Neutrality, journalism and moral agency

I really appreciated the debate on Sunday Sequence this morning about the role of journalists. It was all the more interesting because there isn’t, in my view, enough debate about this in the public arena. There is very likely plenty of debate about it behind closed doors – every organisation and grouping has its own way of contemplating itself. But as far as I am concerned I haven’t heard enough of this.

Over these last years when so many institutions in society are being reformed it is also the case that there are some who, as yet, remain untouched. Thankfully there are those facing up to changes that have to made, grasping nettles that have to be grasped if the sectarianism, division and violence are not to form us in the future as they have in the past. But I have heard it said – what about the media? How do we engage them in debate about change and about how they can support a new world? Or how can we engage journalists in a conversation about how they continue to transmit the old world and encourage its surivival?

On the same programme In a debate about the shipyard Mike Nesbitt referred to living in ‘silos’. I am convinced that among the greatest changes that can be made so the future is not like the past is the change from silo thinking to connected thinking. Connected thinking, or joined up thinking, or networking, or however you want to dub it, resists any return to the things and ways of the past precisely because it breaks down the silos that allow parallel, separated communities to exist without reference to one another It permits a society built on a new kind of connectedness in which the thoughts and views of others are given careful consideration. So any organisation that continues to think about itself behind closed doors very much remains unreformed and connected to the past, maybe without even knowing about it. The world of journalism is one of those silo worlds. So for me this debate was refreshing and challenging, even exciting.

At one level there is no such thing as neutrality so a journalist is unable, try as they might, to report ‘the facts and only the facts.’ But as competent moral agents who are self-aware they can strive to counter their natural humanity by searching out the view that they don’t want to report, the opinions that don’t resonate with them. In so doing they make a conscientious decision to counter the silo in which they want to live and the human tendency they have to sympathise with one view of the world or another. It is actually an extension of moral agency. To have such moral agency hauled out of the shadows and examined together with the likelhood of neutrality ever being achieved helps me to find new faith in the media’s presentation of the world in which we live.

Don’t for one minute think I am highly critical of the media. I greatly admire the job that is done in providing a news service and in providing space for asking questions and making challenges that can’t be made easily in other places. So this is not all about criticism. But it is about the discovery of new integrity, honesty and connectedness with the world which places journalists into a conversation with the worlds it reports on rather than viewing journalists as neutral commentators on those worlds. In my opinion, for what it’s worth, this could make a world of difference. There are other institutions in society which still have reforming to do.


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