“Public” Problems in International Reporting: The Expanding Public Sphere
by Sunny Freeman July 4, 2008
In the last of a four part series on special topics in journalism ethics, journalismethics.ca’s international reporting team analyzes the issues of nation building and the public interest in communities as diverse as South Africa and Bosnia. These are communities that have been fragmented by exclusive nationalist discourses. These countries illustrate contemporary challenges for journalists who must come to terms with national histories of censorship and other maneuvers to restrict the press, while facing issues surrounding attempts to integrate into the 21st century public sphere.
Truth-telling in the public interest has been considered a communication norm since the advent of the free press in the 17th century – the assumption being that when reporters push microphones in people’s faces, it is not in their self-interest, but in the name of an inquiring “public.”
Theorists from Alexis de Tocqueville to Jay Rosen have argued that journalism should serve “the public” by perpetuating the idea of community amongst geographically and historically dispersed populations, creating publics that share common goods, concerns, and goals.
Journalism ethics has become so focused on serving the public that ethicist Dale Jacquette argues, “the fundamental and principal mandate for journalistic ethics refers for good reason explicitly to the concept of maximizing relevant truth in the public interest.”
However, notions of “relevant,” “public” and “interest” are complicated in a globalized world where borders are permeable. In an era of globalization, reporters must ask, does the public constitute the nation in a democratic (political) sense, or is it more than that, a community of humanity comprised of citizens of the world?
New media – the internet, satellite TV and radio, cell phones and digital cameras – has increased the scope and pace of news dissemination, presenting new challenges for journalists and editors who must make hurried ethical decisions regarding what constitutes the public interest, and the consequences of reporting in its name.
Defining the public interest is particularly problematic in developing countries, where communities have been fragmented by legacies of colonialism, and journalists’ allegiances are often dominated by what their government dictates is in the name of national unity.
An expanding public sphere
As societies become more complex and differentiated, the scope of the public that journalists claim to serve has evolved from specific social classes to a national public and now to a global public. Concurrently, disagreement increases about what constitutes social and political ‘health’ and how they can best be ensured.
The search for universal ethics might best be grounded in the shared belief among many theorists that the public sphere has normative requirements – that discussions of public issues should be rational, inclusive, open to all participants and not distorted by particular interests. However, theorists continue to debate the semantics involved in determining the public interest because definitions range from a very narrow to a broad application.
One working definition developed by media theorist Dale Jacquette holds the public interest is “any value attached to the preservation and proper functioning of a society.” While there are certainly some cases where the preservation and proper functioning of society are easily identifiable, such as stories that involve airport security, public health and a free flow of information, there is also a tendency for journalists to justify invasions of privacy with their responsibility to an abstract “public interest,” even if doing so is damaging to some individuals.
The new social contract between journalists and their “public” requires a global perspective that considers various viewpoints and codes facilitating the expansion of the public toward all of humanity, or what Ward calls the “claim of humanity,” namely that “journalists’ primary journalistic allegiance is to truthful, independent informing of a global public – humanity.”
Fragile, fragmented publics
In fractured societies, journalists struggle to report what they believe to be in the public interest, when faced with ethnic, political, and religious pressures that can result in extreme nationalist or patriotic reports that are not grounded in the concept of “truth-telling in the public interest.”
Journalists struggle on a daily basis in these countries to balance duties promote nation building and maintain the watchdog role of the fourth estate.
In developing countries around the world –from Bosnia to Turkey to South Africa – the public interest is often conflated with the “national interest,” or government interest.
Bosnia, for example, is a country struggling to rebuild after ethnic war driven by competing nationalisms threatened to tear apart a sense of a national public body to which journalists are responsible for.
In countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, comprised of three major communities (Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks) who were once fighting against each other, the notion of public good can become complicated by felt allegiances between the state and the ethnic community the newspaper or broadcaster is part of.
Bosnia’s media has been characterized by a history of nationalist rhetoric. Only The Dani, a Sarajevan weekly, and The Oslobodenje, a daily and a handful of media outlets have kept their independence and survived the last decade.
