Adonis Diaries

Styles of compassionate reporting that bring fruits

Posted on: August 18, 2014

Styles of compassionate reporting that bring fruits 

Does Jon Snow’s Gaza appeal risks reducing reporting to propaganda? Hardly.

Journalists have cried before ‘something must be done’.
But they must avoid emoting? Why?
What’s so objective in reporting anyway?

Andrew Bossone posted on FB:

Journalists are expected to be the voice of conscience and at the same time to suppress that voice.

When a journalist speaks up about an atrocity, it may cause a stir.

People in the U.S. have often said the turning point of public opinion in the Vietnam War was when Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America” returned from there and criticized what happened.

I don’t know how we are expected to remain silent particularly when we see an atrocity with our own eyes.

The press is hardly objective. We put our influence just by choosing stories.

Here is an interesting documentary about an artist that pointed out how the US press ignored genocide and starvation in Africa:

An elderly Palestinian woman walks through ruins in Gaza
‘The horrors of Gaza have been bravely narrated by reporters fully equipped with compassion and empathy, but not wallowing in their own feelings.’ Photograph: Oliver Weiken/EPA

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”.

Is 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. His call on YouTube was for engagement from his audience, promising “Together we can make a difference”.

The same cry that “something must be done” was heard from reporters at the beginning of President Assad’s murderous campaign to hold on to power in Syria – more muted once the full realisation dawned that what should be done was complex, and that the alternatives might be worse than Assad.

It also echoed Martin Bell 20 years ago in Bosnia, asking to be relieved of the duties of BBC impartiality, instead wanting a “journalism of attachment”.

In his appeal, Snow said the world had shown it was not that interested in the death of children in Gaza. Almost three-quarters of a million hits showed that many were interested.

But how did the audience know enough to care? Not from reporters who had put their emotions on show. Instead, the horrors of Gaza have been bravely narrated by reporters fully equipped with compassion and empathy, but not wallowing in their own feelings.

The piece that inspired Giles Fraser to his incoherent appeal that “screaming is the most rational thing to do” – Peter Beaumont’s description of a father gathering the remains of his baby son in a carrier bag – is not reported emotionally. Instead, the writing is poetic in its spare intensity. “ ‘This is my son,’ he said and nothing else, tears tracking down his face.”

The missile that entered the house made a hole “the size of a toaster”. The domestic details take us there, and when we arrive, we find Beaumont, one of the finest reporters of his generation, to be a helpful guide, not an obstacle. He is not in our way telling us how he feels.

This kind of reporting has an honourable pedigree. Of all the situations when screaming might have been the most understandable response, the enormity of the concentration camps in 1945 is high on the list. But instead, when he came to Belsen, Richard Dimbleby reported what he saw with chilling precision: “the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life”.

There is one significant difference. Reporters now routinely personalise victims in a way that was not done by Dimbleby, or indeed Michael Buerk, reporting the “biblical famine” in Ethiopia in 1984. Then the dead were nameless. But Beaumont tells us that the baby in the carrier bag in Gaza is Mohammad, his father Salem Antez.

With more access to the world at their fingertips than the passive consumers of news in the past, the public demand more engagement and participation from reporters than before. Social media is full of material that is more graphic and more directly emotional than the mainstream media, in Britain at least. News organisations are responding with different ways of editing material gathered by non-professionals, as well as new ways of storytelling.

But Snow’s YouTube appeal carried an implicit message that is more threatening, at least to TV news, than Fraser’s call for emotional reporting. He considered that he could deliver this only online since it might contravene rules governing impartiality in news programmes. It resembled the homilies that used to be delivered by TV anchors such as Walter Cronkite at the end of the nightly news in the US.

These could be highly opinionated, especially during the Vietnam war, stretching the bounds of the fairness doctrine that regulated American broadcasting at the time, similar to Britain’s rules on impartiality.

Ronald Reagan’s abolition of the fairness doctrine contributed to a significant weakening of TV news in the US, releasing a flood of ignorance – a salutary warning to those campaigning for an end to impartiality rules here in order to encourage reporters to be more emotionally engaged.

• David Loyn is the BBC’s Afghanistan correspondent. His report on Afghan war crimes is on Radio 4 on Monday 4 August at 8pm

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