In a student essay, Western University journalism grad Katherine Starr explores what responsible journalism means to her. 

By Katharine Starr

Responsibility is a word I was first taught by my parents.

At the time, it meant making my bed, delivering the newspapers on my neighbourhood paper route by a certain time and carrying through on promises I made to my friends and siblings. As I grew older, the definition expanded to include curfews, designated drivers, annual checkups and monthly payments.

It wasn’t a word I necessarily associated with journalism until I was confronted with its distinct lack thereof, reminding me that sometimes we can’t really understand an idea until we come face-to-face with its antithesis.

I was living in Russia in October 2010 when a group of female journalism students from Moscow State University issued a calendar in honour of then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s birthday. The calendar featured scantily clad women in provocative poses with highly sexualized innuendo floating around the images. But it wasn’t the lingerie or the cheesy lines that shocked me.

You see, those women were a part of the same faculty from which the fearless journalist Anna Politkovskaya had graduated. Politkovskaya reported on the worst of the human rights abuses in Chechnya, daring to be a voice for the voiceless and a critic of a growing authoritarian regime. She had long been a hero of mine, and her assassination in 2006 was a devastating blow to journalistic freedom in Russia.

It was this calendar and its casual affiliation with the journalism faculty that made me sit up and say, “Wait. This isn’t journalism.”

These young women, who had effectively been passed Politkovskaya’s torch, were throwing it away, and this filled me with sadness, anger and confusion. And most of all, it filled me with a determination to passionately pursue journalism that wasn’t coloured and distorted by politics or fear.

At the time, all I knew was what responsible journalism wasn’t, but I did not know what it was.  So, what does responsible journalism look like?

It looks like the female journalism students from Moscow State who came forward and spoke against their colleagues’ calendar, creating their own version where they posed fully dressed with tape over their mouths and a speech bubble demanding, “Who killed Anna Politkovskaya?”

It looks like Adrienne Arsenault’s documentary on Moshe and Munir, an Israeli and a Palestinian whose friendship beats the odds in a news culture that doesn’t always seek out fresh, alternative perspectives to issues that can seem black and white.

It looks like the code of ethics outlined by Tunisia Live, an online media organization created after the 2011 revolution ushered in greater press freedom. They assert that “our only agenda is to the truth and our only loyalty is to our readers” and state clearly and transparently their views on attributing sources, verifying information, editorial guidelines and more.

It looks like the conversation I had with my editors during my internship at The Telegram in St. John’s, Nfld. about whether to pursue a story that was looking to be, most likely, a suicide. After thoughtful discussion, we chose as a team to quietly drop the story.

What responsible journalism looks like is hard work and tough calls. And it is.

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But in an age where we get antsy if the Wi-Fi cuts out for a minute, the hard work, time and dedication required to produce good journalism are not exactly popular.

Add in the 24-hour news cycle with the “get-it-first” mentality often trumping the “get-it-right” one, and it’s obvious responsible journalism is something we need to work harder than ever at upholding as a tenet of our craft.

When the Washington Post recently announced it was eliminating the position of newspaper ombudsman, an independent position that acted as a watchdog on the paper and a symbol of self-accountability, a conversation was sparked amongst the media on the value of such a role and the state of responsible journalism today.

It’s a sad truth: financial pressures and an industry that’s redefining itself in an era of transition have made it increasingly difficult to employ ombudsmen and to practice more rigorously responsible journalism.

I can’t offer up a solution to the Washington Post and other papers that have had to let ombudsmen go. As Post publisher Katharine Weymouth explained, “The world has changed, and we at The Post must change with it.”

But in this period of transformation, perhaps the one thing we can cling to is our belief in responsible journalism and our commitment to practice it in our search for truth.

Journalists have power to inspire change. I witnessed this three years ago in Russia and I’ve continued to realize this throughout my journalism training in Canada. 

In his closing column, outgoing Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton exhorted journalists to “exercise this power wisely and responsibly.”

Back to that word: Responsibility.

Responsible journalism requires dedication, passion, and a desire to honour your story, no matter how big or small.

Responsible journalism is not always easy. But another lesson I learned from my parents is that the easy thing and the right thing aren’t always the same.

 

Katharine Starr is a recent graduate of Western University’s Master of Arts in Journalism program. The Haak Saan Responsible Journalism Scholarship was established at the University of Western Ontario to promote and enhance social justice, peace and harmony, by encouraging highly responsible journalism.

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.