Stuck in the middle with media

My think piece for the Media Diversity Institute on the dilemmas raised about reporting on conflict

What to read? What to watch? Who to listens to? Who to believe? Can I trust my own judgement? 

Gaza. Haiti. Iran. Israel. Kosovo. Myanmar. Nagorno-Karabakh. Niger. Sudan. Ukraine. Wherever there is conflict there are conflicting narratives. 

And if you are not in the midst of it you rely entirely on such media outlets as can be bothered to, or have correspondents in place to offer some first hand knowledge. 

That decision alone begs many questions. What is newsworthy to our audiences? Too often that depends upon the warring countries’ strategic relevance. Sometimes it is simply a matter of cost, or timing.  As each new flare up catches the media’s attention, the last tragic sequence is abandoned, if only temporarily.

At least reporters on the spot can see things with their own eyes, interviews the people most directly affected, and form a view which will help them root their reporting in felt experience. Sights and sounds and smells add a veracity to reporting that distance cannot.

We must never forget that brave journalists take extraordinary risks, and too often lose their lives or liberty in the process. And we should never forget the local ‘fixers’ and support staff who help to keep them alive and able to send their bulletins home. But that does not resolve the dilemma faced by those receiving if not absorbing their messages.

A Sudanese friend, himself a casualty of civil war, recently asked me why journalists put themselves at risk in such terrifying circumstances as the bombardment of Gaza. It is hard to explain that old journalistic impulse to run towards rather than away from the explosion.  “So that we can know what is happening,” I said, “Perhaps in the hope we can do something about it.”

And yet correspondents are frequently asked to provide instantaneous  opinions based on hearsay rather than direct experience. An all too common requests comes from the safety of the anchor’s chair.

“What are people saying? How are they feeling about recent events?” 

Since reporters are themselves often constrained by circumstances that cannot possibly accurately reflect the wide range of opinions which inevitably exists in any society, so what we hear is often the views of those they are most likely to have contact with.  How many of us have taken as our starting point the views of our cab driver, or a trusted fixer, or the officials we rely upon for advice and direction?

And that’s the problem. Situations are complicated and, however hard we try, we carry with us our preference and prejudices. Do we refuse to report opinions we find abhorrent, or give more space to those whose views most closely resemble ours? Reporters often have to swallow hard to overcome doubts about their sources if time and circumstances prevent proper verification. Reputable news outlets at least acknowledge when they cannot independently verify information.

But then there is the question of whose side the reporters are on. In the past good reporters have said that there are times when you cannot but ‘take sides’ especially when you witness atrocities. But having sympathy for victims doesn’t automatically mean you are being partisan.  

What type of blame game is being played when a newspaper publishes harrowing pictures of victims of violence on its front page?  Is it taking a stand against the perpetrators?  Or is it the usual marketing ploy, with little thought for those who might be traumatised by being confronted by hideous images on the news stand? The reporting of war throws upon many such ethical issues.  

Sometimes the context of reporting is determined by the relationship between outlets and government back home. What are the vested interests involved? Where does dispassionate reporting end and propaganda begin? What are the risks in bucking the trend and speaking up for those regarded as ‘the enemy’? 

There is a big difference between trying to explain and understand the root causes of a conflict and actually taking sides. It is a distinction rarely acknowledged by those in power, as many journalists have learned to their cost. 

The plethora of social media outlets further complicates our understanding of conflicts in the world. As one woman demonstrating on the streets of Paris told reporters. ”There is more than one war going on. The one on the ground and the one online. The Palestinians have won the online war, which is why I thought it was important to come out and show support for Israel.”

But information and opinions online are far less trustworthy than the mainstream media, unless they are clearly from sources who take the trouble to verify facts before publishing them. Euronews, France 24 and the BBC all run verification checks on popular video clips that have spread like wildfire around the world. Few recipients will have bothered to check, or even know how to check the validity of such material. 

There are plenty of online guides to finding out how to do a ‘reverse video search’ or a ‘reverse image search’ when in doubt. Nonetheless totally false, if believable, Tik-tok extracts, artificially manufactured images, and fake news items regularly enter the realms of public discourse, generating myths and conspiracy theories. The mainstream media is not immune to being hoaxed in this way. And when it happens it further undermines trust in journalism. 

Small wonder that many people have turned away form reading newspapers or watching the news. It is too depressing/confusing/negative and takes a wrecking ball to mental wellbeing. 

Few people have the time, patience or interest to switch between Al Jazeera, BBC, C4, CNN, Euronews. France24, ITN, and Sky, and Twitter as I do, several times a day. That is the privilege of the retired hack and the obsessive news junkie.

However, at least it gives me an opportunity to allow some perspective into my consumption and digestion of the news. But rarely does it answer all the questions the coverage of conflict inevitably brings to mind. 

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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