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Of Humanitarianism and Impartiality

The Guardian reported in January that a humanitarian aid advertisement by the Red Cross, Save the Children and Oxfam, among others, was turned down by the BBC and Sky News because of fears they may appear to be taking sides in the Gaza conflict.

Although the two-minute appeal was prefaced by the announcement that "this is not about rights and wrongs" but about people needing "your help," Sky rejected it because it was "incompatible with our role in providing balanced and objective reporting."

BBC management said airing the ad would interfere with the corporation's duty to cover the story in an "objective way." The British National Union of Journalists (NUJ), and the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union condemned the decision.

The union containing BBC journalists said the decision was "cowardly" and "politically motivated." It said the decision "has breached those same BBC rules by showing a bias in favor of Israel at the expense of 1.5 million Palestinian civilians suffering from an acute humanitarian crisis." The British prime minister's office said it would not "second guess" the BBC decision, but "we clearly support the appeal."

Are Sky News and BBC arguing that the very refusal to run the ad wasn't an act of side-taking?

Iraqi Election Coverage Has Its Ups and Downs

The Los Angeles Times reported that, a few days before the January 31, 2009 provincial elections in Iraq, Iraq's Communication and Media Commission announced that both Iraqi and foreign journalists would be required to sign a code of conduct if they wanted to cover the election.

Among other provisions, the code required a two-day "media silence period" just before the election and for media to give "equal time" to candidates.

The Iraqi Journalists Syndicate called the rule an unnecessary interference and the head of the country's election commission said, "These are not our regulations.All we ask is that the media be neutral, transparent and objective."

Finally, the election commission backed down and told journalists that signing the code was not necessary.

In a country that's so deeply divided and where news media are so unabashedly party-sponsored, it would be a toss-up as to whether it would be harder for journalists to be "neutral, transparent and objective " or for media to select those candidates to whom to give "equal time."

China's Black List

Reuters reported recently that China had announced the creation of an official "black list" of reporters who "engage in unhealthy professional conduct." Li Dongdong, a deputy chief of China's General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) said the country is determined to "halt fake news."

But one's "fake news" may well be another's "real news." "Fighting fake news is a cloak. You can call all sorts news fake," said Li Datong, former editor of the official China Youth Daily. "But there are plenty of ways to deal with that." He said the policy is designed to target reporters who resist the country's propaganda efforts.

The GAPP's Li Dongdong said the list was a "database of people who engage in unhealthy professional conduct" and those on the list would be forbidden from engaging in reporting or editing the news.

One would be willing to bet that "healthy professional conduct" would coincide fully with the Chinese government's definition of "newsworthiness." The definition of "fake news" may be another matter.

Not So Sporting a Question

A Detroit News sports columnist lost his job because of a question he asked of the Detroit Lions coach at the end of the team's terrible 0-16 season, ESPN reported.

The columnist questioned the wisdom of the coach's hiring his son-in-law as the team's defensive coordinator. "On a light note," the columnist said, "do you wish your daughter would have married a better defensive coordinator?" The coach was not amused. And neither was The Detroit News.

The newspaper's managing editor said the question was "inappropriate and unprofessional," discontinued the column and reassigned the writer. The coach, and his son-in-law were fired soon after the season ended.

If that's a "light note," what's a "heavy note"?

The New York Post, the Chimpanzee Cartoon and the Murdoch "Apology" After all the commotion in February about the New York Post cartoon that depicted two policemen, after shooting a chimpanzee saying, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill," Post chairman Rupert Murdoch insisted, however, that the cartoon by Sean Delonas "was not meant to be racist, but unfortunately, it had been interpreted by many as such." In short, although Murdoch apologized to readers "who felt offended or even insulted" it was not the paper's fault if some people chose to misinterpret the cartoon and its caption.

Since there had been a story about the shooting of a violent chimpanzee in nearby Connecticut that the New York media had covered shortly before, and since the economic stimulus bill had been the first legislative victory of new President Barack Obama (the nation's first African American president), and since racists had likened African Americans to monkeys for hundreds of years, Murdoch's surprise over the reaction to the cartoon may not be surprising.

It's worth remembering here that this is the same Murdoch whose Fox network 10 years ago had received the Golden Sewer Award from the conservative media watch group Empower America (then headed by William Bennett) in recognition of the network's "outrageous contribution to the degradation and coarsening of our culture and its unswerving dedication to the pursuit of profit above principle." At the same time, Empower America gave Murdoch himself a lifetime achievement award for his leadership in this field.

It's hard to stop a person from doing what he/she does best.

Twitter Journalism Claims a Victim

Many world media reported that the BBC was providing a "running account" or "live updates" of what was happening during the deadly November 2008 attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai (Bombay), by using Twitter reports and Flickr photographs of onlookers. The BBC admitted that it did not verify the reports but said it always correctly attributed them.

But when the BBC reported that the Indian government had asked for discontinuation of Twitter reports from Mumbai, something that had never happened, the BBC didn't verify it. The BBC also found out that the contamination of information by people's personal biases (unwitting or purposeful) resulted in confusion, without adding significant material that was not available through traditional journalistic means.

Eventually, the BBC online news editor said that attribution is not a substitute for verification and that "we've learned a lesson."

Journalism 101: Tweets are not news.