Journalists should be impartial and neutral, according to the textbooks. But is that even possible?
Which side are you on? Reporting on clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.
Journalists are people with opinions, feelings and values. They have a gender, a skin color, an age and belong to a specific cultural group. Whether they like it or not, all this is incorporated into their reporting, especially when it comes to (armed) conflicts. The debate about bias resulting from the identity of journalists is in full swing in the media worldwide, especially against the background of Black Lives Matter movement.
But parallel to the question of whether journalists can be impartial, a second question arises: Should they even try? Should they, for example, let all parties to a conflict have an equal say in order to live up to this maxim? Or do they thereby reinforce the prevailing imbalance, because one party to the conflict almost always has more opportunities to make its view of things public? Should everyone have an equal say — even those who would deny human rights? Should journalists stand up for values — and if so, which ones? Where are the dividing lines between activism and journalism and how clear are they?
Magda Abu-Fadil, who has worked for Lebanese and international media, and Zaina Erhaim, who worked as a journalist in Syria, reflect on these questions, to which there are no clear-cut answers.
Two wrongs don’t make a right. Truth is our most important weapon when covering conflicts
I’ve lived and worked in countries where the media are stifled and bent to the wills of despicable rulers whose creed is akin to George Orwell’s "1984."
But I don’t believe the public is better served when journalists cross the line from reporting to activism by publicly taking sides in conflict situations, which may endanger them and their media organizations, and undermine their credibility.
Christiane Amanpour, chief international correspondent and anchor at CNN, was unequivocal on this during remarks she made while accepting a Committee to Protect Journalists award in 2016. She appealed to "protect journalism itself, to recommit to robust fact-based reporting, without fear and without favors on the issues."
Amanpour is no stranger to controversy, having covered conflicts worldwide. "I believe in being truthful, not neutral," she said. "I believe we must stop banalizing the truth. We have to be prepared to fight especially hard right now for the truth because this is a world where the Oxford English dictionary announced just last week its word for 2016, and that is ‘post-truth’."
Truth is the weapon members of the media deploy when covering conflicts. Ultimately, it will alienate one or more parties in war zones, a risk journalists have learned to accept as par for the course.
"We are journalists, not activists," Rima Maktabi, the UK bureau chief of Al Arabiya satellite news channel, told a politician in her native Lebanon who tried to extract an opinion from her during coverage of the October 17, 2019 "revolution" that would have made her appear to favor one faction in the conflict over another.
Her statement reinforced my belief that journalists covering conflicts in their backyards should not cross the line from sympathy to active support of causes.
For American-Lebanese journalist/author Sulome Anderson, we should be compassionate towards victimized people. "Let yourself care about their plight and show them compassion — but draw strong boundaries around what is yours to carry and what isn’t," she said, adding that journalists risk losing perspective if they’re too engrossed in the story.
I don’t advocate detached coverage of conflicts. Such issues are too complex for simplistic formulaic journalism. They require deft handling and solid understanding of the context in which they exist.
But if journalists aim to score activist points by drowning each other out with their personal involvement in conflict situations, the cacophony becomes deafening, and everyone loses sight of what the real story is.
It also defeats the purpose of disseminating untainted solid news, which the audience needs.
Journalists, as a result of their tilt to activism, are often seen as promoting disin-formation. But in this age of dis-, mis- and mal-information, to actually do so would mean digging their own figurative and literal graves.
Magda Abu-Fadil is director of Media Unlimited and a veteran foreign correspondent/ editor at Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Defense News, among others. She was director of journalism programs at two American universities in Lebanon, trains journalists worldwide, develops media curricula, consults on media literacy, and publishes extensively.
A bias towards humanity. Journalists should get closer to marginalized groups
Impartiality is defined as "not taking sides." But in dictatorships as in conflicts, journalists reporting fairly and accurately are in fact taking a side and are targeted by regimes and warlords alike for challenging their propaganda. Powerful leaders always have their own well-funded publications, public relations companies and propagandists who over-report their points of view, while the people they repress have no one but independent journalists to amplify their voices. Besides bearing witness to what is happening to powerless civilians, journalists should also get closer to marginalized groups, such as women or members of the LGBTQ+ community. Such groups need a platform to be able to hold the powerful to account. By giving a voice to the voiceless, journalists are fair, ethical, and closer to the truth.
In Syria, for example, I used to report on the women leading the uprising and the human rights defenders being arrested and tortured to death. As a result, I was put on the regime's "wanted" list and had to leave government-controlled areas.
When opposition forces and Islamists started to commit crimes, I also reported that, which landed me on their lists, eventually forcing me to leave their areas, too.
Being a passionate journalist requires acknowledging and overcoming your internal biases, prejudices and political views and standing for human rights against whoever is violating them. This, for me, is the safe bias.
After I was kidnapped in a pro-regime town in Idlib province, I wrote about the leader of a militia who saved my life and protected me from being deported to Damascus, which would have meant a death sentence. For my friends, I was "personalizing the enemy." But as a journalist, it is my job to help break the circle of hate and to humanize those being used as tools of war.
This year, the New York Times demonstrated its bias toward peace, when its senior editor James Bennet had to resign amid the backlash over a controversial op-ed by a Republican senator titled "Send in the Troops," which called for the US president to use military forces to quell unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd. If Arab media followed this example, we would see many empty newsrooms and blank news bulletins and much less conflict.
Zaina Erhaim is currently working with the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR). She was named the Journalist of the Year by Reporters without Borders in 2015 and was among the Unsung Heroes of 2016 by Reuters Thomson. She graduated from Damascus University’s Media School and has an MA in International Journalism from City University of London. She fled Syria in 2016 and is now a refugee in the UK.