December 30, 2007

Amateur vs Professional

Germany’s most popular newspaper BILD published a blurred picture of a man with sunglasses today on the front page of its online edition and asks in the headline if this man is the killer of Benazir Bhutto, chairwoman of the Pakistan People Party, who was assassinated on December 27th.
This and two other pictures of the man and the gun he is –supposedly- pointing at Bhutto were taken by an amateur photographer, who went to Bhutto’s election rally and shot the pictures by coincident.

To check if other newspapers had published the pictures as well, I googled the keywords “picture” and “Bhutto’s killer”. What I found were thousands of entries in blogs, on youtube or political forums. They had even videos of the assassination.
To my surprise none of UK’s big newspapers had published the pictures. But why?

Has user generated content gotten ahead of ‘real’ journalism? Are citizen journalists maybe faster than real journalists? Better equipped even? Or do real journalists hesitate because they doubt the authenticity of the pictures or the credibility of its source?

These questions not only arise in the case of Bhutto’s killer, but almost every time when user generated content, its credibility, its danger to journalism, its potential and its standards – including ethical standards – are being discussed.

In recent years user generated content and citizen journalism have developed rapidly due to the development of media technology and have become an inherent part in today’s media.
People write about their personal experiences in blogs and online forums or take pictures of celebrities or events with their camera phones. After the July 7th bombings for example the BBC received thousands of pictures and videos from people who were in the trains or witnessed the bus explosion. And many of the pictures we saw of the 9/11 attacks were taken by amateur photographers as well, because they were the once at the scene.

Citizen journalism is nothing unusual anymore and many journalists believe that it has many advantages when their readers or viewers contribute to the media content. The strongest argument for citizen journalism is probably that citizen journalists are able to report first hand or to provide videos of events that - without them – could not have been caught on camera. Furthermore, some journalists believe that the possibility for readers and viewers to contribute can strengthen their relationship with the newspaper or broadcaster that publishes their material or can even help to discover real talent among the many amateur journalists.

Another good thing about citizen journalism, from the view point of broadcasters and newspapers, is that it comes quite cheap. Although BILD for example offers its readers 500 Euro (£325) when their pictures get published, some readers offer their material even for free because they feel rewarded enough that their pictures get published at all.

But although user generated content and citizen journalism may have many advantages, it is not all good. Despite the fear of professional journalists that any person with a camera phone or recorder could make them dispensable, many journalists worry about the lack of credibility and accuracy of citizen journalists.

"We should not automatically assume that the material is accurate and should take reasonable steps where necessary to seek verification. We also need to be on our guard against photo manipulation and hoaxing," said BBC News Interactivity Editor Vicky Taylor.

The German magazine Stern for example did not think it was necessary to doublecheck when they received “exclusive” pictures of Bruno the Bear, a wild bear on the loose that kept farmers in South Germany in fear for their sheep.
The journalists in charge published the pictures, but soon had to discover that they showed nothing but a random bear at a zoo.

Although we only talk about pictures of a bear, this case demonstrates that citizen journalists and their material are not always trustworthy.

Another argument against citizen journalists is that not all of them know about journalistic and ethical standards.

As a postgraduate journalism student I was taught a lot about ethical standards: the importance of respecting privacy, what is allowed when talking to someone on or off camera, if names and faces of victims or any people involved in a crime should be made public…The list is very long.

Citizen journalists do not always know about these standards and do not even realize when breaking them.

To protect itself from being associated with fake material provided by citizen journalists, but also to secure that material they publish that was provided by citizen journalists is trustworthy and was gathered legally, the BBC introduced new guidelines in this matter.

Although I believe that citizen journalism and user generated content – like this blog - can contribute positively in many ways to professional journalism and professional media content, I also believe that it is important to secure that a certain level of accuracy, objectivity and credibility is guaranteed.
And offering readers 500 Euro (£325) for their latest picture of a celebrity on holiday, like BILD does, is in my opinion not exactly the right way to promote ethical standards among amateur journalists.

However, I found it really interesting to read about the latest conspiracy theories in the case of Benazir Bhutto and to look at pictures of possible killers, but when it comes to what really happened that day I prefer to read hard facts and information that has been verified by the newspaper I trust.

Blogs to check out in this matter:
Blogging: the end of journalism?
Paying for a citizen paparazzi?

December 22, 2007

Getting involved – for the wrong reasons!

