Journalists’ choices impact reconciliation: Guidelines for interviewers and interviewees
by Raquel GOMEZ for Shared Future News
14 May 2018
Many actors play a role in the peace process of a post-conflict society. Media has a key role in gauging public opinion, how society is transforming and how society is dealing with the past. Journalists have a responsibility with their readers and the society on which they report. However, journalists cannot abandon their primary duty of informing the public and asking the uncomfortable questions, all the while working under moral and ethical standards.
These points were discussed at a conference held at Riddel Hall, Queen’s University Belfast: Victimhood and Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland, which looked at issues about legacy and compromise after the conflict. The conference concluded with a series of draft guidelines, how victims and survivors can be engaged, and how journalists and media should ethically represent the issues of legacy.
It is proper journalism to follow the public interest, tell the truth and look for headlines and a good story. Reporting on the human cost of civil strife is in the public interest.
But what is a journalist’s moral and social duty in a post-conflict society?
If it is to promote a better society (including peace and reconciliation), then this means respecting victims’ and survivors’ pain and contributing to healing process. On many occasions, harm caused by violence is followed by the harm done by unskilled, lazy or unscrupulous reporters.
Cheryl Lawther is Lecturer in Criminology and Principal Investigator in the project, Voice, Agency and Blame: Victimhood and the Imagined Community in Northern Ireland. Lawther presented the research, which works as a framework and understanding of how victimhood is constructed and reproduced in a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland. The emphasis is about hearing victims’ witnesses and exploring victimhood and legacy in the media, considering that “there are voices who dominated the public scene and other voices have been silenced”, explained Lawther.
According to Lawther, there are so many challenges and complexities in this area, as a result of polarised constructions of “innocent victims” and “guilty perpetrators”. The project addresses issues such as identity and witness, hearing voices in all their complexity and diversity.
Lawther made the case that this project is contributing to a deeper understanding of the conflict and how to approach legacy issues.
Journalist, Susan McKay, presented the guidelines, as a part of the project Victims and Dealing with the Past. As Judith Thompson, Commissioner for The Commission for Victims and Survivors, explained, the guidelines have been done to try “different conversations about the past and genuinely seek solutions” and “as a way to promote understanding, knowledge, and reconciliation”, said.
The draft guidelines addressed to victims and survivors are about how to come forward to be interviewed, considering that speaking out in media can be empowering for them and helpful for others; it can be a “powerful way to influence public thinking about violence, trauma, conflict, and the needs of victims and survivors”.
However, speaking out can have unintended consequences and can re-traumatise families, victims and survivors. These guidelines are intended to help those who want to speak to a journalist as well as those who do not. The guidelines list several recommendations in order to guarantee comfort and emotional stability to victim and survivor interviewees; these include: knowing what you do and do not want to say, being comfortable and confident with the journalist interviewer, being prepared for reactions by the public; and keeping in mind that going public “may not yield apparent results”.
Meanwhile, the draft guidelines addressed to journalists, editors and journalism educators aim to help them “to work sensitively and constructively with victims and survivors without inadvertently intruding into private grief or causing further suffering”.
The guidelines advise how to approach people for an interview, with sensitivity and respect; how to conduct an interview with respect and empathy; and to be conscious about how the interview could impact the interviewer.
Good journalistic practices can help and heal, allowing a bereaved person to feel supported and heard. However, bad journalistic practices can do the opposite. The media can build bridges or borders, depending upon the choices they make in the course of their work.
Ultimately, genuine peace is the sum of every single honest, sensible and reconciling action.
The guidelines for journalists and victims and survivors is due to be published about end June 2018.