Journalists at a media symposium being held in Jerusalem by the ‘Middle East Peace Initiative’ discussed whether the media should be actively involved in influencing events in the Middle East by seeking to calm attitudes among conflicting parties. Whilst there was criticism of certain media companies for pandering to partisan and commercial gains while regional troubles continued to flare, there was disagreement as to what journalists should actually do.
The Vice-President of United Press International in the United States, Larry Moffitt claimed impartial journalism to be one of the great hoaxes of our time and called for the media to shift the paradigm of what is news. Chief Editor of Kol Israel radio station, Yoni Ben Menachem, Producer for Israel's Channel One News, Rafiq Halabi and Romanian journalist, Rasvau Roceanu were among the speakers.
"The act of an editor in selecting some stories to publish and others not to publish determines the issues that end up on the agenda for discussion," he said. "In our media-driven world, if a tree falls in a forest but the media doesn’t happen to be there to cover it, it’s as if it never happened."
He told the audience of some hundred and sixty participants that he thought that the free press could do a lot more than it is actually doing and that it needed to do some serious soul-searching and make a major readjustment to the code and ethics of journalism.
"The definition of what’s newsworthy cannot just be 'man bites dog,' because it’s more unusual than 'dog bites man,’" he said. "Somewhere along the line the concept of being one's brother's keeper needs to be put into the equation because the media has the power to change the discussion world-wide."
However, the Chief Editor of Kol Israel radio station, Yoni Ben Menachem, responded by saying that editorial control of news content was based on sound judgement that came with journalistic experience and he cautioned as naïve any attempt to try to change journalism's code of ethics.
"I don't think there's a journalist in the world who doesn't actually want peace and a hostile media certainly doesn't help anyone,” he said and went on to emphasise the need for a media that can cross the borders in trying to unite everybody in the goal of peace. He praised a recent Arab peace plan as a great opportunity for an Arab-Israeli peace and urged the media on both sides to take a leading role in keeping its momentum alive.
A Producer for Israel's Channel One News, Rafiq Halabi, said that rather than think of Israel as Jew and Arab or right and left and so on, he thought of the country as being divided by two cultures. One was a culture that believed in freedom of speech, liberty, equal rights and social rights whilst the other culture believed in the opposite. "Unfortunately, these days that first culture is fighting for its survival," he said and went on to express disappointment at the Israeli media’s preoccupation with ratings. "The expectation seems to be to come across as young, talkative, shallow, without education and just keep talking and talking and talking."
An Israeli journalist, Shuki Ben Ami, agreed. "It’s because they’ve all now become celebrities and it’s as if being in the media now means being in show business."
A Romanian journalist, Rasvau Roceanu, drew attention to a small province in Romania called Dobruja, which despite being populated by a diversity of minorities including Russians, Turks, Tartars, Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanians and Italians, had never experienced any ethnic conflict. He suggested such peaceful harmony existed because no political group, no government and no religious leaders, had ever tried to profit by fuelling a conflict but had instead simply allowed its people to live together side by side.
Another journalist, Adel Darwish, said that although he could sympathise with the fact that, in reality, no journalist could ever be entirely objective, an impartial reporting style was widely valued in news writing. As such, he was wary of any suggestion of a ‘role’ for journalists. He claimed that it was neither a news reporter’s job and nor should it be their aim to get engaged in campaigns of any sort, irrespective of how great a cause it might be. Instead columnists and leader writers in newspapers could, if they so desired, promote peace and understanding as opinion pieces although they should be marked clearly as editorial opinion. He said that he came from the old school of journalism which had taught a total separation of news from editorial comment and said that one of the major disciplines of good journalism was never to editorialise news.
[Jerusalem, April 11 2007]