While journalism aims to present the facts and inform society, it would be misleading to think that journalists are completely free from personal biases. As journalists, we usually report on the subjects that we feel passionate about. When reporting on the topics that excite, sadden, or anger us, we may unintentionally reflect our own biases. However, as journalists, we can develop awareness to practice journalism in a more conscious manner. Engaging in introspective work to understand our own emotional reactions and biases can help us gain a more objective perspective.
Journalist Elif Ünal, who started her journalistic career at bianet and later worked for Yeşil Gazete, mainly covers environmental issues. At the beginning of her career, Ünal defined herself as an activist rather than a journalist: Her main job was to be an activist and she pursued journalism as a side job – at least that’s the way she saw it. Ünal says that social beliefs such as “Journalists must be objective” or “An activist cannot be a journalist” push her to define herself as an activist. “I have come to realize that objectivity and neutrality are two different distinct concepts. I don’t need to be neutral about the topic that I cover. I can have an opinion about it and still manage to maintain my objectivity. When I faced that realization, I understood that I wasn’t crossing any ethical line and I could call myself a journalist”, she said.
As a journalist who covers climate change, Ünal highlights that climate journalists have some comparative advantages in terms of being objective. “Scientific data are included in climate news and it reveals what needs to be done to prevent climate change”, she says. For instance, science asserts that energy production from fossil fuels should be stopped. In this case, if I have to cover a story about a state policy on one of the environmental issues, I can include scientific data in my report and interpret the state’s energy policy with scientific data.”
“The supervisory role of the news organizations is extremely important”
Observing that journalists might have “blind spots” when reporting on subjects that are personally relevant to them, Ünal recounts how she was prone to overlook different aspects in her reporting and how the newspaper she worked for guided her through more balanced reporting. “There are different companies in Turkey that are responsible for many environmental destructions. Therefore, I feel resistant to giving their opinion in my reporting but the newspaper I’ve worked with guided me through and they reminded me why it was important to add their opinions to my news stories”, she says.
Ünal also points out how journalism can be emotionally challenging at times. “There were times when I wrote news stories crying”, she said. Witnessing and writing these kinds of news stories increased her anxiety and led her to stay away from these emotionally burdensome subjects for a while she recalls, “When a thermal power station is being established somewhere, I would feel sad thinking about the news articles I had previously written and how the thermal power station will increase cancer rates in the region.”
Psychologist Sıla Kömürcü emphasizes how important it is for journalists to be aware of their feelings when reporting about events that are emotionally challenging for them. She adds that practicing self-compassion is essential in this process. “Journalists can do their job with awareness by allowing space for their emotions in the face of devastating stories. And once the hard part of their work is done, they can reflect on the events that happened, the interviews that they went through, and finally how all those things that they went through made them feel.”
Ünal says that the framework of “solutions journalism” has helped her to rethink some of her preconceptions when doing her work. For a story that she covered last year, Ünal had the opportunity to deep dive into the problem of decreasing bee populations in Turkey. As part of this, she looked closely at Turkey’s Honey Forests Project. “I believed that intervention in nature could disrupt the ecological balance. I thought increasing the number of untouched forests was more important than designating selected areas within forests for beekeeping, she recalls. “However, when I conducted interviews and did my research for the story, I found out that the so-called “honey forests” could be beneficial for declining bee populations. Approaching a problem from a solution-oriented perspective shook off my biases.”
Producing soft news in the convenience of one’s comfort zone
Sakine Orman is a journalist focused on environmental issues, climate change, and arts and culture. She worked first for bianet and then other online media. She states that she often self-criticizes while doing climate reporting and feels guilty at the same time: “Humanity is falling short in addressing the urgent climate crisis. Reporting on climate change has always been my way of contributing to creating change”, she said.
At the same time, Orman says she was hesitant to report on other “controversial” issues that she was interested in: “As a journalist, it was important for me to report on environmental issues. However, I found myself unable to report on other equally crucial topics such as refugee crises, women’s issues, or the rights of the LGBT+ community. The idea of reporting on these challenging topics made me feel unsafe.”
As journalists reporting in a polarized country, we may find ourselves unsafe. Over time, these feelings of avoidance might cause us to censor our reporting. Orman describes her inner conflict as follows: “Coming from a Kurdish ethnic minority, I often found myself not being able to report topics such as ethnic minorities or women issues because I was already hurt around those topics.”
