well funded and have a different culture. And it’s hard to get them to take on this responsibility. There are some local media outlets that really have far fewer resources and don’t necessarily have the same kind of journalistic culture. Some of them are highly partisan or are compromised in some other way. And then you’re dealing with different communities. You’re dealing with staff correspondents, and you’re dealing with international freelancers, and you’re dealing with local fixers and stringers, and you’re dealing with local journalists who are working for local media. And then the international media is picking up information from those sources. I think the broadest answer is to say that if you are an international news organization, you need to have the broadest possible vision and understanding for this information ecosystem, and recognize that you have a responsibility not only for the individual that you employ or have contracted but for all the different pieces that allow that person to function.

LP:      Is there anything in place to hold people accountable for this responsibility?

JS:       These guidelines are really directed at international news organizations hiring international freelancers. They don’t really address you if you’re a Mexican newspaper and you’re based in Mexico City and you’ve got a stringer. Or you’re a Pakistani newspaper and you have a stringer in the FATA. Then, these guidelines are going to seem very, very aspirational. I mean, theoretically they should apply, but the practical matter is that they would not. So these guidelines are really for international news organizations hiring international freelancers. So, I don’t think there is accountability. I mean, there’s accountability within news organizations. There’s accountability created by the fact that there is some attention being paid to these lapses, and there’s the sort of shame factor that could function sometimes. But there’s no mechanism across the industry to ensure accountability.

LP:      I’m also wondering about the information that the CPJ gathers on sexual assault in the field.

JS:       We did a big project looking at this issue. We don’t have good data on sexual violence. It’s very difficult to document because people are reluctant to speak about it in many circumstances. They don’t self-report. It’s not always covered. So we’ve made more of an effort to document sexual assault, but we don’t have comprehensive, comparative statistics.

LP:      And what was it that made you launch the project and start making more of an effort? When would you say that happened?

JS:       There was a lot of awareness around this following the attacks against journalists in Tahrir Square and the systematic harassment of female journalists covering those events. More journalists came forward and began talking about this. And of course, sexualized violence predominantly affects women, but it also affects men. We found both men and women speaking out about this and talking about their experience. That really created a period of awareness and reflection. That is when we made that commitment to do a better job of documenting these kinds of violations.

LP:      What would you say is the top ethical concern right now when it comes to war reporting? What is the most current ethical question you’re trying to answer?

JS:       I think whenever you ask these questions, it’s really important that you define the scope. What do you mean by war reporting? Are we talking about what is the ethical debate that’s happening in the Afghan media or are you talking about the BBC? Or are you talking about Mexican news organizations covering the drug war? Or are you talking about Syria and international news organizations and the way they cover that? Major international news organizations have a whole series of ethical obligations. I would say the greatest challenge that they’re facing now, when it comes to these kinds of issues, I think there are two challenges: One is the relationship with freelancers. And the second is the duty of care for staff who are facing—and this applies to freelancers—extraordinary risk, particularly the risk of kidnapping or the vulnerability to psychological injury, like post-traumatic stress. How do you care for the people you employ who are exposed to those kinds of risks? So it’s their relationship with freelancers and it’s the full range of duty of care for your people.

[Featured image credit: Mstyslav Chernov/Wikimedia Commons]

A ‘Right to Offend’ Should be Balanced by a ‘Duty to Mend’

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, I and other journalists in Western democracies deplored the violence and defended freedom of expression against terrorism.

A common defense of the satirical magazine’s barbed cartoons was “the right to offend.” Some commentators made the principle absolute, and then concluded the following: If news media did not republish offending material, their editors were moral cowards.

Legally, this response has its heart in the right place. But, ethically, it comes up short in three places:

First, the issue is inadequately framed as mainly a legal question of the right to offend, and the main complaint is that the cartoons offend a religious group.

For example, reports of a “Nous Sommes Tous Charlie” symposium at the Missouri School of Journalism focused on the legal aspect of free speech, and what constitutes hate speech.

Such discussions are important, but the Hebdo case is much more than that. It is a question of ethics, journalistic duties, tensions within plural societies and the role of media.

Second, the right to publish is not absolute. Such a view trivializes legitimate questions about using media to offend deeply held beliefs and to create hostile environments. We can defend offensive speech without absolutes or trivialization.

Photo by Valentina Calà, and reused here with Creative Commons.

