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Saturday, May 19, 2001

How to regain the public’s trust in the media, at a time when only 15 per cent of the public say they trust journalists, was a theme that emerged during the 25th International Communications Forum, held in Denver, Colorado, 17-19 May 2001.

The Sarajevo Commitment: ‘yeast throughout the media’ - media ethics discussed in Denver

How to regain the public’s trust in the media, at a time when only 15 per cent of the public say they trust journalists, was a theme that emerged during the 25th International Communications Forum, held in Denver, Colorado, 17-19 May. 

The Sarajevo Commitment, published September 2000 as a call to restore ethical values to the media, is being endorsed by journalists around the world. Jay Rosen, Chair of the Journalism Department of New York University and the father of the civic journalism movement in the US, compared it to the Gettysburg Address. He described it as ‘the only serious attempt to set down a universal declaration of media responsibility, comparable to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. 

ICF founder Bill Porter said that the Commitment has been working like a yeast throughout the media. It has been translated into 17 languages, with another 12 in preparation. The woman president of the Ghana Journalists Association has sent it to each of her members; and it won a Special Commendation at the National Awards Day of the Jamaican Press Association. It was published in full in An-Nahar, Lebanon’s leading Arabic daily, and has been promoted by the Journalists Union of Nizhny Novgorod in Russia. In France, the Director of ‘Le Monde Diplomatique’, Ignacio Ramonet, described the Commitment as ‘the ecology of information’. Martyn Lewis, former BBC news anchorman, read it to 600 educators in the north of England and to 300 executives in Nairobi, Kenya. He was inundated with requests for copies. 

Roger Parkinson, President of the World Association of Newspapers, said in Denver that the ICF should ‘move to phase two’, beyond sounding the alarm about the state of the media, to focus on a few key outcomes, and to find more partners in order to achieve this. But Rosen urged the ICF not to narrow its concerns in order to achieve one or two practical results. ‘I don’t think you should abandon the moral crusade for the sake of something practical. To abandon the moral dimension of it would be a great mistake,’ he said, adding that rhetoric was important and that as a Jew he was ‘commanded to repair the world’. 

Carl Gottlieb, Deputy Director of a research project into excellence in journalism, carried out by the Committee of Concerned Journalists, said that the only way to win back audiences was to improve journalistic quality and integrity. ‘Of more than 8,000 [US TV news] stories studies last year, only seven focused on the needy. Out of the 25,000 stories we’ve studied over three years, only 35 were about poor people,’ he said.

Patti Dennis, Director of News for KUSA-TV, Denver, gave a graphic account of her station’s coverage of the Columbine High School massacre two years ago. She spoke about her personal responsibility in covering such a tragic event. ‘You have to tell [the audience] everything you know but you don’t have to show everything you know,’ she said, referring to her decision not to broadcast images that would upset families of the victims. 

The Archbishop of Denver, the Most Rev Charles Chaput, urged the ICF participants to reflect on their mission to ‘promote a culture based on honest, clean and fair values’. Such a ‘culture of life emerges from a culture of truth,’ he said. He urged the journalists present ‘to respect the power you have in your hands. Use it to serve the truth and to enlighten, encourage and respect others. The illness of our age is not a lack of information but a lack of meaning.’

Former Polish President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa, in a special message to the Denver ICF, thanked the world’s media for its role in the events of August 1980 that led to the collapse of Soviet communism. Referring the strike of the Gdansk shipyard workers, which sparked the overthrow of Poland’s communist regime, President Walesa said: “Had it not been for the spotlights of the cameras of the whole world… our strike could have been easily suppressed. The media people who accompanied us were doing not only their professional duty, they did what their hearts told them were right. For us, their efforts meant protection and reaching society with uncensored truth…. Therefore I would like to thank you, reporters and camera crews. You, too, contributed enormously to the changes that began over 20 years ago and transformed the world.”

Among other participants in the Denver ICF were the Hollywood film critic Michael Medved, the former Beirut hostages Terry Anderson and Tom Sutherland, the renowned Czech journalist Jan Urban, the Indian journalist Sanjoy Hazarika, former New York Times correspondent in South Asia, and Jury Sigov, Washington bureau chief of Novye Izvestia.