Orman also emphasizes the importance of newsroom support for journalists who want to cover traumatic and sensitive topics. “In many cases, the places that I work for didn’t help me soothe my anxiety. All the difficulties I came across while reporting on a wide range of topics, I tried to deal with by myself. I can see now that if a journalist wants to report on controversial topics, it is crucial to have their newsroom’s support.”
Addressing the issue of self-censorship, psychologist Sıla Kömürcü says that individuals often create a persona, a more acceptable version of themselves when they anticipate their ideas and thoughts will not be respected: “Situations that we avoid consciously or unconsciously are part of us. The behavior of avoidance holds valuable insights about a person’s life experiences.”
Individuals are not entirely powerless when it comes to experiences with self-censorship, Kömürcü says. “How do my personal life experiences intersect with my journalism experience? In which areas do I feel a sensitivity leading to this avoidant behavior? Does this sensitivity revolve around specific themes or individuals? It is crucial for the person to reflect upon these questions once they become aware of their avoidance and self-censorship behavior,” she says.
In the midst of anger and despair, Orman reveals how she struggled to support herself in the face of these challenging emotions. This led her to take a step back from journalism for a while. “On the one hand, I wanted to stay in my comfort zone while simultaneously longing to report on controversial and challenging topics. I found myself in a place where I wasn’t able to do any of them. Eventually, this disorientation left me feeling unfulfilled with my work.”
Risk of secondary trauma
Cansu Sünbül, a developmental psychologist and board member and workshop coordinator at the Trauma-Focused Psychosocial Support Team, says that journalists are in a vulnerable position to be exposed to “secondary trauma”. She explains, “Primary trauma is when the person experiences the event. In secondary trauma, a person hears, reads, or listens about the traumatic event which creates a trauma-like response in the body. It is as if the person is going through the trauma by themselves.”
Sünbül thinks that support groups would be beneficial for journalists who are exposed to trauma. And she adds that the organization she volunteers for has group sessions where journalists can find support in dealing with trauma.
“Women journalists universally face discrimination”
Another journalist, Ceren Kaynak İskit, who previously worked as a correspondent in London and currently continues to do her job in Turkey, says that she focuses on women’s issues because she considers it important for women’s voices to be heard. “Women journalists have to be tougher in order to earn respect and acceptance, but I don’t believe that should be the way. Working as a journalist, I have often heard from my male colleagues ‘You don’t have the equipment, a camera, so step aside.’ Even if I don’t have the same equipment, I still have a right to cover the story.”
She stated that she started to realize these issues are not unique to herself alone and women journalists universally face discrimination: “During my work as a research coordinator for the Women in Journalism Coalition (CFWIJ), I saw that many women journalists deal with these sexist obstacles in addition to doing their jobs.”
İskit also touches on the blind spots that journalists might encounter while reporting on women’s issues. “As women journalists, when we cover issues related to women, our empathetic approach can sometimes lead us to present a claim as a fact. At this point, I believe it is essential to fact-check before adding any information to our reporting.”
Working as a fixer for a foreign news media outlet, İskit expresses that she felt feelings of resistance when her employer asked her to interview individuals who are close to the presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan while covering Turkey’s general and presidential elections held in May. İskit reveals how biased she was and recalls her surprise when she found that the people whom she interviewed were genuine and had diverse perspectives: “I interviewed Erdogan’s former barber. When I asked him what would happen if the opposition wins the elections, he said the government will continue from where it left off. It was an unexpected response for me. Witnessing this reminded me, as a journalist, to not be prejudiced in my work. I believe one of the most beautiful aspects of journalism is receiving an unexpected response from an unexpected source.”
İskit points out the humanness of journalism and acknowledges that journalists may have biases. She highlights the importance of accepting these biases and trying to be more open to ideas from people of all backgrounds.
Psikolog Sıla Kömürcü also emphasizes the emotional sides of journalism and thinks that awareness is the first step for journalists to help themselves covering challenging topics. She says it’s important for journalists to recognize their emotions in the face of devastating and challenging events and make room for these challenging emotions: “Journalists should be able to acknowledge the complexity and difficulty of their job. Let’s say that you as a journalist are going to have an interview with a sexual assault survivor. And you are deeply affected by this situation. As a journalist, you may be experiencing many different emotions on the way to this interview. Having the awareness of your feelings and knowing that those feelings are with you all along will help you to make room for those feelings. And reflecting on them right after the interview can help you process your emotions going forward.”