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Guidelines for Broadcasters on

Reporting Sensational Statements and Events

In reporting and discussing news events and public issues—including statements by public officials, political parties or religious leaders or messages of terrorist or criminal groups—radio and television stations face two basic responsibilities that sometimes appear to conflict with each other, but in fact can be balanced.  On the one hand, broadcasters have a responsibility to report and discuss news events fully, fairly and accurately without omitting relevant facts.  On the other hand, broadcasters must understand the power of radio and television to arouse emotions in many people at the same time. These guidelines are designed to assist broadcasters in achieving that important balance.

The terms and conditions of Broadcasting Licenses should require that “the licensee ensure that programmes meet generally accepted community standards of civility and respect for  ethnic, cultural and religious diversity.  The licensee shall ensure due accuracy, fairness and impartiality in all programming, including news.”  Broadcasting Programme Codes of Practice (the “Code”) should contain similar requirements e.g. that “broadcasters should not broadcast any material that, by its content or tone:

(1)         Carries the clear and immediate risk of inciting imminent violence, ethnic or religious hatred, civil disorder or rioting or advocates terrorism, crime or criminal activities (particular care is required where a programme carries the views or transmits the messages of people or organisations who use or advocate terrorism or the use of violence or other criminal activity); or

(2)         Carries a clear and immediate risk of causing public harm, such harm being defined as death, injury, damage to property or other violence, or the diversion of police, medical services or other forces of public order from their normal duties.”

The following guidelines are intended to help broadcasters understand how the Commission interprets these provisions and how to ensure compliance with them.

Reporters, programme editors and station managers are expected to recognise circumstances that, if reported and presented irresponsibly, can encourage violence and hatred and lead to public harm.  These circumstances typically include but are not limited to:

·        Emotional or angry statements by public officials, party or religious leaders or other prominent individuals, whether live or recorded, that a neutral observer would interpret as a direct or implicit call for violent protest, or violence directed against the government, law enforcement, or any individual, group, organisation or property.

·        Requests to read on the air a statement by any group or individual that a neutral observer could interpret as a call for violence or hatred toward another group or individual or that may otherwise cause public harm.

·        Angry, threatening or otherwise highly emotional comments by participants in a telephone contact programme, round-table discussion or interview that, by the same standard, could be interpreted as a call for violence or a provocation of hatred or may otherwise cause public harm.

·        Sensational accusations unsupported by any clear, indisputable factual evidence that, by their nature, may encourage violence or hatred of groups or organisations or may otherwise cause public harm.

·        Transmissions on the air of statements by groups or individuals that use or advocate the use of terrorism, violence or criminal activity.

The justification for treating such statements as legitimate news diminishes greatly if they are made by:

·        Anonymous individuals or organisations that, by their very anonymity, refuse to accept responsibility for their statements;

·        Previously unknown groups or organisations that appear to have formed themselves for the specific purpose of making provocative statements and arousing public emotions; or

·        Individuals whose statements or opinions would not ordinarily be treated as news.

The act of making such statements, or their content, may constitute legitimate news if they are made by public officials, party or religious leaders or prominent citizens, or by organisations that are recognised as an established part of the community.  In these cases, radio or television stations should deal with such statements in a way that preserves and conveys factual information, but minimises or removes the emotional coloration of the statement that can lead to violence. The precautions that the Commission will expect a station to take will depend on the precise nature of the statement in question and the general level of tension in the community.  Adherence to these guidelines defines the difference between legitimate journalism and the propaganda that constitutes a violation of the Code and the terms and conditions to which all licensees have agreed.

A station should consider taking the following precautions when dealing with an angry or emotional statement that a neutral observer might interpret as a direct or indirect, explicit or implicit, call to violence or hatred:

·        The station should summarise all or substantially all of the statement in its own words and use no recorded voice from the individual or organisation that has issued the statement.  This conveys the substance of the statement, but reduces its emotional impact.  (For example, the BBC for many years reported on, but did not air the voices of, members of the Irish Republican Army in order to diffuse this group’s emotional impact.)

·        If the statement occurs during an interview, press conference, round-table discussion or an event being broadcast live, the station should directly and immediately challenge the individual making the statement to accept responsibility for its possible consequences.  For instance, a reporter should say something like:  “Your statement could be interpreted as (or is clearly) a call for violent action (or hatred or intolerance.)  Is that what you meant to say?  Do you accept the consequences if innocent people are hurt as result of your statement?”

·        Whenever a station deals with a statement that calls for violence, urges intolerance or makes sensational accusations, the station has an obligation to vigorously and promptly seek alternative or opposing viewpoints, and to broadcast those viewpoints in the same program or immediately thereafter.  Sources of alternative views are typically government officials, opposing political groups, prominent citizens or representatives of the international community.  In tense situations, broadcasting another point of view hours or days later is not acceptable.  If a station cannot obtain an alternative viewpoint to a call for violence or hatred, or to sensational and possibly untrue accusations, then the station should not broadcast any such material until it can provide an alternative viewpoint.

·        Often a station’s most immediate and effective way to demonstrate its responsibility to the public is a brief commentary of its own urging public calm and restraint and condemning those who would provoke violence.

It is important to note that the Code places on broadcasters the obligation to take “particular care...where a programme carries the views or transmits the messages of people or organisations who use or advocate terrorism or the use of violence or other criminal activity in Iraq.”  This means that where a group is known to use or advocate the use of terrorism or violence, broadcasters have a special duty to avoid becoming a forum through which such groups can terrorise the public.  If terrorists or criminal organisations come to expect that their messages will be broadcast, they will be encouraged to take hostages and record their capture in order to gain access to the airwaves.  Accordingly, broadcasters should follow the following guidelines:

·        Broadcasters must avoid systematically and regularly broadcasting the taped messaged of terrorists and criminals.  One possible way to avoid placing such groups in the spotlight would be to inform the public, for example, that a hostage has been taken without naming the group that has taken the hostage (unless providing the name is particularly newsworthy) and without showing images of the hostage or kidnappers.

·        Under no circumstances should broadcasters or journalists co-operate with terrorists or criminals to gain knowledge about future terrorist or criminal activities.  Any tips about such future activity should be reported to the proper authorities so that it might be prevented.

Media shall not be held liable for the dissemination of material, provided that (i)  there was no adequate opportunity to prevent its dissemination, and (ii) such Media took affirmative steps to mitigate the effect of such dissemination, including, for example, by questioning the speaker or commenting on such material.

The Commission will attempt to inform broadcasters of violations and give them the opportunity to correct their practices where appropriate.  However, the Commission is prepared to punish violations by invoking the sanctions available to it, including revocation of the broadcaster’s license.

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Commission guidelines are designed to assist broadcasters in interpreting and maximising the positive aspects of Commission rules, regulations and codes that the Commission issues from time to time and should be read and interpreted in conjunction with them and other Commission guidelines

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