Photo by Valentina Calà, and reused here with Creative Commons license.

We need to reframe the debate to avoid absolutes and to discuss the social duties of journalists — not just their rights. Overall, the Hebdo debate failed to discuss sufficiently the role of news media in amplifying or reducing the tensions between immigrants, Muslims and other groups in France and the rest of Europe.

We need to reframe the debate to avoid absolutes and to discuss the social duties of journalists — not just their rights. Overall, the Hebdo debate failed to discuss sufficiently the role of news media in amplifying or reducing the tensions between immigrants, Muslims and other groups in France and the rest of Europe.

These tensions, enhanced by global media, form the background for the issue of offensive journalism today. We should ask: What sorts of journalism are needed in such an era? Is the satire of Charlie Hebdo helpful or harmful?

Third, there is (or was) no duty to republish all or some of the cartoons. There was a range of ethically permissible options. Calling people cowards is just name calling.

My ethical position is summed up by two slogans:

  • Journalism is restrained not by causing offense, but by causing harm to interests.
  • Journalism is restrained not by causing offense, but by causing harm to interests.

A right to offend is balanced by a duty to mend.

Stout defenders of the right to offend get a couple of things right. First, there is (or should be) a legal right to publish — even if it offends — as long as the material respects reasonable restrictions on free speech, such as libel or inciting violence against a group. The stout defenders also are right to reject “being offended” as a fundamental, stand-alone reason to restrict journalism in a democracy.


Because “being offended” is too restrictive, too trivial or too “wide” a concept. It is too restrictive because it would make robust debate all but impossible. It is too trivial because people can be offended by relatively unimportant things. Does the smell of a person on a bus offend you? Does an overweight person disgust you? It is too wide because it applies to many areas that involve the rights of others, such as the public display of affection (e.g., kissing) among gays.

People can feel offended about almost anything.

Image by Brian Turner and used here with Creative Commons license

Image by Brian Turner and used here with Creative Commons license.

However, it could be objected that we are only considering the easy cases. What about

actions and publications that deeply (not trivially) offend? I hold a neo-Nazis march through a Jewish community. Or, perhaps I claim the following: Pornography reinforces harmful social attitudes towards women, publishing hate speech against gays in a red-neck town creates fear and supports discrimination, university students participating in a Facebook page that ridicules black students as inferior creates a harmful environment on campus.

Doesn’t “being offended” mean something in such cases?

The answer is that the main reason to object is not that they offend — which they do — but that they cause, or are likely to cause, serious harm to individuals or groups. And not just any old harm. Such actions create social environments that are hostile and harmful to individuals and groups. What such environments do, through speech and communication, is thwart, endanger or set back the interests of people.

Words can hurt since humans form beliefs and attitudes through language and communication.

Consider this example: I am director of a journalism school. In the corridors, I express to students my strong and intolerant views about women and black students. Have I the right to offend, absolutely, in this situation? Of course, not. But why not?

Because, apart from being offended, female and black students have a good reason to worry that my attitudes might affect their progress in the school, given my power as director. Further, I am creating a negative environment where certain members of the school do not feel safe and wonder whether they will be able to pursue school opportunities on an equal footing with other students.

Therefore, my offensive communications is wrong and can be restrained, mainly because they cause harm to interests.

For controversial media and speech, looking at possible harms to interests in social contexts is superior to a citizen complaining that they have been offended or a journalist claiming an absolute right to offend. This absolute approach easily becomes a tool of discrimination, by ignoring how speech must be evaluated in terms of social role, institutional setting, and power. If we appeal to an absolute freedom to publish we cannot even discuss such issues. Debate is brought to a halt.

My suggestion, applied to media, is that we evaluate any complaint about a report (or form of journalism) being offensive not in terms of hurt feelings but actual or potential harms to people’s interests, communication environments and the aim of a plural and just society. Of course, we need to evaluate each case on its merits and not presume in advance that a complaint means an actual, serious harm has been done. But what is important is to switch our criteria of evaluation from causing offense to causing harm.

Redefining the issue allows us to more coherently evaluate Charlie Hebdo, hate speech, and insulting material in terms of potential or actual harm to interests.


Photo by Josh Janssen via Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by Josh Janssen via Flickr Creative Commons.

My second slogan, the duty to mend, is an extension of the first slogan.

