Media & Culture | News | Politics

Competing Rights in a Media World

The growing tension between our rights to information and our rights to be protected from harm

I find it a challenge to balance staying informed about news and thinking within my faith community, being alert to other perspectives, and engaging in the public conversations that are shaping our society. This month, Christian Courier celebrates 75 years of connecting and building a community. Without it, we readers would be less connected and weaker in our public witness. The media world in which CC functions has changed dramatically since 1945, with new challenges that also warrant reflection within this community.

Globally, 99 journalists were killed for exposing truth in 2018 and 348 were jailed by governments. Of 46 journalists murdered in 2008, only six cases have been resolved. At the same time, powerful forces intentionally use media messages to disrupt elections, undermine democracy and invade privacy. COVID-19 draws attention to media issues with life and death consequences. The importance of access to accurate information is top of mind. The dangers of spreading conspiracy theories is heightened. Young people need social media to learn and access crucial information, and they are at increased risk of online exploitation. 

At all levels there is a growing tension between our treasured rights to access information and to express our views, and the rights to be protected from exploitation through the use of media to harm others, spread conspiracies, undermine peace and democracy, or invade privacy. 

A digital charter

Canada co-hosted the first global conference on media freedom in London in 2019 and is preparing to host a second conference in Canada. The first one resulted in a Global Pledge on Media Freedom and an international panel of experts to defend journalists and promote international action to maintain free and independent media. In Canada, there is also a new Digital Charter which articulates high level principles for all things digital. These are small steps to uphold ethical standards in the context of instantaneous global communications, very powerful private companies who design social media and information systems for private profit more than public interest, and weak governments or authoritarian governments who manipulate information and the media to control their subjects. 

It is much easier to undermine democracy than to develop public policies and regulations that find the balance between important freedoms and protection from harms. As the #MeToo Movement showed, too much focus on protection of privacy enabled harm to women; public exposure was essential to get change. In the book She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement, journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey document their long, careful work to bring Harvey Weinstein to account, against powerful forces that manipulated media and courts to protect abusers and destroy the careers and lives of any women who dared to speak up. Reading it heightened my appreciation for the value of strong, independent media. Some of these ethical tensions also permeate the world of faith-based media in which Christian Courier operates.  

Ethical issues related to the role of media and access to information in our society warrant more attention by Christians, because they are major shaping influences of the world our children will inherit. As Christian Courier builds on 75 years, I hope the Christian community will also contribute to the larger conversation about the role of the media in the 21st century world.

  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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