The Daniel Pearl Test for Responsible Journalism
by Judea Pearl
Israeli Journalism Conference, Eilat, Israel, November 27-29, 2007
I am often asked why Danny’s death has touched so many people and why he, of all victims of terror, is so often singled out as an icon of the tragedy of the 21st century.
My first answer is that he was a journalist, and journalists, more than any other professionals, represent the strength, beauty and vulnerability of open society. When an unarmed journalist is killed, we are reminded of both, the freedoms that we treasure in our society and how vulnerable we all are to forces that threaten those freedoms.
But this still does not explain the attention given to Danny’s tragedy. After all, 30 other journalists were killed in 2002, and 118 journalists were killed in Iraq alone since the war began.
The shocking element in Danny’s murder was that he was killed, not for what he wrote or planned to write, but for what he represented — modernity, openness, pluralism, curiosity, dialogue, fairness, objectivity, freedom of inquiry, truth, and respect for all people — in short, each and every one of us was targeted in Karachi on January 23, 2002.
This new twist of killing journalists for what they represent has changed the course of journalism as well as the rest of society.
First, it was through Danny’s personal tragedy that people came to grasp the depth of cruelty and inhumanity into which this planet of ours has been allowed to sink in the past two decades.
Second, unarmed journalists in regions of conflict became many folds more vulnerable. They are no longer perceived as neutral, information gathering agents but, rather, as representing political or ideological entities in whatever political categorization taint the conflict in question.
Third, the press and media became more polarized and agenda driven. Journalists today are pressured to serve the ideologies of those who pay their salaries or those who supply them with sources of information.
CNN’s admission, in 2003, to have concealed information on the Iraqi regime in order to keep their office in Baghdad is a perfect example of this pressure.
One of the things that sadden me most is that the press and media have had an active role in this fermentation of hate and inhumanity — it was not religious fanaticism alone.
This was first brought to my attention by the Pakistani Consul General who came to offer condolences at our home in California. When we spoke about the anti-Semitic element in Danny’s murder she said: “What can you expect of these people who never saw a Jew in their lives and who have been exposed, day and night, to televised images of Israeli soldiers targeting and killing Palestinian children.”
The media cannot be totally exonerated from responsibility for Daniel’s murder as well as for the “tsunami of hate” that has swept the world and continues to rise.
Ironically, the increase of independent news channels in the Arab world, a process which is generally considered a positive step forward, has contributed significantly to this spread of hatred and violence.
On the one hand, this process has led to the democratization of the media, for it allows viewers to examine alternative viewpoints, occasionally opposing the official party line.
On the other hand, democratization led to vulgarization.
Competition has forced news channels to echo, rather than inform viewers’ sentiments; reinforce, rather than examine long-held prejudices.
Eager to satisfy their customers’ appetite for self-righteousness, these channels have not thought through the harmful, in fact lethal long term effects of choreographing victim-victimizer narratives as news coverage.
Surely they have an obligation to expose villainy and excess, this is what journalism is all about, but in a world infected with fanatics who run around with lit matches, journalists must exercise extreme caution in handling inflammatory material; they cannot simply pour gasoline into the street and pretend they bear no responsibility for the inevitable explosion.
In one memorial service for Danny, a Catholic priest made an interesting observation that, as mediators of reality, the modern journalist can be likened to the Biblical prophet. My first reaction was that the comparison is too far-fetched, yet on further reflection I came to understand his point. Who serves today as the moral compass of society, and, like the ancient prophets, risks his or her life by exposing corruption, institutional injustice terrorism and fanaticism? The Journalist!
But the Bible also offers us a fool-proof test for discerning false prophets from true ones. The test is not based on the nature of the reported facts, but on the method and principles invoked in the message. Translated into secular modern vocabulary, the true journalist will never compromise on universal principles of ethics and humanity, and will never allow us to forget that all people, including our adversaries, need be portrayed with dignity and respect as children of one God.
Accordingly, to distinguish true from false journalism, just choose any newspaper or TV channel and ask yourself when was the last time it ran a picture of a child, a grandmother or any empathy-evoking scene from the other side of the conflict.
I propose this simple test as the
“Daniel Pearl index of responsible journalism”
Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation www.danielpearl.org, named after his son.
He is a co-editor of “I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004).