How can journalists inform the public without publicizing and inadvertently promoting the radical cause?
"Where is the dividing line between what is appropriate for the public to know and what is helping extremist politics?" ruminated Miroslav Lajčák, former Slovak Foreign Minister and former EU Special Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It was a difficult question that was posed at the panel entitled "Reporting on Extremist Politicians – How New and Traditional Media Cover the Politics of the Extreme" on Sept. 14 in Bratislava, the final day of IPI’s World Congress. Issues like the recent threat by a Florida pastor to burn the Koran on Sept. 11 and the election of the right-wing Fidesz party in Hungary have renewed public discourse on how to deal with extremist politics in the media.
But Lajčák was not there to give advice, he said, but to raise questions. "What is an extremist? And as opposed to a harmless populist?" he wondered.
At the heart of these questions is the nature of free press itself; are there things which a journalist should not report, or should there be no limit to the flow of information, regardless of the consequences? The panelists themselves were engaging but stoic. "The dilemma," offered Sergaj Danilov, an investigative reporter for Slovakia’s Rádio Express, "is how do you inform the public without publicizing and inadvertently promoting the extremist cause?" There are two options, he surmised: to simply ignore extremists – giving them no media platform – or to critically analyze their message and represent it in the wider context.
Exactly this dilemma faced Austrian journalists as Jörg Haider and the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) came to power in the party in the mid-1980s. "In the beginning he was very stylish, and raised some of the right issues," admitted Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, Editor-in-Chief of the Austrian daily Der Standard. "But he knew the journalists were part of the system and he knew how to instrumentalize us." The mass-circulation Kronen Zeitung, with a daily readership of over three million, played a role in Haider’s rise to power. In Austria, she explained, that extremists are part of the established parties, so not reporting on them is not an option, especially given the nature of the FPÖ’s xenophobic and anti-Semitic message.
Understandably, the topic sparked a lively and passionate exchange of views from the crowd of journalists. Daoud Kuttab, one of IPI’s Freedom Heroes from Palestine, stressed the importance of not letting the extremists define those they are against, declaring that Terry Jones’ position on Islam is "like asking Pepsi what they think of Coke." Most in attendance agreed that the press is ultimately there to inform and should hold to its central purpose.
Among the contrary views, Al Jazeera’s Ibrahim Helal cited that their initial reluctance to cover the Koran-burning episode stemmed from a desire to avoid violent backlash in the Islamic world. Asgeir Olden, Associate Director of the Norwegian Institute of Journalism, also stated that, given her country’s complicated relationship with Muslims after the cartoon affair, she seriously questioned the ethical responsibility of journalists whose stories likely prompt violence to be visited on innocent people, concluding somberly, "I’m still in doubt."
What all could agree on however, was that the simple dichotomy of ‘report or ignore’ was not a sufficient compass; ethics are rather an issue of how journalists present and analyze a story, not whether or not to cover it. It is a matter of finding the proper approach to reacting, responding and reporting the extremism in society, to the end of keeping the public thoroughly informed without exacerbating a fragile and potentially explosive social situation.