The recent UNESCO meeting in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, has stirred much controversy in the Western press. Most recently, the United Nations encouraged all states and organizations to examine and consider the recommendations of the MacBride commissions which were made public at the UNESCO meeting. Implicit in these recommendations are the demands of less developed countries (LDCs) for "fairer" coverage by the Western news media. What exactly is meant by fairer coverage? How can the West provide such coverage without compromising its belief in freedom of the press?
Fair coverage does not mean merely the presentation of the so-called "good" side of the news. Nor does it mean the regurgitation of "propagandized news" reported by a controlled press agency. Although it may appear obvious, fair coverage is accurate and complete reporting by responsible journalists. To be unfair does not necessarily mean to lie or intentionally omit vital facts.Rather , unfair coverage can be the aggregate of many minor inaccuracies. By itself, each inaccuracy appears harmless, but within a story the sum total of these inaccuracies provides an unfair flavor to the news.
The 1978 Jonestown massacre in Guyana is an excellent example of such unfair coverage. Several minor errors in reporting gave the American reader an impression of Guyana which didn't quite correspond to reality. Little attempt was made to study the link between the presence of Jim Jones and his followers and Guyana's agricultural policies, which consisted of populating and developing arable land in order to increase output and bring in more foreign currency by whatever means possible. false references to the "illiterate people" (in fact literacy is in the 80-85 percent range) and the use of "pidgin" English in Guyanese were frequently made. Actually, the English in Guyana is quite, pure, although it is spoken with an accent.
Another example of seemingly innocent yet unfair reporting has been the civil war in Lebanon. In the Western press, this conflict has been presented substantially as a "religious war" between Muslims and Christians, ignoring the underlying socio-economic causes and effects, which were dealt with by the local press.
None of these interpretations of fairness in any way suggests compromising freedom of the press. Rather, they imply that a responsible journalist should do his/her homework. He or she should strive for a accuracy even in details. For it is the details which together leave an impression, albeit subliminal. Instead of second-guessing the facts to meet a deadline, the journalist should set aside areas of uncertainty or explain that specific items are not totally substantiated. Furthermore, journalists should seek to understand the circumstances in which the news occurs. In the end, the responsible journalist will expose aspects of the news which would reflect both negatively and positively on the country.
It would seem that the concerns raised by the LDCs as expressed in the MacBride report that the Western press has been unfair are in part true. Perhaps this problem is not peculiar to the LDCs, rather an indication of the behavior of the press generally. nevertheless, in an interdependent world we should always be willing to listen and sensitize ourselves to the concerns and needs of the LDCs. Journalists need to realize the impact of their message on public opinion and foriegn policy. An inaccurate representation of the LDCs could have dangerous consequences for the future of international relations.