Much ado about journalistic objectivity and impartiality in the wake of the unimaginable horrors inflicted by Israel on Gaza. Where are the voices of condemnation?
Writing in The Guardian (3 August 2014) David Loyn accuses leading journalists of risking reducing news reporting to propaganda:
“Faced by the horrors of Gaza, Guardian columnist Giles Fraser last week urged reporters to show more emotion, condemning calm rationality in the face of the slaughter as ‘a particular form of madness’. This is a dangerous path. Emotion is the stuff of propaganda, and news is against propaganda. Reporting should privilege the emotional responses of audiences, not indulge journalists … At the same time, from a slightly different direction, Jon Snow used a Channel 4 studio, but not the channel itself, to show how reporting from Gaza had emotionally affected him.”
Yet, Aidan White, veteran journalist and director of the Ethical Journalism Network, supports Jon Snow’s decision to publish his moving appeal via social media, where it was applauded for its honesty and frankness. White comments that it was not broadcast on Snow’s flagship news show probably because of fears that it would have fallen foul of the British media regulator Ofcom and its broadcasting code rules on due accuracy and impartiality. However, there is still room for manoeuvre:
“The code is flexible and widely accepted. It avoids journalists being trapped into reporting false narratives and the obligation to find two opposing opinions where a widely-held consensus has been established. For instance, climate change coverage is no longer hampered by the need to seek out climate change deniers in an attempt to create the illusion of evenly-split opinion.”
In his book Beyond News: The Future of Journalism (2014), Mitchell Stephens says that the era of selling news as big business is past. Now that the economics of news production have shifted, journalists and audiences must re-evaluate the role of news-gatherers in today’s societies. Stephens argues that the public urgently needs journalists who are experts, specialists capable of adding genuine insight to the news. He calls them “wisdom journalists”.
The problem is that television news has become a spectacle, a show designed to attract audiences with glossy chunks of infotainment delivered by jovial but detached anchors. Watch the countdown on BBC World News: something exciting is about to grab your attention – it’s just seconds away. Listen to the morse code/drum-beat rhythm: something urgent and not-to-be missed is about to hit the screen. Watch two smiling faces in London and Singapore vie for your attention…
Of course, in-depth coverage does exist by journalists who regularly put their lives on the line to try to draw the world’s attention to what is going on: Orla Guerin, Lyse Doucet, Ed Vulliamy, John Simpson, Robert Fisk, Jeremy Bowen… But professional journalists are trained not to comment , not to be partisan. And, if they do, their jobs are instantly at risk. So, bravo Jon Snow!
Challenged at the trial of Radovan Karadzic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia about his sense of objectivity, British journalist and writer Ed Vulliamy memorably replied, “When something is fact-specific, I remain objective, but I do not attempt to try to be neutral. I’m not neutral between the camp guards and the prisoners, between the raped women and the rapists … I can’t in all honesty sit here in court and say I am or want to be neutral over this kind of violence.”
The problem today is an absence of public moral condemnation. If people of integrity, standing and influence were to speak up vociferously and insistently, journalists could report such voices of conscience without the need to take sides. The failure lies not with journalists saying “Enough is enough!”, but with ordinary people who refuse to hold their governments to account for the murder and repression taking place in Palestine and Gaza.