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SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY OF THE FOURTH ESTATE

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ROME, May 21 2007 (IPS) - Should the media, which shape public opinion and orient a major part of our actions –political, commercial, social. cultural– share the same responsibilities as civil society organisations that fight for human rights and discriminated-against minorities around the world? asks Mario Lubetkin, director general the IPS News Agency. In this article the author writes that more and more media feel an identification with a mission that cannot be reduced to transmitting information and feel bound by a sense of social responsibility. We think that the code of conduct voluntarily adopted by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which was written by themselves, contains elements that may be appropriate for the oversight and analysis of the media given the nature of their respective missions. The universal values of human rights, independence, freedom from discrimination, transparency, an ethic of self-financing, the practise of critical vision and evaluation, are some of the concepts that might be accepted by and applied to the media themselves. This might establish a common ground between these two major actors in the contemporary world.

The traditional response has always been negative: the media and their journalists should limit themselves to informing the public objectively, without taking positions or involvement of any kind, whether political or social, with what they are covering.

But more and more media feel an identification with a mission that cannot be reduced to transmitting information and feel bound by a sense of social responsibility. And then there are those media linked to non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Throughout its history, but especially in recent years, IPS news agency has sought to participate with different kinds of media in debates and reflection on our responsibility with regard to development issues. This experience has shown us that there is a clear and increasing acceptance by the media of forms of responsibility regarding social issues.

In 2005 we had the opportunity to organise in Florence a debate with print media, radio, and television on the social responsibility of the media. One example analyzed was the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), established in 2000 by a majority of heads of state or government under the auspices of the UN. If these objectives, intended to reduce misery across the globe, are considered a goal that a vast majority endorses and so should make an effort to achieve, shouldn’t responsible journalists and media feel an obligation to contribute to their realisation?

This debate was remarkably spirited and interesting. Present were representatives from MTV, Al Jazeera, and Italy’s Rai as well as agencies like IPS and Reuters, newspapers, and networks of commercial and community radio, and together we analyzed from each of our points of view our collective and individual role in communicating information critically and independently to our audiences on a subject that apparently is as distant to them as the MDGs, the fulfilment of which will improve the lives of hundreds of millions of poor people.

This is but a single example of the sort of debate that one sees more and more in the media, such as the World Communications Congress held in Rome last November.

It is clear that for civil society organisations, social responsibility is of a piece with the objectives that were the reason for their establishment in different areas of development and the defense of freedoms and human rights. Thus at the end of 2005 a group of major NGOs created a code of conduct that, among other things, accepted the introduction of external oversight of their activities and defined their social commitment as the promotion of a social human development, the defence of human rights, and the protection of the eco-system.

There is nothing like this in the media. Rather there are various commonly accepted but uncodified rules, such as not revealing confidential sources or including the response of a criticised party. But these are no more than professional conventions and are far from the concept of social responsibility.

Perhaps this different attitude explains why in global surveys civil society is always seen as one of the most credible sectors, while the media are often felt to be among the least so. A recent poll by BBC World Service conducted in 32 countries found that less than half of those polled had a positive view of the media, and more than one quarter viewed them negatively. Similarly, a Gallup poll placed civil society among the first five actors in terms of positive vision.

We think that the code of conduct of the NGOs, which they created for themselves, contains elements that may be appropriate for the oversight and analysis of the media given the nature of their respective missions. The universal values of human rights, independence, freedom from discrimination, transparency, an ethic of self-financing, the practise of critical vision and evaluation, are some of the concepts that might be accepted by and applied to the media themselves. This might establish a common ground between these two major actors in the contemporary world. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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