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What does journalism owe to its subjects?

By Sean Maguire
October 23, 2008

Is there a responsibility owed by journalists to the countries we report on?

A big topic, for sure, and one I was thinking about during a debate organised by The Orwell Prize on ‘Is journalism failiing failing states?’ Ostensibly the panel were discussing the adequacy of coverage of places like Congo, Burundi and Afghanistan. Adequacy for what, you might ask, and the discussion revealed a gap between the role some wanted journalism to play in crisis zones and what it actually achieves. Some sense of duty to inform, to shine a light in dark places and to educate motivates a lot of coverage of the world’s trouble spots. Yet the high-minded pursuit of truth is compromised by the impatience of viewers and readers, who respond to human drama rather than deep detail and nuance. It is also compromised by the ego indulgence of reporters who put themselves rather than their subjects at the centre of a story. And it is compromised by the decreasing ability of big news organisations to fund foreign reporting. John Lloyd of the FT and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism suggested we can no longer expect to get in the mass media the complex information needed for deep understanding. We must turn to books, long-form journalism and blogs, he argued, which necessarily have smaller audiences.

So if ‘failed state’ reporting is often flawed, is it still worth doing? By and large yes, the panel agreed. For what purpose, though? That discussion touched on the efficacy of the journalism of engagement versus the school of dispassionate observation. The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen recalled the coverage of the Bosnian war was motivated by a burning sense that the injustices and inhumanities of that conflict could not remain concealed. It was derided as ‘something must be done’ journalism by the then Conservative government in Britain, but arguably it had an effect on awakening public opinion. Panellist David Loyn of the BBC, who has just published on Afghanistan, wondered if  coverage there since 2001 has actually been unhelpful. Over-simplification, distortions of history, failure to portray the perspectives of ordinary Afghans and unquestioning acceptance of a flawed Western strategy were hallmarks of most reporting on the confict, he argued.

(As an aside, I have just come back from Afghanistan where I was reviewing Reuters coverage. It struck me as the kind of place where our brand of well-informed observation and balanced reporting works well. We may not be writing the definitive history of the conflict but we are having a decent stab at its first draft.)

Panel participant Lord Paddy Ashdown supported the “shining a light” model of journalism, particularly for Afghanistan, where he said Western engagement was on the verge of failing grievously. Ashdown has lengthy experience of trying to fix failing states, having spent nearly four years as the international community’s overseer in Bosnia from 2002 to 2006. He almost took up a similar role in Afghanistan, until the Kabul government took fright at the scope of the powers being envisaged for his post.

Key to success in Afghanistan and in other international politico-military interventions, said Ashdown, was “strategic patience.” That long-term, grind-it-out approach to a crisis is a challenge to contemporary journalism, he argued, with its wish for quick wins and instant fixes.

The Observer’s Peter Beaumont suggested that many failed states suffer not so much from bad journalistic coverage as little coverage at all. That may be true of the mainstream media but does not necessarily mean there is no reporting at all. It might not be visible on newstands but is there for those who seek it, some would argue, in citizen and local journalism. The debate did not explore the value of those avenues of coverage. At least in terms of the impact on mass consciousness in the developed world those journalistic forms would seem limited by the challenges of authentication and the atomisation of the audience.

One issue that was touched upon was the necessity of robust local journalism. If ultimately the rehabilitation of a failed state depends on the support of its citizenry (which international forces reduce in Afghanistan every time they air strike civilians) then the rise of a vibrant local press would seem essential. Is it a pre-condition or a consequence of national rehabilitation? The Failed States Index does not cite lack of a free press as central to state collapse, though it does mention hate radio and harassment of the media as hallmarks of failure. Plenty of charities support local journalism via media training and start-up funding. Should we worry more about doing that well and less about describing state collapse for distant, well-fed audiences?

By the way, Reuters is a sponsor of the Orwell prize, which celebrates sharp and elegant political writing.


Sharp and elegant political writing?Isn’t Reuters supposed to be a NEWS agency? So its reporters should report the facts as they occurred – not why it MIGHT have happened, or what it MIGHT cause to happen next.Just the facts will do. We can work out the rest for ourselves.

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

The biggest problem is journalists writing is based on their personal values and creating news to sell the news more than accuracy.I can only assume journalism schools have become group think in their teaching because the vast number of reporters are group think in their values and reporting.Real critical thinking and reporting is not the norm and unfortunately the media has too much societal influence because this is where people obtain most of their information.Finally reporters in general have about as much credibility as the lawyers.

Posted by buffalojump | Report as abusive

Shar and elegant I understand , but why political too?On who’s policy?I like the online edition from reuters,but it does has more colour then just the facts!Maybe it’s better after all, with complex info and writeing we can compare and develop mind intruments.

