By Martin Accad
On my commute to work in the morning, I am always on the lookout for news of the day on the radio: on the hour … at 15 minutes after the hour … or at 15 minutes before the hour. I browse through my preset stations, each reflecting a different perspective. In between the news briefs, I listen to morning talk shows to gauge the mood of society on the hottest topics of the day or week.
For a while now, I have become alarmed at the deteriorating quality, both of news reporting and of the public discourse, exacerbated by presenters and hosts claiming simply to be reporting people’s questions and concerns, “objectively” and with disinterest. But this purported neutrality, one should argue, is itself problematic as it feigns ignorance of the media’s power and responsibility.
Sometimes morning talk shows simply offer listeners and callers the opportunity to vent about their economic struggles or their disdain for the political elite. But at other times, the conversation tilts dangerously toward prejudiced hate speech, which leaves me gasping before the terrifying potential for violence that may ensue from the raw emotions expressed by listeners and largely inflamed by the host.
In Lebanon, the hot topics most profusely covered these days – depending on which side of the narrative one is listening to – are Syrian refugees, the Hezbollah-Amal “duo” and their associated Shiite community, and more recently the LGBTQ issue.
As I pondered this new reality of our Lebanese media, I came across an educational tool developed by the Lebanese Center for Civic Education (LCCE) and sponsored by forumZFD, a Civil Society Organization for civil peace. Available freely on the forumZFD website, the manual was first developed in 2013 and is entitled “The Memory of War.” Activity 9 (of 12) addresses the question of the media’s responsibility in reporting.
The chapter begins by identifying 5 types of media, ranging from those that “promote peace” to those that “promote intolerance,” and includes 3 other types as those that seek “common grounds,” “unbiased media,” and “biased media.” One could argue that a great number of media generally are biased, serving as mouthpieces for opposing perspectives on social and political issues. Yet I am alarmed at the number of soundbites, served to the Lebanese population these days, that actually seem to go further, to the point of promoting intolerance; all in the name of freedom of speech and the objective transmission of people’s opinions of course.
For those of us who are theologians, academics, and church leaders, usually with a platform, a pulpit, and often an impressionable audience, we must reckon with the fact that most of our own discourse and writing has influence, some of it considerable. I think it is useful, therefore, to be reminded of some of the ethical standards of the media sector, as these may well apply to us, perhaps even more so than to journalists and show hosts, given the added power that the spiritual and religious dimensions of our vocation have on our audiences. I will briefly reflect on the ecclesial implications of the 11 “rules of conduct” and “ethical duties” listed in “The Memory of War” manual.
- Responsibility. Responsible reporting, like responsible theology, is one that is committed to the truth. Our sense of responsibility to our audience is the measure of our professionalism. As leaders we must remain aware that we serve not ourselves, but God and the public good.
- Balance and Fairness. A media person’s commitment to the truth should generate in them the desire to sustain a frankness in their reporting that leads to dialogue. So too in our biblical and theological treatment of difficult issues. Even though we might be staunchly attached to our opinion, our commitment to the truth requires that we should present different views on an issue fairly, so that our audience will receive sufficiently balanced information that they can then evaluate maturely and thoughtfully.
- Relying on the Methodologies of Conflict Analysis. Everything we do and say should reflect our enduring commitment to the exploration of peaceful solutions to often-deep disagreements on issues, whether political, social, or theological. We want to explore personally and socially complex backgrounds of difficult issues, to highlight commonalities and disagreements, and to seek resolutions that maintain as much as possible collective unity and the common good.
- Avoiding Propaganda and Incitement. People with selfish interests and political clout will always seek to manipulate the public discourse, whether through the media in broader society or through opinion shapers and influencers in the community of faith. This can especially be the case with those of us who rely on external funding for our jobs and subsistence. Safeguards for responsible free speech should be sought, such as the academy has developed in what is known as a “tenured” position. For leaders in the faith community, there must additionally be a willingness to resist manipulative pressure even at great personal cost.
- Means of Dealing with Violence. Physical violence and harm are often the long-term fruit of protracted verbal abuse and verbal For example, fear mongering has risen at an alarming rate in the media discourse about Syrian refugees in Lebanon. As a result, even in the church it has become increasingly difficult for leaders to cultivate empathy toward the Syrian community, considering the sustained popular narrative of grievances. It is now more urgent than ever to give voice to those on the receiving end of abuse, by highlighting the cost of verbal violence and prejudice on individual human lives.
- Contextualization. Media personalities often claim accuracy and objectivity simply by publishing or repeating so-called “factual” information. As leaders in the faith community, we are often tempted as well to reinforce our position, such as vis-à-vis the LGBTQ issue, simply by claiming that “this is what the Bible says.” But our attitude and behavior, when they are based on claimed “simple truths,” will be flawed if we do not frame issues in their proper psychosocial and personal contexts.
- Separation of Opinion and Fact. For a media reporter, distinguishing between opinion and fact, and highlighting unambiguously when information is based on allegations, rumors, or assumptions, is crucial to good practice. In the church, humble leadership should almost always prevent us from stating our position as “fact.” If we believe that God alone possesses ultimate truth, then even our Bible-based convictions should remain opinions that are subject to corrective interpretation. I would humbly venture the opinion that it is arrogant and manipulative to present any of our theological convictions as absolute truth.
- Respecting Privacy. The media principle here is that private life issues should be dealt with as accurately and carefully as possible. People’s private lives should be protected from sensational media exhibitionism. In the sphere of church leadership, respect for people’s personal struggles and life journeys belongs to the realm of pastoral care. Our care for people’s woundedness should always trump our inclination to judgmentalism and our desire to heroically win an argument.
- Avoiding Discrimination and Generalization. In reporting, as in the propagation of gospel truths, negative stereotyping may serve our aspiration to champion a cause in the face of another. But as “The Memory of War” manual argues, “[N]egative stereotypes imply that everyone who belongs to the other side behaves in the same manner and will never change.” But if we claim to abide by a higher truth, then our interest should always be first and foremost for persons, even above ideological positions. For every person we must believe in the possibility of change.
- Accuracy in Using Language and Terminology. Labeling can contribute to the rekindling of conflict or to its perpetuation by coming across as aggressive. A situation, position, or lifestyle should be described accurately and without exaggeration. The language and terminology to describe a group or an issue are best learned from the group itself and from the way they refer to themselves.
- Accuracy in Using Sources. Media ethics require care in the use of sources to avoid causing them harm and losing their trust. Similarly, theologians, preachers, and other faith influencers should also exercise great care in using their main source, which is the Bible. We abuse our source when we do not approach it with humility and openness. As reporters have the “ethical responsibility to protect their sources,” so too faith leaders have the responsibility to treat the Bible with respect by approaching its interpretation without a hint of manipulation.
As thought leaders in the church, we have a tremendous responsibility to our faith communities and to society at large. We can just as much become promoters of intolerance as we are called to be promoters of peace. Whether we have a platform in the realm of social issues, compassionate ministries, theological education, preaching, or public affairs, we are called to be peacemakers and reconcilers, always seeking to maintain unity in the church and the common good in the world.
Martin is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at ABTS and Founder/Director of the research group Action Research Associates.