The role of a Media Council is, in part, to make decisions about when and where media have overstepped the bounds, when they have behaved badly. They work in accordance with a code of ethics, and arbitrate in much the same manner as a judge. The aim is to help build trust between the media and the public, and to enforce uphold standards of journalism.
But do you think that you have what it takes to make those judgements? TAKE THE QUIZ.
These scenarios are from actual stories put before media councils overseas. Note that any stories shown here have been anonymised, and amended from published versions where necessary to reflect the original complaint.
FAR RIGHT ALLEGATIONS vs REPORTAGE (see hints for details)
Photo by Henry Be on Unsplash
A far-right group in a multi-ethnic country has been going overseas to call for action on the 0.3% of murders that affect their ethnic group, who make up about 5.2% of the population. They are calling it a form of ethnic cleansing, and demanding that other states take action, because they claim the state is complicit in the deaths. A newspaper referred to the group as promoting the idea of a “white genocide”, which the group denies, and provides evidence to show that they do not. The paper, in turn, shows evidence where they use language including terms such as ethnic cleansing, and argues that the group takes selective action against the use of the term, depending on the audience. What do you rule?
The South African Media Council found in favour of AfriForum.
The key take-away is that even though AfriForum is a far-right group whose politics most sensible people would find repulsive, they are entitled to have those views represented fairly. Note that despite the apology, the article still links to other pieces on White Genocide, allowing readers, to some extent to make up their own minds. Also, the judgement refers to the specific parts of the Code of Ethics that was infringed by the Mail & Guardian.
Read the full judgement here and the original article, with apology here
SEXUAL HARASSMENT CASES UNFAIRLY REPORTED. (see hints for details)
A leading gender-justice organisation complains that an article on sexual harassment in their organisation has not reported the issue fairly.
In particular, the article claimed that they did not take any action after a first allegation of harassment, when they had suspended the perpetrator and conducted an inquiry. Further, they denied allegations made in the article of asking staff to keep quiet, and of protecting the perpetrator. They also pointed out inaccuracies in the writers’ connections to the organisation, in particular that they claimed to have been employed by the organisation longer than they had in face.
The paper, in turn, pointed out that this was an opinion piece, and challenged some of the evidence the organisation presented, in particular the opinion of a senior judge who had examined the process and found that it was overwhelmingly fair. They also noted that they had been witness to the whispers that warned potential victims not to get too close to the perpetrator. Who would you favour?
The South African Press Council found generally in favour of the organisation, but also upheld the right of the paper to print opinions. Thus, the paper had to publish corrections for factual errors, including the actions taken by the organisation, but its right to publish the article was upheld. This story covered a sensitive issue, and the gender justice organisation could have gone to the courts and sued for defamation. The Council ruling provided a low-cost solution for everyone. See the ruling here .
MOTHER ASKED TO NOT PUBLISH HER DETAILS FOR CHILDREN'S SAKE. (see hints for details)
Photo by Sai De Silva on Unsplash
A mother-of-two appeared in court charged with taking an item from a shop without paying. In court her solicitor asked that her name and address be left out of any reporting of the case, as doing so could have a negative impact on her two children. The judge in the case asked newspapers to use discretion in reporting the case. The newspaper published a one paragraph story, which included the defendant’s name and address. The defendant complained that the newspaper was in breach of children’s protection provisions in the code of ethics and asked that the story be removed from the paper’s website. The newspaper argued that they did not take instruction from solicitors, and the judge had not made a ruling that identifying information had to be removed. Who would you favour?
The judgement of the Irish Press Council found in favour of the paper, arguing that the privacy of the woman’s children had not been affected and that the newspaper had a duty to print the story. Further, discretion had been used in that the story was given little space and the newspaper had omitted some details of the case. In this case, the public right to know was considered to be more important than what appeared to be a relatively minor invasion of children’s right to privacy. See here for the full judgement.
MISTAKEN SUICIDE OBITUARY (see hints for details)
A woman complained that she had been reported dead by suicide by a major national daily, which had identified her as the former mayor of a suburban borough and published a photography of her. What she said had happened was that another woman of the same name had killed herself. The paper said that they had not breached the code of ethics, because they had taken all precautions to ensure the accuracy of the story, including attending the inquest, and that they standard of accuracy being demanded by the complainant was impossibly high. It agreed that they had made an error, and published a clarification that the former mayor was not in fact dead, but not that they had breached the code of ethics.
The paper was found by the UK Independent Press Standards Organisation to have breached the code of ethics. The paper, however, had already taken the remedial action necessary, so no further action was needed.
MISREPRESENTED MINORITY (see hints for details)
Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash
A religious organisation representing a marginalised minority religion (in that country) claimed that an opinion piece falsely portrayed its politics, and linked it with radical groups that wanted to undermine Western democracies. It claimed that this was a misrepresentation. The newspaper said that the article was an opinion piece and clearly labelled as such, so did not breach the code of ethics’ standards on accuracy. It also pointed to previous statements from the organisation that it alleged upheld this point of view.
The UK Independent Press Standards Organisation found against the Muslim Association, and said no action was needed by the newspaper. Read the full judgement here .
Can You Be a Good Media Council?
So how did you do as a media council?
While these questions use historical decisions around the world, they show how complex the typical issues that a press/media council deal with-- and therefore, why we need one!
You may agree or disagree with some of these council decision. That's okay! These are grey and difficult questions that each society has to deal with. What's important is that we are able to deal with these issues in a fair and equitable manner, which is viewed as acceptable by all. That's why we need your opinions to be heard in Malaysia on how the Media Council should be composed.