If we restrain journalism by harms to interests, including the impact on social climates, then we imply that journalists have “positive” duties to do socially helpful reporting.

When we talk about environments and the interactions of groups, we expand our ethical vision to the social role of journalism. Journalism ethics becomes more than just a list of negative rules about what not to do in specific situations, such as do not distort the facts. It becomes a form of social action with a set of aims to promote and values to honor.
In my view, journalism’s social duties include promoting the values and goals of democratic society, as defined by the era in question.

Today, the positive duties revolve around constructing a society where people of different conceptions of life can feel safe and equally able to pursue their goods in supportive environments. Journalists should act as bridges of understanding and respectful communication among conflicting groups and traditions. This journalism of dialogue across traditions and borders is crucial for an ethics of global media.

In my view, this role of cultural “translation” is more important than satirical cartoons that deliberately ridicule religions and pay little attention to the need to mend differences.

The key questions in Hebdo-like cases, now and in the future, will be ethical questions of whether certain types of journalism contribute to healthy, peaceful, social environments. What forms of journalism create unhealthy climates of resentment, inequality, and alienation?

These are the issues that need attention.

I propose my “duty to mend” as a principle to balance the enthusiastic support that already exists among journalists for a free press and its right to offend.

It might help to frame the ethical discussion in a wider and more thoughtful manner.

Originally on  PBS MediaShift on February 25, 2015; reposted with permission.

Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, author and educator. He is Distinguished Lecturer of Ethics at the University of British Columbia, Courtesy Professor at the University of Oregon, and founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin.

[Featured image by Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons]

More reporting needed on subject of local journalists dying in Iraq and Syria

The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been a major focus of US news outlets’ foreign correspondence over the past several months. Starting with the involvement of ISIL’s forays into Syria, and reaching a fever pitch after western journalists like James Foley and Stephen Sotloff were beheaded on video, the militant organization has driven much of the media’s discussion about geopolitical conflict at the present moment. ISIL’s antics have certainly inspired news organizations’ renewed interest in the Syrian civil war. They have also illuminated the unfortunate fact that after a brief reprieve from fighting in Iraq, US forces are once again embroiled in the region. ONE_2014_military_intervention_against_ISIS_collageAnd though war correspondents have never been entirely absent from Iraq or from Syria over the past few years, they’re back at work in much greater numbers, reporting from some of the world’s most perilous locations.

War correspondence is a profession that deserves further attention from journalism ethicists, especially since digital media technologies and practices have lent more transnational visibility to war coverage than ever before. Communications scholar Stephen J. A. Ward has argued that the news media are now global in reach, because they have the capability of gathering and distributing information with unprecedented speed. According to Ward, this global reach “entails global responsibilities,” necessitating that foreign correspondents think outside the confines of their own nation-states. Rather than gearing their reports toward a national audience, Ward encourages journalists to think about the increasingly vast and diverse nature of the readers and viewers connected through digital technologies.

Communications scholar Herman Wasserman has also shown an interest in the growing interconnections—and yet, the continued disconnections—that define social and political life in the 21st century. He says: “Journalism in this era should constantly confront us with other views, other perspectives, other ways of making sense of the complex and changing world we live in.” Wasserman suggests that journalists should infuse “the recognition of difference” into their professional practice. Rather than attempting to dilute or ignore the cultural disparities that continue to exist in our tightly interconnected world, journalists should try to understand these differences. They should also help their audiences to understand.

This is especially the case with war journalism. Since war is essentially the ground zero of socio-political disconnection—the worst possible outcome of cultural disagreement, competition, or misrecognition—it is vital that conflict reporters treat social and cultural difference with the utmost care. Despite the difficulties in maintaining objectivity in the conflict zone, war journalists should still strive to put nationalism aside, instead seeking to understand all of the diverse elements that have engendered the conflict they are covering. The failure to do so could perpetuate the conflict itself, as well as laying the groundwork for future conflicts born of radical misunderstandings and misrepresentations of different cultures. This danger becomes all the more potent in the context of digitization, where such misrepresentations gain traction far more quickly than they once did.

