Good journalism cannot exist without a code of ethics. A journalist who only sees a story while ignoring the suffering, commits a breach of his moral duties towards society

In November 2013, M6, one of the main national television channels in France, broadcasted an episode of the investigative programme Zone Interdite, aiming at understanding the phenomenon of illegal immigration to Europe — a phenomenon which has so far killed 3771 migrants across the Mediterranean. The documentary was met with vivid criticism and has been the subject of a criminal complaint from three of the migrants featured. The journalists of this study have been denounced for accompanying the migrants in their makeshift boat and for exhorting them to undertake their journey to France — even paying for some of them to travel. Two kinds of criticism were addressed to the journalists: a legal one, given that they encouraged illegal immigration; and a deontological one, seeing as they modified, for unclear reasons, the course of history.

Telling the Truth: yes but …

Journalism is indeed defined and driven by the imperative of ‘truth-telling’. But the pursuit of truth should not be achieved without ethical boundaries, especially when it concerns suffering. Reporting distant suffering in journalism is problematic. It deals with the fundamental difficulty of representing ‘otherness’ as well as some broader issues (poverty, social hierarchy, geopolitical features etc.) that we may not fully grasp. Still, today, the average consumer of media content is surrounded by images of suffering and increasing violence. The journalist is then confronted with a problem: how to convey need, pain, suffering, violence and atrocities in an ethical manner — that is, how to present this in a way that respects others’ dignity while still showing the suffering? It is particularly important to reflect on this since the way we portray suffering has many consequences: legal, economic, political and ethical.

Witnessing as a duty to care

What is the first thing a journalist does? He sees. And the very first function of journalism — witnessing — constitutes a window of opportunity to undertake a policy of care and action. Like a survivor, the journalist, who was physically present during the event, becomes responsible for relating what they saw. But the danger in reporting suffering is the ‘aestheticization of human pain’, which portrays suffering as a spectacle, as something irrevocable at the end of the day and that which we can just look at without engaging with it. Too often, we merely contemplate what is happening in the world, through a TV screen or through social media. This daily saturation however, amongst images of pain and people in need has led us towards a certain compassion fatigue …

From voyeurism to activism

What to do then? We need to prevent witnessing from being mere voyeurism. This is increasingly becoming more and more difficult as journalists have to cope with the impact of competition, the lack of resources, the cultural divide between those who suffer and the journalist witnessing this, and the geopolitical strategies at work in the editorial selection of stories. Yet, journalism should not be an amoral and impartial activity, fostered by the distance which separates the journalist — whose safe status allows for fleeing from the scene of suffering — from the sufferer. It should instead, be an activity which bears all the responsibility and emotivity that the act of witnessing requires. In doing so, the plan is to re-humanise the act of witnessing: personalising stories by giving voice to those who suffer through testimonies; recognising the specificity of each culture whilst sharing a common humanity; emotionalising journalism without sensationalising it. It is also an act of self-reflexivity: thinking of how we position ourselves to the distant sufferer while positioning our own identity.

Journalism ethics stipulates that it should not modify the course of history. Is then journalism inherently passive? Not really: journalism is not about telling the public how to feel or how to behave, but about giving them the tools to engage with the stories they come across so as to become active audiences. Likewise, David Puttnam, in a 2013 TED talk, relates the duty to care to the same professional responsibility doctors have with regards to suffering; that of a non-compulsory yet morally committed engagement to relieve pain and prevent it from reoccurring. Journalists are, for him, part of a collective responsibility, created to support a ‘sustainable social agenda’.

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