Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Just Journalism" Exploring International Law in the Media

I've come across an interesting organization (with a punny name) called Just Journalism. The UK based organization states as its mission that:
"Just Journalism is an independent research organisation focused on how Israel
and Middle East issues are reported in the UK media. We produce analysis of
print, broadcast and online media and regularly publish research on trends in
the media’s coverage.
"

What I find particularly interesting about Just Journalism is that they have what appears to be a somewhat unique focus on how public international law is reported in the media. Public International Law, like any area of law, can be incredibly nuanced and complex and is difficult to fully express in a short news report or article. Law is also rarely black and white, and lawyers are often mocked for regularly answering questions with: "well that depends..." Just Journalism has concerned itself with how these difficult issues are dealt with in the media.

There was a recent Just Journalism "round table" on international law as reported in the media. The round table featured journalism experts as well as at least two experts on international law, Professor Robert McCorquodale and Dr Ralph Wilde (bio at the bottom of the page.)

The round table found, in a nutshell, that international law is a highly politicized subject, that its concepts have precise meanings and the application of international law concepts to a given situation can be legitimately, hotly contested. They also point out that given the subtle, but important, nuances that may exist journalists are not necessarily qualified to identify the areas that may be contentious when interviewing one expert or another.

As a useful example of how international law is sometimes used--if not by journalists than by politically oriented groups--to advance political positions, consider this article by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting--also quite punny!) FAIR is a US
"...media watch organization offering constructive criticism in an effort to
correct media imbalance. We advocate for media access on behalf of those
constituencies in our society that do not have the wealth to purchase their own
TV stations or daily newspapers. We scrutinize media practices that slight
public interest, peace and minority viewpoints."

In other words, it's a group advocating against centralized control of new media and encouraging media to be more aggressive and critical of the powers that be.

The FAIR article linked to above discusses reporting on international law in the US in the wake of the Israeli war against Hamas in Gaza. It laments that more mention of international law was not made and that Israel was not more forcefully criticized for its violations of this law. Indeed, it criticizes the New York Times for saying that “In the debate over civilian casualties, there is no clear understanding of what constitutes a military target.” This being of course a reflection of the difficulty of answering the question when does a target become military. Is a soldier off duty a military target? Is a member of a terrorist group not in uniform planning an attack a target, on the way to an attack, attempting to attack? The lines are unclear and it would seem the New York Times was right to note this uncertainty. Nonetheless, groups like the "Electronic Intifada" have picked up and republished reports like this one from FAIR in furtherance of what is their, distinctly political agenda. They are asking that media make more pronouncements on international law precisely because it is useful to have mainstream sources making unequivocal legal claims.

One of the round tables key outcomes is that "Journalists must strike a balance between providing detail on the complex legal concepts they refer to, and ensuring their reports remain accessible to their audiences. There is a lack of consensus on the right way to strike this balance at present and this needs further discussion." Or in other words, law is complicated, is hard to communicate in the space often available to journalists and there are no simple solutions to rectify this problem.

Certainly, the laws that apply in a courtroom, do not apply to public opinion. In a court if a witness, even an expert witness, says something, the judge need not accept the statement as true and more often than not, the opposite party will bring in their own witnesses and experts to contradict the claims. In journalism, an interview with a single law professor may suffice for the journalist or the audience to feel convinced that they are hearing the authoritative legal position. It may not be sufficient, but it would be a positive step in the right direction for journalists to remember that pronouncements on the law can nearly always be contradicted. It could also be useful for them to acknowledge this somehow in their reporting. For example, if interviewing a law professor adding the caveat, to be perfectly clear, that this opinion is only that of this professor and there may be other, valid legal opinions. Or, perhaps in an interview asking the interviewee to honestly consider if there would be other international law experts who may disagree with him or her could rectify this imbalance.

In all cases, Just Journalism raises interesting points about the confluence of law, the media and politics and their work is worth watching.

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