TWO_War_reporterUS news outlets’ coverage of the rise of ISIL points to a number of relevant examples of the dangers involved in eschewing the ethical “recognition of difference” in war correspondence. One such example can be found in the news organizations’ tendency to focus on the plight of war journalists themselves. The strategy of turning the war journalist into the story is one that has been the subject of much debate in news industry circles. When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in 2002, for example, US news organizations flooded the mediascape with images of him in captivity, perpetually defending this choice by claiming that news audiences deserved to know what journalists and troops were up against in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Yet, this focus on Pearl’s situation did not ultimately save him, leading the New York Times to instate a media blackout when its correspondent David Rohde was kidnapped in 2008. Rohde later escaped.

In August and September of 2014, war journalists again became the story after news organizations reported that ISIL had beheaded US freelance reporters James Foley and Stephen Sotloff. The announcement of this tragic news resulted in an explosion of discourse about the safety of American journalists in Syria and the cruelty of militant groups in Syria and Iraq. This intense discussion was not entirely surprising; Foley and Sotloff had both ventured into one of the most dangerous warzones in the world, risking their lives in order to better inform news audiences about what was happening in Syria. They deserved better treatment than what they received, and they certainly deserved to be eulogized.

The problem arises, not in the discourse on Sotloff and Foley, but in the lack of similarly detailed attention to the plight of other journalists in Iraq and Syria, most especially those working for news organizations in the Middle East. This is a problem that has particularity plagued US television coverage since 9/11. TV news networks have often fixated upon the suffering of American correspondents while only very rarely mentioning the fact that local journalists suffer the most in war zones. The website for the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that of the 10 journalists killed in Syria so far this year alone, 7 were from the Arab world, working for news organizations based in the Middle East. The CPJ website on journalist deaths in Iraq shows that five journalists have been killed there in 2014—one from Turkey and the rest working for Iraqi news outlets. In past years, the list is even longer.

640px-Bombed_out_vehicles_AleppoSome might argue that it’s only natural for US organizations to focus on US journalists in the warzone, since American news audiences are bound to be more interested in the challenges faced by their own reporters. But that attitude situates journalism firmly within the purview of the nation-state, while also raising questions about objectivity and balance in war coverage. We live at a time when the beleaguered body of the war correspondent is routinely offered up as evidence of the world’s various war crimes. At times, news organizations will even go so far as to present their correspondents’ harrowing incidents as events that should inspire certain political stances. This especially occurs when organizations give most or all of their attention to the experiences of their own journalists, without further investigating the experiences that others face.

Yes, American journalists are being targeted in the field. Yes, the US has lost a number of amazing reporters since 9/11. And yes, it does make sense that those journalists’ experiences should be shared with news audiences, with the viewers and readers who need to know how difficult it is to give them the information they require. But so many other journalists have died since 9/11. If US news organizations are indeed dedicated to giving their increasingly transnational news audiences the entire story, then don’t these other deaths matter just as much?

In an era where journalists inevitably become a part of the story—targeted, kidnapped and killed by the groups on whom they are reporting—it is essential that news organizations strive to tell that story in its entirety. This involves a conscious engagement in the ethical “recognition of difference” and a dedication to providing audiences with “other views, other perspectives, other ways of making sense of the complex and changing world we live in,” to use Wasserman’s words. Yes, tell the story of Stephen Sotloff’s murder in Syria; but also tell the story of Mohammed al-Qasim, a correspondent for Syria’s Rozana Radio. He was killed only days after Sotloff, and his death raises a unique set of questions about Syria’s ongoing conflict. What stake do Syrian journalists have in covering the war, for example, and why are they being targeted? What stories can they tell about this struggle, and what perspectives can they add to those with which US readers and viewers are already familiar?

These are important questions, and not just for the people living in Iraq or Syria. US news audiences are now linked to other readers and viewers around the world, and the conflicts in distant places are not so very distant anymore. Because of this, it is crucial that journalists strive to achieve the “ethical recognition of difference”—even in the stories they tell about themselves.

Lindsay Palmer is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a faculty associate of the Center for Journalism Ethics.

[photos used via Wikimedia Creative Commons license]

Is “democratic media” a quaint memory? Let’s talk

When I asked my colleagues what the topic should be for the ethics center’s conference in April, I received an unambiguous reply: media and electoral politics.

The feeling was unambiguous not only because we are in the middle of a presidential campaign. There was another reason. Many citizens are concerned that the idea of fair and free elections, built upon tough but informative campaigns, and analyzed by fair-minded journalists, was not just an idea under pressure. It was an idea in jeopardy. Continue reading