Coverage of child welfare cases not to be banned from media

Media coverage likely affected the outcome of the case of a young boy named Martin.
Media coverage likely affected the outcome of the case of a young boy named Martin. Source: Private library

A proposal by local governments' social affairs leaders to fully ban coverage in the media of child welfare cases will not pass. The state, however, will start seeking solutions to help aid in communication between journalists and child advocates to ensure that any coverage is balanced and professional.

A joint appeal issued by social affairs leaders from 38 local governments to the prime minister, the president and the chancellor of justice, among other addressees, with the proposal to assess the media's work in covering child welfare-related cases and request to ban them altogether going forward prompted a roundtable to be convened on the initiative of the Ministry of Social Affairs.

In addition to local government representatives, also present at the roundtable were several social work-related or local government umbrella organizations. The media was represented by Tarmu Tammerk, the ethics ombudsman of Estonian Public Broadcasting (ERR) as well as University of Tartu journalism lecturer and ERR research journalist Marju Himma. Not a single editor in chief was invited to the roundtable.

As a result of the discussion, the Ministry of Social Affairs promised that they would not go the route of a blanket ban on the subject, but that the ministry could help via various means to ensure that any related media coverage going forward would be more balanced and professional.

The issue reached a tipping point when a particular child welfare-related segment was aired on Kanal 2's Kuuuurija program as a result of which the fight began, with the drawing up of an appeal, against the covering of all cases. A court had even granted interim relief against the airing of the segment in question prior to its scheduled airing, but it was of new use ⁠— the segment was aired anyway.

No prior review committee to come

One idea that came up the roundtable was the suggestion to establish a prior review committee that would be tasked with viewing all coverage before it was aired or published. This suggestion was nonetheless not supported.

It was also acknowledged that the problems most often involve a specific journalist or editorial team, due to which it would be unfair to subject everyone to the same treatment. Thus, interim relief sought from the court could be considered for use as a preventive measure going forward was well.

A default ban on the coverage of all individual cases was no longer under consideration either; child advocates have since abandoned this demand.

"Those who issued the appeal explained that they don't wan to ban media coverage, but rather the way things are covered," said Joanna Karu, adviser at the Ministry of Social Affairs' Department of Child Well-Being who attended the roundtable. "This isn't so epidemic here in Estonia that we have one misstatement after another; it is the solo work of either a few individual journalists or editorial teams who won't be bothered by a ban. The question is, how do we reach them and deal with them?"

Training for all

A few other options nonetheless emerged. The primary tool identified with which to improve the quality of media coverage of such issues was training. The plan is to provide relevant training to journalism students, current journalists, local government officials responsible for child welfare and communications as well as editors in chief.

"Training is necessary for them to ensure that everyone is on the same page," Karu explained. "Communication has to be two-sided: we need to address both the local government responsible for the child and the journalist covering the topic."

Several organizations present at the roundtable were prepared to take on the task of organizing this training. A training calendar will be drawn up based on their suggestions in order to help avoid both overlapping times and topics; the Social Insurance Board (SKA) and the National Institute for Health Development (TAI) will serve as coordinators.

The hope is to provide communications training to all child advocates within the span of a year.

Child advocates, who are already shouldering obligations before families, paperwork and the courts, will not be saddled with the obligation to communicate with journalists as well. Instead, all local governments who do not have a dedicated communications specialist on staff should designate an official would be responsible for communications going forward and arrange for basic communications training for them.

Efforts expected on media's part as well

"The communication barrier needs to be overcome; we need to speak with the media," Karu said. "We cannot shut the door; we cannot say that we're not allowed to say anything. The state and local governments have a glaring need for a joint communications strategy. Training will help prevent communications problems that are caused by one-sided media coverage."

Editorial teams, however, are expected to designate one person to be responsible for ethics-related matters.

"That doesn't mean that everyone should hire an ethics ombudsman," Karu clarified in response to a journalist's comment that this is typically the responsibility of the editor-in-chief or editorial team lead.

The review of complaints related to questionable coverage of child welfare cases will be prioritized by the Press Council in order to avoid current practices under which a condemning decision often comes nearly half a year later, reopening old wounds.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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