On December 15, Marco W. returned to Germany – it was on the cover of every German newspaper. The 17-year old had spent 8 month in a Turkish prison, because he is accused of sexual abuse of a minor.

On April 12, Turkish police had arrested Marco, because the mother of 13-year old Charlotte from Manchester said he had abused her daughter. The case went to court in June, but a decision has not been made since then. Marco claims the girl said she was 15 and that it was her idea to kiss and cuddle – that’s as far as they went that night. Charlotte insists it was against her will.

The German as well as the Turkish media reported on the case from day one – but, while doing so, only the German media crossed the line ……

It seems that, because Charlotte and her family refused to go public and to give any interviews, the German media decided to portray her as the culprit and not as the victim. Germany’s most popular newspaper for example titled “Her claims brought him to jail!” and put a picture of Marco showing him in jail next to the headline. Without knowing what had really happened that night or waiting for a judiciary statement, journalists decided to make him the victim. Doing so they clearly crossed the line – as far as good and ethical journalism is concerned. They threw their objectivity overboard simply because he was the one suffering from being in a Turkish prison and he was the one who agreed to do interviews – he made a better story!

Another thing that I believe the German media should be ashamed of is the fact that they completely ignored Charlotte’s wish not be part of the media theatre as well as her right to anonymity. Women in the UK who report sexual abuse or rape have the right to anonymity and can prevent journalists from printing any personal information about them that could give other people a hint about who they are. But thanks to the German media everyone knows where Charlotte and her family live, which school she goes to and what the family does in their free time…
To protect their daughter from German journalists, Charlotte’s parents had asked the police for help. They then started to escort the girl on her way to school and put the house under police protection.

As weeks and even months went by with Marco not being released and no progress in sight, the German media started to create their own spectacle, pointing out the deficits of Turkish justice and prisons as well as the slow progress of the trial that kept Marco in prison. Instead of reporting the case, the media made it a political issue – and used it as an excuse to discuss the Turkish wish to become a member state of the EU.
I agree with Vural Ă–ger, a member of the EU parliament, who said that the coverage by the German media was unbalanced and biased against Turkey.

Throughout the whole time, when Marco was first accused of sexual abuse and then released from prison last week, the vast majority of German media failed to portray the story in a balanced way that would actually tell the reader/viewer what happened and not what the media thinks had happened (or should happen).
I am also really excited to see how the story continues, as I read that the German TV station RTL ´bought` Marco’s story as an exclusive – that is why they flew him from Turkey to Germany in a private jet and brought him to a secret place, which is said to be a container near their studios…..

December 14, 2007

Privacy Matters

When I read though excerpts of Princess Di’s letters in the Telegraph today - driven by curiosity - I started to wonder how far journalists should go when reporting about private matters.

Then I remembered a statement about privacy and correspondence that I had read just recently. It is part of the Code of Practice published by the Press Complaints Commission and it says that

„Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence, including digital communications.“

So, if everyone is entitled to respect for his or her privacy, how come that Diana’s letters are on every newspaper’s front page? How is it possible that week after week newspapers and glossies publish new celebrity scandals, telling us juicy details about their relationships and sex life?
The answer is: Publicity!

Although every person’s right to privacy is protected through the Human Rights Act of 1998 and different codes of conduct, intruding a person’s privacy can be justified, if a) the person is in a public place, b) the person is of public interest (this is true for Diana), or c) the breach of privacy is in the public interest, which includes

Protecting public health and safety
Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety
Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation

Although there have been attempts to define those categories, a concept like “public interest” will always leave room for interpretation, as the following example will show.

Naomi vs Daily Mirror
In 2001 the British newspaper Daily Mirror published pictures of supermodel Naomi Campbell as she emerges from a session at Narcotics Anonymous. The headline next to the pictures said: Naomi: I am a drug addict.

After the pictures had been published, Naomi Campbell, who had always denied any accusations of using drugs, sued the newspaper for breach of privacy. She argued that the newspaper had gone to far and that a person in recovery should be free to receive treatment without fear of press intrusion.
The Daily Mirror on the other hand argued that publishing the pictures was justified because the supermodel had lied about her drug addiction before, misleading the public. The daily Mirror argued further that Ms Campbell was a person of public interest, who tries to get herself in the spotlight all the time.
After several verdicts hade been made and revised, the court finally came to a decision and said that the Daily Mirror was wrong to publish the story.
The law lords said that the test was whether benefits achieved by publication are proportionate to harm that may be done by interference with the right to privacy. In this case, the Lords argued in favour of Naomi Campbell, saying that she was in a fragile state and due protection.
Read the Mirror's statement about this decision: Flaw Lords

Although, this verdict was based on the British law rather than on any code of conduct, this case exemplifies the difficulties that arise when journalists have to consider which concept has more value to them: a person’s privacy or the public’s right to know!