Posted by Burca Alice Larisa | Report as abusive

I agree. The “ego factor” in journalism is increasing the amount of opinionated data included in publications. Also, lets not forget, as we look at the the sides of this very web page, that money (read as advertisements and subscriptions) are what have and always will drive large press orginizations. So maybe there should be a light to shine on those who are supposed to be “shining a light”. The media, Reuters included, have began agenda-oriented coverage, in mass. Each network or publication has to pick a side to win viewers/readers, and it is affecting the balance of knowledge.Journalists still report on the “failed” war in Iraq, but that is a completely erroneous phrase to use. Iraq has an elected gov’t, if somewhat flawed, and the international force is now negotiating the hand-over process. How is acheiving exactly what we set out to do being construed as “failure”? Because the media is playing to people who don’t like the war, and refuse to listen to anyone who says it might actually be successful, at least militarily. If we quit soaking up the mass media’s B.S. as truth, then maybe they will quit pushing lies and opinions on us (do you hear me CNN and FOX!) and maybe, just maybe, tell the facts and have faith that you are smart enough to make up your own mind.

Posted by Patrick | Report as abusive

Profits drive news agencies’ agendas; most journalists have sold out; and, news consumers’ complacency and/or hunger for shock reporting perpetuates the industry’s failure to provide valuable, indepth reporting.

Posted by Kelly | Report as abusive

Honest polling. Reuters’ polls have given McCain 5% more any of the others. Why? Reuters should stop polling just white republicans and their polls might be more inline with the others.


One should focus on the objective truth concerning one’s subject while limiting one’s own subjective bias.Have a good day all :) Jim

Posted by Jim | Report as abusive

what do you owe us?–report–and take yourself out of the mix –hire people who consider the most important thing in a reporter/editor to lay aside their own ideas and simply bring us information–and this goes all the way to the top. Leave your opinions for the editorial page. News organizations are abusing their trust and power with their subtle, subliminal to blatant outright slanted coverage — you think we don’t notice? I don’t like it when it favors my view or my candidate and I don’t like it when it favors the one I don’t support either. Fairness is so important, but I see it nowhere in sight. Stop inserting yourselves into the picture.

Posted by pd | Report as abusive

News, not opinions. Simple as that

Posted by Flounder | Report as abusive

Any event that appears to any journalist,should be regarded as an ideal spot or place from where he/she can start its own creative works in dedicative manner for disseminating the truthful report all about the facts relating to the event to the world.The journalist should remain restraint in expressing the event in complete manner only.The journalist must not extend any comment or opition in addition to the description for the event which is intended to exhibit to the public.Because, commenting on the elaborated event,is pertaining to the public who would consume it.The opinion from journalist may generate complicacy even can inflict the transparency of the message. The event which is intended to express,must be very clear, unmanipulated, and fresh as to keeping its interesting part as well.The journalist should be very disciplined here in expressin any event to the consuming public. The journalist should carry on greater sense of responsibility in performing its journalistic works.Any event that could be a part of a journalistic work.But,it should not be treated so lightly. Consideration of the impact of the event,should be priorified. Greater care and attention should be paid,while narrating any event.The message created on the event,must not be inflicting,defaming or harmful to any person or society. As if, it maynot bring any violence or disorder in the society in future. So,in reprting on any event,should be made after thorough judgement and analysis in depth about the event properly. An event must be respected in the eye of journalism.An events- not merely a source of news-a spot for creative journalism-should never be overdescribed or manipulated anyhow.The activities of journalism are being initiated from certain ‘event’.An event is the ground of journalism,whre it stands to move ahead.


Respect i.e, carefully chosen words, especially if tragedy has happened. No smiling newscasters when something awful happens!

Posted by good day | Report as abusive

In my humble opinion, if the media is trusted in global events as they’ve happened and are happening, a HUGE onus is on EVERY network, newspaper AND journalist to report the facts and only the facts devoid of “spin” and/or selfLESS motives, being also without anyone’s opinion(s), subjectivity and/or bias.The spirit and professional practice of journalism is simply to convey events that have transpired, and if via videophone, present events as they honestly unfold, based ONLY on God’s truth. Any other approach amounts to inaccuracies, defeating the purpose to journal, document, report and publish current events of the day.The global community deserves no less than the solemn truth about every event that occurs, especially with respect to reports with serious gravity, that can and does have a direct impact on everyone, including the families of ALL journalists.Obviously, there exists some delicate issues that, for reasons of national security, etc. are and should remain confidential, however, aside from those topics, us citizens of the world are entitled to be informed of what’s REALLY going on. When you consider how much broadcast journalism and TV networks profit, deception is absolutely unacceptable.

Posted by Craig | Report as abusive

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