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Sunday, 25 October 2015

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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 reports.

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 victimisation.

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 them."

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 society.

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.

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