In the case of Naomi Campbell I would argue that it WAS the public’s right to know! I, in general, agree with her statement that a person’s privacy should be respected especially when one is in recovery, but when a person is as publicity-seeking as she is, this argument becomes ridiculous. Since she first entered the public sphere, Naomi Campbell has publicly discussed her relationships with superstars like Robert De Niro, talked about her childhood, revealed details about her sex life and invited media to her home in Jamaica.
So if she uses the media whenever she feels like it, to get into the spotlight, she should not be surprised, when the media decides to use her to make some headlines!

December 06, 2007

Denying "terrorists the oxygen of publicity“

Kidnapped Britons tape condemned” a headline on read on Tuesday. The blurred picture next to the headline showed one of five British hostages that had been seized from Baghdad's finance ministry building on May 29, 2007.
As I read through the article I learn that Al-Arabiya, an Arab TV station, had broadcasted a video that shows two armed militants with machine guns, pointing towards a British hostage. The kidnappers, a militia group calling itself the Islamic Shia Resistance in Iraq, demanded on Britain to pull out of Iraq - otherwise they will kill the British hostage.
To my surprise, the article even featured an extract of the video.
I am surprised, because it is not a matter of course to broadcast a video that shows hostages or that was issued by kidnappers or terrorists.
Although the code of conduct, like the one set by the National Union of Journalists, does not condemn broadcasting such videos, some broadcasters decide to keep their hands off it.
To broadcast such a video means skating on thin ice and having to answer difficult questions:

Should terrorists be denied access to the media?
Should the media limit what is published about acts of terrorism in terms of quoting terrorists about why they committed a crime or what acts they intend to commit in the future?
Is it true what the European Commission argues, that by according terrorists publicity the media actually helps them to recruit and spread their ideas?
What is more important: providing people with all the information and material available or denying terrorists the ´oxygen of publicity`, like Margaret Thatcher demanded when she was Prime Minister?

In recent years, journalists, media corporations, politicians and governmental authorities have taken different positions in this matter and, regardless the consequences, pursued what they thought was the right thing to do:

1) Al-Jazeera airs Osama Bin Laden tape
One of the most well-known cases in this matter is the decision by the Arab TV station Al-Jazeera to broadcast messages from the world’s most wanted terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, after 9/11.

After Al-Jazeera broadcasted the video, in which Osama Bin Laden tries to justify the 9/11 attacks, the Arab TV station has been criticized for being a mouthpiece for the terrorist.
Defending Al-Jazeera’s decision to broadcast the video, Yosri Fouda, who is working for Al-Jazeera as a journalist and TV presenter, argues that any other news network would have done the same. Fouda, who interviewed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was involved in the 9/11 attacks, thinks it is ironic that the US administration tried to prevent the broadcast of the video:
"This, from a country entrusted with defending free speech. Here we had politicians interfering in the name of protecting Western values," he said.
Read more: Al-Jazeera and Bin Laden

Although I don’t share Fouda’s opinion that any other station would air such a tape, I think that Al-Jazeera made the right decision to show it. After all, we are talking about a video issued by the man, who was behind the terrorist attacks that changed all our lives forever. The 9/11 attacks did not only take the lives of more than 3,000 people, they also had huge economic consequences and caused the US war against Afghanistan.
I honestly think, that the magnitude of this event definitely legitimates broadcasting the video, no matter if Osama Bin Laden tries to justify 9/11.

