15 May 2024


Making Law Public

On 7 May 2024, the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law hosted an event featuring their Journalist in Residence Fellows—Prune Antoine, Frances Stead Sellers, and Aliénor Carrière—who discussed the various issues facing contemporary journalism and the stakes involved in making (Comparative International & European) law public. The discussion was moderated by Alexandra Kemmerer, with contributions also from the Institute Directors Armin von Bogdandy and Anne Peters.

Journalist in residence programmes exist in a number of Institutes within the Max Planck Law network.  At MPI-Heidelberg, the Journalist in Residence Programme began in 2020 and aims to create a fertile ground for exchange between journalists and academics. It provides journalists with the opportunity to deepen their expertise and expand their networks. In return, researchers at MPI-Heidelberg benefit from insights into the working methods of today’s media, enhancing their own profiles as public scholars.

Frances Stead Sellers, a writer and editor at The Washington Post, opened the discussion by highlighting the relentless pace of modern journalism. She underscored the critical need for journalists to balance speed with accuracy, especially in an era where misinformation can spread rapidly. ‘It’s always better to be right than first,’ Sellers remarked, emphasizing the ethical responsibility of journalists to ensure their reporting is both accurate and comprehensive.

During her residency, Sellers focused on the complexities of global polycrises, such as the pandemic and climate change. She illustrated the challenges involved in making dense, technical subjects accessible to the general public. ‘If I can’t communicate something to a 10-year-old, I haven’t understood it myself,’ she noted, reflecting on the necessity of clear communication in journalism.

Prune Antoine, a French reporter and writer based in Berlin, has undertaken investigative work on subjects such as the remilitarization of Kaliningrad and the rhetoric of a new Cold War in Europe. Prune emphasized the importance of spending time with diverse perspectives, ‘talking to people who do not think like us’, which involves a balance between empathy and critical distance. She aims to understand rather than judge, even when it comes to work on radical or extremist groups in society.

During her residency, Prune will work on a book about sexualized violence in times of war.  Her project exemplifies a commitment to shedding light on critical but often underexplored issues.

Aliénor Carrière, an award-winning independent journalist and documentary filmmaker, provided a unique perspective on the intersection of journalism and activism. Aliénor, who will focus on gender-based violence within the humanitarian sector during her residency, also spoke of the importance of empathy in her work as well as the possibility to express her opinion. Not needing to stay completely neutral is made easier by being a freelance filmmaker.

Aliénor addressed the role of journalists as advocates for change and discussed her efforts to train young journalists and raise awareness about sexism in the media. Moreover, she expressed an interest in engaging in training sessions with legal researchers to help them express themselves in a media environment.

Professors Armin von Bogdandy and Anne Peters, Directors at MPI-Heidelberg, also provided some thoughts on the intersection of academia and journalism. Armin von Bogdandy noted how legal scholars today may feel a certain pressure to become media-friendly and to comment on areas where they may lack epistemic authority. Compared to the world of media, ‘academia is slow … we are in a slow world’, he remarked, emphasizing the need to maintain focus on careful, considered scholarship amidst the rapid pace of journalism.

Anne Peters underscored the importance of making scholarship accessible to a broader audience while maintaining academic rigour. She noted that while collaboration with journalists can enhance public understanding of complex legal issues, we should not forget its basis in proper scholarship. At the same time, public engagement is an opportunity for the legal scholar to voice a personal opinion, meaning that we need to strike a suitable balance between personal opinion and a multidimensional scholarly understanding of the issues.

Photo: From left to right: Frances Stead Sellers, Aliénor Carrière, and Prune Antoine

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