Journalism in Danger: We must engage journalism students with issues of safety and impunity

Posted on February 15, 2017 by Lada Price

By Dr. Lada Trifonova Price, CFOM Curriculum Leader

According to figures from UNESCO’s Division on Safety of Journalists and Impunity, 101 journalists were killed in the pursuit of a story in 2016, which on average constitutes one casualty every four days. This problem is widely recognised among international agencies and NGOs such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, and has become a priority issue for the UN. In fact, in 2012 the UN adopted a ‘Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity’ to combat impunity and crimes against journalists, and ultimately to ensure greater freedom of expression and media freedom. However, such actions to protect journalists can only be successful if news organisations, the public and journalism educators are aware of such efforts, fully engage with the safety of future journalists and are willing to take measures to improve the situation. Research undertaken by the Centre for Freedom of the Media (CFOM) based at the Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield, shows that leading UK editors and journalists consider the safety of their journalists a priority issue[1]. UK editors emphasise the constantly changing nature of reporting and point to emerging new dangers. They appreciate the need for reporters to be aware of challenges to journalists in hostile environments and to understand potential risks, and they encourage journalists to learn strategies for meticulous preparation. Even reporting from established liberal democracies such as the UK and the United States poses challenges that require significant preparation. In a short video message to journalism students at Sheffield University, the Australian Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste who was jailed because of his work for 14 months in Egypt in 2013-15, strongly emphasised the need to prepare when embarking on any assignment.

Up to date, our research at CFOM indicates that media organisations mostly concentrate on their own efforts to keep their journalists safe and do not rely on journalism school educators or international agencies’ actions. At the same time we find that journalism students want to know more about the challenges and dangers that media and journalism face worldwide[2], but that journalism educators largely neglect to include issues of safety and impunity in their curricula. At CFOM we are working hard to change this and to raise awareness among young and future journalists about some of the harsh realities that journalists worldwide face while reporting. In order to do this, after consultation with senior editors and journalists from leading UK media organisations, in 2015 we developed a case-study research project that takes place during our annual International Journalism Week (IJW). The week consists of lectures, talks and Q&A sessions with well-known journalism practitioners from the UK and with international media and communication scholars. The project is specifically designed as “teamwork” between students, whom we task with investigating journalism safety and physical and political constraints on reporting in countries and different regions of the world.

So far, 52 students have taken part in our project, conducting individual and group research, culminating in team presentations in front of a large audience of students and staff from the Department of Journalism Studies. Feedback from 2015 and 2016 showed that students found the experience of researching a real-life issue “very rewarding”; “useful for their course”, helped them “understand problems that journalists face” and inspired them to work and think independently. Many students found that the case study as part of International Journalism Week gave them insights into journalism. Students not only had the opportunity to conduct research but were also able to speak to real journalists. For example, one of the participants in our “Question Time”-style public event that took place during IJW 2015 was a freelance journalist, Emma Beals, who has reported extensively from Syria and Iraq and had first-hand experience of the dangers in war reporting. Another speaker, Stuart Hughes, a senior producer from the BBC, talked about how a bomb that he stepped on while on assignment in Iraq changed his life forever. He lost a leg but has continued working as a senior world affairs producer for the BBC. Our educational work at CFOM is aimed at raising awareness among young and future journalists of the potential challenges they may face in their future careers in particular regions or countries.

Personally, I am not afraid to describe myself as an “educational activist” if such a term exists. I will continue to show my students that when journalists are killed and the perpetrators get away with murder, we as society lose our ability to be informed. As Roy Greenslade put it so eloquently in his final blog for the Guardian, we must not turn our back on journalists who lack our freedom.

As a CFOM curriculum leader I presented a paper on the importance of the freedom of the press and the need to ensure safety and security of both journalism and journalists at the AJE’s Winter conference in January 2017.  The slides of all speakers are available here

[1] Semi-structured interviews were conducted by CFOM in 2013 with editors and journalists from the Sunday Times, the Independent, the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the BBC and ITN.

[2] Survey with 255 Level 1 Undergraduate and Global Journalism Postgraduate students from the department of Journalism Studies, Sheffield University, conducted in 2014. 95% of the students stated that it was ‘important’, ‘very important’ and ‘most important’ that they are educated about the threats faced by journalists all over the world.