2) Taysir Alluni interviews Osama Bin Laden
Just a few weeks after 9/11, Taysir Alluni, a popular reporter for the Arab TV station Al-Jazzera, interviewed Osama Bin Laden. Four years later, in October 2005, Alluni was sent to jail for seven years by a Spanish court, after he was found guilty of collaborating with al-Qaida.
Although Alluni was not jailed for interviewing Bin Laden, but due to his relationship with members of al-Qaida and the fact that he carried money for them, the judgment mentioned that „not everything goes when it comes to chasing a world exclusive. The judgment also said, that „journalistic truth, like all other truths, cannot be obtained at any price.“
In July 2007, the Spanish Court rejected an appeal by Alluni against his seven-year prison sentence, but due to his ill-health Alluni they agreed to transfer him from prison. He is now under house arrest.
Read more: When a reporter got too close to the story

Although I think that the seven-year sentence is quite harsh, I would say that the Guardians headline, “When a reporter got too close to the story”, hits the nail on the head.
“He was found guilty of doing his job,” his wife Fatima al-Zahra said, trying to defend Alluni’s relationship with al-Qaida. But if you ask me, acting as a money courier for an al-Qaida leader, no matter if he is your friend or not, has nothing to do with journalism. For the same reasons I think it is not unethical to broadcast Osama Bin Laden statements after 9/11, I think it is not unethical that Alluni interviewed him. But everything that goes beyond information gathering is, in my opinion, extremely questionable and unethical.

3) BBC refuses to show videos of kidnapped Margaret Hassan
When reporting on Margaret Hassan, an aid worker in Iraq, who was kidnapped in Baghdad on October 19, 2004, the British broadcaster BBC refused to air a video that shows Hassan pleading for help and the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. The broadcaster used stills of the hostage instead, although several viewers complained of censorship.
Defending its decision, the BBC published the following statement, which I think is reasonable and comprehensible:
“We believe that the use of disturbing pictures of television news must be based on a case-by-case basis. You could have a black-and-white policy to decide to show all terrorist-made videos or you could ban all terrorist-made videos. But we believe that's wrong. We make a new decision on each new piece of footage and one of the key factors in that decision is the level of distress that the hostage is in. In the case of the videos that Mrs Hassan is in, she seemed to be extremely distressed and we saw no benefit in showing that. Showing people in tears, breaking down in cages on national TV is not in anyone's interests.”
Read the full statement: Should hostage videos be shown?

The chosen examples show, that journalists come to different conclusions when they have to decide whether to air a tape or hide in the drawer.
Hoping to be good journalist one day, I asked myself what I would do in such a situation. The only answer I could think of was that I don’t know. There are so many things you have to take into consideration when you hold such a tape in your hands or when you have the chance to interview someone like Osama Bin Laden. You have to ask yourself the question whether it is more important to provide the public with ALL the information you have or to deny terrorists the oxygen of publicity. Am I willing to accept the possibility that I will offend victims of a terrorist attack or relatives of hostages with broadcasting such a tape? What does the viewer gain from watching the tape? and so on.
Given the questions that would come up in such a situation, it is just impossible to give one valid answer that leaves no ifs and buts. The best way to deal with this complex problem is probably to follow the BBC’s example and decide case-by-case to avoid black-and-white policies.
But if all else fails and it is impossible to come to a reasonable decision, I would probably decide to show the tape or to do the interview anyway. After all, we are talking about journalists and it is their job to inform the public as good as possible:
„A journalist at all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed“ (NUJ, code of conduct)

Are codes of ethics the answer to everything?

As I mentioned already, there are different codes of ethical conduct that define which principles journalists should follow in their every day work. They set up guidelines about how material or information should be obtained, how journalistic content should be put together and what boundaries journalists have to respect when they follow a story.
But do codes of ethics have the right answer for every situation? The following example shows, they certainly don’t:
It was last month on November 6 that the British newspaper The Sun published pictures of the British musician Pete Doherty injecting heroin on a public toilet. The pictures are blurred, but they show every step and detail of the deed.
Publishing these pictures may not exactly infringe the code of ethics or violate a law, but they certainly raise the question if it is ethical to publish them anyway:
Children will be confronted with the pictures when they pass a newsstand or lay their hands on a copy. Furthermore, these pictures could ´glamourize` or trivialize drug abuse, as they show a celebrity, who is successful and popular despite or may be even because of his drug abuse.
In spite of possible concerns, the journalists and editors behind the story decided to publish the pictures – with the following explanation:
„The Sun is well aware of the sickening nature of the images — and prints them only to show Doherty is not cured [after his withdrawal treatment] and is a terrible role model.“

So, despite several guidelines set by different codes of ethical conduct, journalists have to decide for themselves what is ethical and what is not, as the case arises – and the right answer is not always obvious.
This is why I want to discuss different cases from the present and the past, where decisions that journalists made led to content that was ethically dodgy, broke the code for a certain reason or led to heavy debates.