The moral purpose of journalism

“We always end up starting with the Israeli side,” said a Japanese television journalist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, “because that’s where we are and that’s what we can see.”

(Christian Science Monitor, 10 January 2009)

The job of the news media is not to try to solve all the world’s problems, but to shake awake the world’s conscience. Good journalism can do that.

(Philip Seib, The Global Journalist, 2002, p.xiv)

I’ve been deliberately staying away from posting my thoughts on the coverage of the present conflict in Gaza; mainly because when I try to watch it on TV I get enormously angry and depressed. I’m also reluctant to say too much because there’s nothing more likely to stir passionate outrage among the dribblejaws than yet another anti-Israel rant.

But I’m now going to dip a toe in these troubled waters. My inspiration to do so comes from a number of sources:

  • The heroic act of shoe-throwing that I’ve covered in a number of posts. I’ve made it clear that I support the actions of the Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi. When he threw his shoes at George W Bush it was a symbolic act of disgust and outrage that had, apparently, been simmering in Muntadhar’s head for some time. It was, in my view, the act of a morally-upstanding person. From the positive reactions globally, it seems that many people agree that Bush deserved it.
  • I’m currently reading Philip Seib’s The Global Journalist: News and Conscience in a World of Conflict, and the book begins with an interesting, though flawed, thesis on the moral responsibilities that journalists carry around in their ethical kitbags.
  • Finally, I think it’s important to defend a political critique of Zionism from accusations of racism and anti-Jewish “hate speech”.

Before you read any further, you need to know that I am a strong supporter of the Palestinians who thinks the state of Israel is an imperialist construct and an outpost of American projected military power in the Middle East. I’ve come to the conclusion that journalists have a moral responsibility to say as much and to predicate all their reporting of the current Gaza conflict, as well as coverage of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and the associated “terror frame” of news analysis on this controversial starting point.

In other words, I believe in what Martin Bell calls the “journalism of attachment”, rather than feeble attempts at objectivity, which is, in and of itself, a form of inbuilt and largely unconscious bias.

Martin Bell was a BBC foreign correspondent covering the Bosnian war in the mid 1990s. In 1992 he suffered a severe shrapnel wound. He went back to Britain a changed person, in a 1996 speech he talked about his transition as a reporter. Bell said he no longer believed in objectivity (or at least thought he didn’t) and instead called for a different kind of war reporting:

I was brought up in the old and honourable tradition of balanced, dispassionate, objective journalism. I would now call it bystander journalism. I would move from war zone to war zone without being greatly affected by any of them. And clearly I have been affected by the Bosnian war, enough passionately to wish to see an end to it. I am not sure about objectivity anymore. What I believe in now is what I prefer to call the journalism of attachment; a journalism that cares as well as knows.

(Martin Bell, from a speech at Chichester Cathedral on 10 July 1996,
published in The Guardian on 11 July)

In my view, what we have seen so far from most reporters covering the Gaza conflict is “bystander journalism”. It was summed up for me a few days ago when a BBC reporter was standing in Israel, with Gaza framed behind her, in a blue flack jacket. The visual implication here, of course, was that she was standing in a dangerous place with the imminent threat of a Hamas rocket descending on her.

It is this particular type of live coverage that Philip Seib is critical of. He argues that it makes the journalist “captive to the drama at hand” :

They may slip into emotive reporting. Worse, the lack of time for reflection and corroboration can produce errors of fact and emphasis.

(The Global Journalist, 2002, p.13)

But this style of war reporting – the “frontline” stuff – is really all we get on television. It’s cheaper and quicker than having to fossick around for the real story and a live cross adds an element of drama to television news. It’s a particularly biased form of reporting too when, as in the Gaza case, Western journalists were prevented from entering Hamas-controlled areas by the Israeli military.  Whatever the excuses, the effect of the ban is to stifle accurate and independent accounts of casualties, damage and reactions.

Then there’s this type of “journalism of attachment” from pro-Israeli media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid, The Sun:

THE Sun yesterday came under Hamas rocket attack close to the Gaza border — and experienced first hand the horror which sparked Israel’s bloody invasion.

Three of the terror group’s lethal Qassam rockets streaked into the centre of Sderot moments after I arrived there. I felt the shockwave as two homes were reduced to smoking rubble.

(Nick Parker, 6 January 2009)

The language that frames this reportage, “the horror”, “terror groups lethal Qassam rockets streaked”, clearly indicates a side as been taken by the reporter. While Israel’s invasion is “bloody”, the justification for it is implicit in the framing of Hamas as the aggressor. We are invited deeper into this analysis by the reporter’s personalised account. It’s almost as if Hamas was aiming at The Sun because of its courageous stand with the beleaguered Israelis.

The Gaza conflict has also thrown up some other tricky moral questions for journalists and news organisations. How, for instance, should reporters deal with Israeli military spokespersons.

