Balancing the right to free expression with ethical reporting
Heightened awareness is vital, especially among the media to ensure
ethical reporting on sensitive cases such as child abuse, rape and
murder. Serious concerns have been raised about children and their
families being exposed to secondary victimisation due to insensitive
Communications Officer External Relations UNICEF Sri Lanka Suzanne
Wooster said: "We recognize that raising awareness about the rights of
children and the promotion of children's rights is a challenge to media
- it its role not only to report fairly, honestly and accurately on the
experience of childhood, but also recognise children's rights and
reflect these in the stories/coverage."
While some editors argue sensationalism permits serious social issues
to capture the attention of readers and viewers, such coverage rarely
analyses the social and economic causes of abuse of children, the
dislocation of communities and families, homelessness and poverty.
To change media responses to stories about children requires
examination of the professional conditions in which journalists work, a
review of the principles or guidelines they follow and obstacles
standing in the way of good journalism.
We need better standards, regulations and self-regulation. Respect
for independent journalism is an essential condition for a media culture
of openness about children and their rights. All journalists need to be
confident that they can uphold ethical standards and protect
confidential sources of information.
The right to freedom of expression is paramount but it has to be
balanced against other important rights - most notably the rights of the
child to freedom from fear, exploitation and especially secondary
As in all forms of self-regulation, effectiveness depends upon the
professional confidence of journalists, their knowledge of the issues
and the conditions in which they work. Ms. Wooster said: "Understandably
there are commercial pressures on journalists and the media.
Fierce commercial competition is a key factor leading media to
exploit children. Journalists, therefore, sometimes take an
ill-considered, easy route to news gathering, perpetuating myths and
stereotypes. So too, an uncomfortable balance of interests prevails
where ethical standards are too often sacrificed in defence of
commercial imperatives. Media professionals need to challenge commercial
constraints. Journalists, writers, and producers must work ethically for
their audiences and address the needs of children without devaluing
While deadline pressures and the competitive nature of the industry
are pressures we deal with daily, journalists must remain aware of the
need for fair, open and straight forward methods in obtaining
information. Journalism should always be ethical, above all when
considering the needs of children.
Collaborative efforts are needed from media owners, editors, senior
journalists of media houses and provincial and regional journalists.
This needs to be supported at the higher policy level/ system building
at the Ministry of Mass Media, Sri Lanka Press Institute, Press
Complaints Commission and the Sri Lanka College of Journalism.
Notably, few months back the Ministry of Mass Media under the
leadership of Hon. Minister Gayantha Karunathilaka convened a roundtable
with Media owners in collaboration with UNICEF and other key partners
focusing on aspects of ethical reporting of children.
The Media Round-tables on Ethical Reporting was used to shed light
and open the discussion on the rights of children and includes a number
of practical recommendations intended to make media and journalists more
responsive and to encourage debate within media about the portrayal of
children and their rights. Recognized that although there are no easy
answers to complex issues or to ethical dilemmas, there are standards
and benchmarks by which media can judge how they portray children in
Highlighted the need for journalistic training in reporting on the
rights of children including that bad habits in the newsroom and the
tyranny of deadlines, can be overcome if journalists and program-makers
at all levels are exposed to good practice and information about the
importance of children's rights. Emphasised that that journalists should
depict children in a way that maintains their dignity, and avoid
exploitation and victimisation.
The Media Roundtable recognized that there is a need for media to
identify good practice, to applaud high standards and to encourage
improved coverage through guidelines and codes given that many
journalists know and appreciate that often the greatest pressures come
from within their own media organisation.
This means they still inadvertently succumb without protest to
instructions that contravene their code of professional conduct, or to
drastic editing that damages the integrity of their material.