Britain’s newspaper publishers and editors are scrambling to come up with a new framework for self-regulation, working against the clock to avoid a legislation-assisted solution in the wake of last week’s devastating Leveson report.  But as Cliff Lonsdale reports, something is missing from the debate.

 

Britain’s newspaper publishers and editors are scrambling to come up with a new framework for self-regulation, working against the clock to avoid a legislation-assisted solution in the wake of last week’s devastating Leveson report.  But as Cliff Lonsdale reports, something is missing from the debate.

By Cliff Lonsdale

Incredibly bad trauma reporting is what caused all the anguish. Nine months of hearings by Lord Justice Leveson followed public outcry over the hacking of the cell phone of a young murder victim, Milly Dowler, by The News of The World and outrageous tabloid press treatment of the McCann family, whose daughter disappeared on a family holiday in Spain. To these were added numerous complaints by public and private figures, who had also had their voicemail hacked.

While most of the clamor is now about mechanisms for correcting and punishing egregious press behavior, some voices are suggesting the discussion may have somewhat lost its way. What’s needed in addition to replacing the weak and discredited Press Complaints Commission, they say, is a new approach to the teaching of ethics in Britain’s journalism schools and in-house training programs, making it far more practical, and more concerned with trauma.

Ethics education, however, received only passing mention in the inquiry’s hefty four-book report.

Gavin Rees, Director of Dart Centre Europe, a regional office of Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, says that Lord Justice Leveson unfortunately took the assurances he was given on ethics instruction during the nine-month inquiry at face value.

“Just because people who run journalism courses said, ‘Well, we have ethics modules and we take ethics very seriously,’ he’s assumed that in those institutions the box is ticked,” Rees told J-Source Tuesday from his London office. “But we know that in order to prepare journalists properly for doing trauma work, or interacting with people who are vulnerable, they’ve got to have much more realistic training.”

He added:  “There’s no point in just reading a kind of philosophical primer on ethics. You actually have to discover what it’s like to go out there and interview someone who’s in a difficult place, then realize that you’ve not been equipped properly to do it, before you know that there’s more to being ethical than just thinking that being ethical is a good idea.” 

Leveson’s evident satisfaction with ethics instruction isn’t shared by the body that accredits British journalism schools, the National Council for the Training of JournalistsThe Guardian’s readers editor, Chris Elliott, is a director and trustee of the NCTJ.  Earlier this week he wrote online: “On the day the Leveson report was published, many (ethics trainers) were at an NCTJ conference in Nottingham, where they spent more than an hour discussing ways of improving and standardizing the teaching of ethical journalism.” 

A formal review of the way ethics is taught across more then 40 institutions of higher and further education, plus a number of private commercial trainers, had concluded it was “too patchy, random and implicit”.  New proposals will make ethics instruction much more practical and less theoretical.

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Rees told J-Source: “The paradox here is that the Leveson inquiry was set up because of public concern about intrusion into the lives of families following the death of their children. But most of the questions have failed to stay with those ideas – to stay with the question of the attitude those journalists had to the people in trouble.”

Rees says the inquiry, for all its length and nuanced proposals for a new regime of quasi-enforced self-regulation, didn’t really get to the core of the issue.

“People have to take a deep breath and look squarely at what trauma is.  And really get to listen to the experience of survivors and victims. And there are lots of reasons why that hasn't happened as comprehensively as it should have in the past,” Rees says. “The biggest reason is that talking about that stuff is just really difficult. It's painful.

“Just how do you interview a mother who’s just seen her son shot down in front of her?  How do you do that?  Just saying that it’s important to be ethical about it isn’t going to get you very far.”

Reporters, he says, need to know how to create a safe rapport, how to avoid saying things that might increase the mother’s anguish, and be aware of the possible impact of their writing on her as well.  It all requires “a very nuanced, practical knowledge and an understanding of how trauma impacts on people.”  

Dart’s written submission to the inquiry urged changes to the Editors’ Code, published by the Press Complaints Commission to put more emphasis on that kind of training. 

While he’s disappointed the Leveson report didn’t respond to the need for more trauma awareness training, Rees says: “Nevertheless, I think the Inquiry process has created a new opportunity. Things won't go on as they have done before. Newspapers will have to reexamine their training and look again at their internal procedures. When people sit down and think about how they could address the mess that led to the inquiry, they may realise that trauma training would be the best first step in doing that." 

 

Cliff Lonsdale is President of the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma.  He teaches journalism in the graduate program at Western. He was an inaugural Dart Academic Fellow at Columbia Journalism School in 2010.