Writing in The Guardian 10 days ago, Jack Schenker, began with this lovely sentence:

Doublespeak absurdity is plentiful at the moment; I thought I’d had more than my fair share of it in the West Bank this week, watching Israel’s brazen PR zealots deliver soundbite after soundbite into television cameras, each of them notable only for their heart-stopping audacity.

(Jack Schenker, 3 January 2009)

The Schenker piece is not really about this, rather it’s an analysis of why the Egyptian government is coming under domestic criticism for not being more outspoken against Israel’s aggression in Gaza, but it sums up the situation faced by most reporters who are technically hostage to Israeli military pronouncements for any intelligence at all about the bombing and fighting. In the end, reporters are left with nothing except this absurd construction – which seems to highlight Israeli claims, while simultaneously undercutting alternative sources.

An Israeli military spokesman said dozens of Hamas fighters were killed in the initial battles, while the Islamist group’s television said Israeli soldiers had also been killed.

There was no independent confirmation of the claims.

(Sakher Abu El Oun and Mai Yaghi, SMH, 4 January)

Back to Philip Seib

Beyond the concerns about the mechanics and economics of journalism is the fact that news can make a difference in people’s lives. From that basic truth rises a moral mandate that journalists and  news consumers should recognise.

(The Global Journalist, p.3)

What, then, is the moral mandate of journalism? In part, Seib says, it’s a responsibility to rely less on governments’ priorities and to take a “more proactive” approach when covering conflict or, indeed, any significant story from anywhere around the world.

Unfortunately, Seib draws the lesson that journalists have a further responsibility, which is to ultimately serve the “national interest”.

This does not mean acceding to every government request for secrecy based on vaguely defined “national security” concerns, but it does mean recognizing the realities of national interest in a contentious world.

(The Global Journalist, p.4)

In this Seib has managed to totally contradict his earlier argument. Surely if there’s a moral mandate it must have universal applicability. A journalist can really only serve and protect one national interest at a time (or at most a coalition of like-minded national interests). Presumably then, the interest to be served depends, almost entirely, on which nation, the journalist feels he or she owes allegiance.

An American journalist (for example) can really only do their job if they recognise the strategic value of the United States’ national interest. We’re left with nothing but the last refuge of a patriot – “My country, right or wrong”. But if your country is wrong – in this case Israel’s refusal to  hand back  stolen land and the US regime’s cold-blooded support for this – what is a morally-conscious news hack to do?

If Martin Bell’s right about the journalism of attachment – and Seib quotes him approvingly – then reporters are not mere spectators, they are active actors in the formation of public opinion. Instead of defending one or another national interest,  they have some universal higher moral duty to criticise their own government’s actions and to stand outside the national interest of the nation in which they were born, or whose passport they hold.

One could argue (and I’m one who does) that in a world of failed states, one of the leading failures is in fact the USA.Not only was George W Bush’s entire presidency a moral vacuum, there is some truth to the argument that he and several leading members of his 2000-2008 administration should be held accountable for war crimes over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Abu Ghraib horrors and the devastation of Iraq and Afghanistan; not to mention extraordinary rendition; the sub-prime crisis and the failures to deal with Hurricane Katrina on the domestic front.

In this context, what moral weight does the American government have in the world today? The American national interest is not – despite claims to the contrary by apologists and neo-cons – the same as a global humanitarian interest. Should not, then, American journalists be in the front line of exposing the bankrupt nature of their government?

Sure, some are, but most accept, without question, or even a murmur of dissent, the view from Capitol Hill. I’m not one who thinks that this will change when Barack Obama takes over as commander-in-chief. His hands are tied in the same Gordian knots as any occupant of the White House would be. He’s hostage to entrenched interests and, in the end, the pro-Israeli lobby is the most powerful in Washington.

The deeper link here is between the role of journalists and the concept of the sovereign nation-state. I’m particularly interested in this deep and troubled relationship. It is one of the central dilemmas in journalism. It is what I call a dialectical faultline that runs right through the news industry. And it’s why I fundamentally don’t think that we can leave aside (as Seib suggests) “concerns about the mechanics and economics of journalism”.

I tend to have some sympathy for Vincent Campbell’s observation that “Politico-economic influences on news production are abosutely unavoidable”  because they set the “boundaries of what journalists can print and broadcast”(Information Age Journalism,  2004, p.28). This has been a central concern of journalism and media scholars for more than 50 years.

One of the earliest texts that discussed this (in pro-American, free-market terms) is the classic “Four theories of the press” by Siebert, Peterson and Schramm, published in 1956 at the height of the Cold War. Siebert and co end up arguing for a libertarian position on press freedom – in effect ‘leave it all to the unfettered marketplace of ideas’.

No surprises that, for these authors, one of the prime examples of this theory in action was the United States where the press took on the socially responsible role of defending the free market and lambasting Soviet communism. Of course, in the tortured logic of the “Four theories” model the state does have a role – to regulate the news media and ensure that the market functions efficiently.

Need I continue? Any intelligent reader who’s got this far will understand that the market is in fact a total failure. As Campbell points out, it is pro-market arguments “that are a major feature of the climate of crisis [in journalism] apparent today (p.37).