In South Africa, the death of presidential spokesman Parks Mankahlana and other debates about media interpretations of concepts like truth-telling, human dignity, and the public interest illustrate that a universal interpretation of the public interest, even within one nation, cannot be assumed.
When Phakamile "Parks" Mankahlana, a prominent spokesman for President Mbeki, died in October 2000, the media widely reported that his death was due to HIV/AIDS although the official cause was not released. President Mbeki refused to comment on Mankahlana’s death saying it was a family matter and critiqued the media for invasion of privacy. However, the media called for the government to be more open about the epidemic that claimed the lives of thousands of South Africans in the public sphere.
South African media ethicist Franz Kruger believes nation building is an integral role of journalists in post-apartheid South Africa, but is wary of government pressure for journalists to report in its interest.
“I think that actually the question of nation building and the question of our relationship to the community, I think those questions are, in a sense, prior or to be built into the process before you even come to the specifics. One needs to understand that journalism’s contribution to nation building is simply by informing people and giving sort of a good basis for good amount of information on which they can base various decisions on. That’s the contribution - I think when we get into the specifics of here is the story and its going to embarrass A, B or C maybe that’s going to hurt nation building, that’s when we’re in trouble. That’s a problematical use of the idea.”
Competing conceptions of which coverage would be in the public interest underscores how the concept of human dignity cannot be applied uniformly even within one nation, even though it is thought to be a central value in the search for a universal journalism ethics.
In Turkey, a country caught between competing ideologies, including Western ties to the EU and historical and religious ties toward the Muslim world, journalists face pressure from the government to report in its interest, says Fatma Dislim a reporter for Today’s Zaman, an English language publication in Turkey.
“In our newspaper we are trying to promote reconciliation of our country. But at certain times, the larger media groups are overriding our efforts,” she says.
After years of sidestepping one of the most sensitive social issues in Turkey, the newly elected government has moved to lift the ban on young women wearing headscarves at universities. The country’s secularists, who see the headscarf as a symbol of Islam, are up in arms over the proposed reform. The debate is an ongoing struggle between the government and a militantly secularist establishment used to getting its way.
David Judson, Editor-in-Chief at the Turkish Daily News argues that the role of the press is not to promote nation building, but to act as an independent watchdog.” I’m not going to move the nation. I’m just trying to report on what happened yesterday in Turkey.”
Instead, he points fingers at foreign media for skewing reports about his country, and not providing proper context, which serves to undermine the national community of Turkey.
“The newspaper has a responsibility to look at all the dimensions of the story. Obviously. For example, when Time magazine did their cover story of this and used a photo of a girl wearing a headscarf above a headline that said: Turkey Divided, we went and interviewed the girl. She said and we reported she tried to explain to Time, she wears a headscarf because she chooses to wear a headscarf, but her sister doesn’t wear a headscarf. Some of her friends wear headscarves and some don’t. It’s a personal choice and they ignored all that,” he said.
“They used few comments she made out of context that supported the thesis that Turkey is divided between those who wear a headscarf and those that don’t wear headscarves and that they hate one another. And implying that Turkey is on a verge of a civil war, that there’s this great culture brief in the country. But the woman we interviewed, she said, she didn’t say that.”
A global public
The case of war-torn Bosnia, racially segregated South Africa, and religiously divided Turkey shed some insight into the complexity of the ethical struggles journalists encounter daily in the ever- expanding public sphere.
These case studies raise questions about the impact of global journalism, and its relationship with political, technological, economic and cultural aspects of global trends has fostered debate about the role of journalism in fostering or stifling a democratic public sphere.
In a world constantly evolving toward what Marshall McLuhan famously termed a “global village,” in which we are all interconnected, the notion of the “public,” as a collective body is evolving in tandem because global journalism has created a plurality of public spheres, some of which can be considered global.
Journalists’ audiences are no longer national or regional. New forms of communication serve to widen the public sphere, expanding a reporter’s sense of duty beyond a particular region, community or nation and their reports, which now reach an international audience, serve to impact how nations view their constituency and their place in the world.