The Assault on Journalism (book review)

3 May marks the annual World Press Freedom Day. The Nordic Information Centre for Media and Communication Research (Nordicom) which hosts the UNESCO Chair on Freedom of Expression, Media Development and Global Policy at the University of Gothenburg launched its latest publication The Assault on Journalism-Building knowledge to protect freedom of expression edited by Ulla Carlsson and Reeta Pöyhtäri. 

This substantial volume contains 34 chapters and is organized in four parts, covering key articles, broader reflections on journalist safety research and framework, empirically grounded case studies and a final highlighting key statistics around journalist (un)safety:

The aim of the of this publication is to highlight and fuel journalist safety as a field of research, to encourage worldwide participation, as well as to inspire further dialogues and new research initiatives.
Guy Berger summarizes the focus on journalism well in his chapter Why the World Became Concerned with Journalistic Safety:
If those actors who do journalism are important enough to be protected, including so they may enjoy digital security, then they are surely also important enough to merit the associated conditions of freedom, pluralism, independence and gender equality. In this way, attention to safety – a topic that is proving to be a powerful concern in its own right – can be a key to opening other doors, both politically and practically, which can improve the condition and contribution of journalism in the digital age (p.42).
Journalism safety as research field, advocacy strategy and best practice tool
Ari Heinonen highlights
one of the key strengths of the edition in his Explorations in an Emerging Research Field:

This collection of articles can also be read as a showcase of different solutions regarding research settings, methodologies and other factors to be considered while conducting research in this field. As a whole, these articles demonstrate that a new important interdisciplinary research field is emerging (p.144).
The research case studies cover an impressive range of countries and Syed Irfan Ashraf and Lisa Brooten’s Tribal Journalists under Fire from Pakistan exemplifies the connection between local and global issues, a key thread throughout the 350 page volume:
The threats have become such a common occurrence that journalists rarely mention the perpetrators of violence or the state’s responsibility for their protection. In the face of significant threats, tribal reporters’ dependence on group solidarity is based on the principle of reciprocity – the expectations and obligations that bring tribal journalists together as they work to navigate the complicated and dangerous intersection of state, militant and foreign interests (p.157).
Sallie Hughes and Mireya Marquez-Ramirez’ chapter How Unsafe Contexts and Overlapping Risks Influence Journalism Practice from Mexico highlights the intersection of law, ‘good governance’ and new forms of financial support for independent media, issues that are discussed in many other countries as well:
The study also found that economic risk stemming from the financial position of a media firm compounds physical risk and promotes censorship. These findings should raise the priority of Mexican initiatives to strengthen public and non-profit media and make government advertising transactions more transparent (p.313).
Lilian Ngusuur Unaegbu’s Safety Concerns in the Nigerian Media is a noteworthy contribution from Africa that focuses on another core theme of the volume, the gendered aspects of journalistic engagement around the globe:
There is an urgent need to mainstream gender into existing frameworks and to develop additional media policies with strong gender perspectives (p.183).
Faye Anderson’s chapter on Australian News Photographers, Safety and Trauma is yet another reminder of how closely issues that are discussed in the aid industry are linked to contemporary journalism:
One of the most traumatic aspects of the photographers’ lives is the demise of their profession, the collective loss of colleagues and mentors and the greater reliance on freelance photographers devoid of support. It is deserving of greater consideration not only of the historical neglect, but the newspaper industry is experiencing seismic institutional change, and the safety of photographers has become more compromised and precarious (pp.233-234).
My short overview certainly cannot do justice to the rich content, but it should highlight the diversity of cases that are presented under a unified approach of journalism safety.
Journalism beyond White House press conferences
Among many other things, the book is also a powerful and timely reminder to expand our focus away from the media frenzy in the United States or disingenuous global development reporting by UK’s Daily Mail. In many countries journalists struggle with various powerful groups for an informed and critical debate guided by the ethos of good journalism, not simply producing ‘traffic’, viral news or outrage about alleged or real ‘fake news’.

All in all, the book delivers something of a ‘complete package’: It features a wide range of authors who often get less space when discussions are dominated by North American journalism discourses featuring celebrity researchers and well-known institutions.

None of the chapters presents a research study in all its details, but rather focuses on summarizing main aspects with plenty of references to explore ‘further readings’, research articles or book-length discussion of a specific context. This keep the 34 chapters somewhat connected and allows for browsing or using them for teaching case studies, for example.

This approach highlights the importance of connecting research with practice and advocacy and to write about it in an accessible, concise way.

Important food for thought for communicating development
Many topics resonate with current debates in humanitarian aid and the aid industry more broadly, for example mental health, staff safety, new forms of local-expat collaborations and the chances and limitations of digital tools. Many of the chapters also suggest to me that issues around journalism and ‘media development’ may become more closely aligned with other core areas of ‘real’ development. This is not just about ‘communicating development’, but about engaging with inequalities or injustices that often are the root causes that development tries to tackle. As a new generation of local journalists joins the industry in a digital area of more affordable reporting tools and new outlets for journalistic products, the aid industry can only benefit from closer collaborations. At the same time, meaningful cooperation requires time, effort and money and not every citizen journalism initiative leads to fair and balanced stories. As most of the time in development, it
s complicated…

This is a great open-access collection that goes far beyond journalism safety and highlights many important issues in communicating development and social change topics in our mediatized world!

Carlsson, Ulla & Pöyhtäri, Reeta (eds.): The Assault on Journalism: Building knowledge to protect freedom of expression. ISBN 978-91-87957-50-5,
341pp + annex, 29 Euro (free download), Göteborg: Nordicom, 2017.


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