Our editors & readers talk
What does journalism owe to its subjects?
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.