A more sophisticated analysis of the news media/state relationship is outlined by Colin Sparks. In this model the state plays a central role in the functioning of journalism as patron, censor, actor, masser, ideologue and conspirator.

Patronage can be directly financial (as in state-funded newspapers or broadcasters in many parts of the world) and political – influence over senior appointments (BBC, etc) , favours for media owners (a la Murdoch and Blair in the UK) and, less directly, in access to important sources or exclusives. Censorship is an extension of the patronage role that works by restricting access to information – secrecy laws, FOI legislation, appeals to the national interest, lying and hiding key information.

The actor role is based on the media’s reliance on official sources of information through information management and the media’s reliance on state organisations – police, courts, agencies and departments – and the routines of political reporting.

The ideologue role is more complex, relying on two aspects: firstly the media “adopts” definitions and views put forward by key state actors (ministers, heads of department, appointed spokespersons, etc); secondly the ideology of objectivity – the supposed separation of fact and comment – means that reporters are effectively hostage to pronouncements from sources and have little interest in challenging them.

The conspiratorial role relies on a class analysis – the senior managers of the media and governmetn officials tend to come from the same social background. In fact, Sparks suggests, in the UK most have even been to the same private schools.

However we look at it, the state does have significant influence over journalism and news coverage. This is nicely captured in the national interest argument. The bottom line is that, consciously or unconsciously, reporters and editors often concede their independence to political actors. Equally, states often go to extreme lengths to coerce or cajole the news media into toeing the line

There’s another deep philosophical argument: Is the conscience of the journalist easily equated with the broader public conscience?

In this context, one of journalism’s most important roles is that of awakening the public’s conscience. Journalists must decide when the alarm must be sounded and how best to do so.

(The Global Journalist, p.4)

Which, in a round-about way, brings us back to Mr al Zeidi. By throwing his shoes at Bush (a singularly insulting thing to do in the Arab world), Munthadar al Zeidi was sounding the alarm, albeit in a personal and inadvertently humorous way. His act of insane rage has awakened the public conscience in a way that he could not have ever hoped to do through merely delivering a television story about the Bagdhad press conference.

In a sense, there’s no room for neutrality in journalism – at least on big stories of political importance. Seib seems to recognise this, arguing that journalists who claim to have “no interest in outcomes” are “disingenious”.

As a practical matter, objectivity is an illusion; choices about what to cover, as well as how to cover, are not made in a moral vacuum. Why bother doing journalism if there is no intent to provide the information that will affect how people think about things?

(The Global Journalist, p.8)

When it comes to reporting the middle east there’s a massive history to negotiate as well as the well embedded “terror frame” that overlays much of the news we see – bombings, responses, shaky alliances with warlords and the sticky issue of what to do with Pakistan’s rogue intelligence agency.

On top of this there’s the well-oiled and well-rehearsed Israeli propaganda machine that equates any criticism of the Zionist state of Israel with a direct attack on Jews and Jewishness. Such is the fear of being branded ‘anti-Semitic’ that many people shy away from questioning Israel’s right to exist, let alone make any criticism of Israel’s actions in the middle east.

This is a shame. Personally, I think that all media reports about Gaza today and the Palestinian issue more generally should start something like this:

Israel has rained terror down on the people of Gaza – and yet world leaders respond with nothing more than soft words and no action.

The horrific number of people killed in Gaza is now approaching 1,000, including many women and children. Israel has deliberately shelled houses full of refugees, murdering whole families at a time.

If any other country had behaved like Israel, its leaders would be outcasts from the international community.

Its ambassadors would be thrown out. Military and economic aid would be stopped.

But instead the world turns a blind eye, issuing only token calls for a ceasefire and ruling out even the mildest of sanctions against Israel.

(Socialist Worker 13 January 2009)

Socialist Worker also reported on the initial claims made by Israel about why the attack on Gaza was launched just after Christmas 2008. It reads like something Dubya might have said to justify an attack on Iraq…oh wait, he did say it.

On 28 December, Israel bombed a truck in Gaza, killing several bystanders. The Israeli army celebrated this strike by publishing video footage of it on its YouTube page.

It claimed the truck was being used by Hamas activists who were seen loading rockets onto it.

Subsequently, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem looked into the incident. It quoted testimony from Ahmad Sanur, the truck owner.

He said his family had been salvaging material from a workshop he owned. The “rockets” being loaded onto the truck were in fact oxygen cylinders used for welding.

(Socialist Worker, 6 January 2009)

Perhaps we should all bookmark the B’Tselem homepage. That way we can bypass hysterical reporters, like the Sun‘s Nick Parker, and see for ourselves. At least we should be encouraging our reporter friends to look beyond the official lies coming out of Israel.

12 Responses to The moral purpose of journalism

  1. […] It’s important that these stories are getting out, despite heavy attempts at censorhip. News reporters are now beginning to get their heads around this story, but I continue to wonder about the moral purpose of journalism. […]

  2. […] defending the Palestinians is not anti-semitic In a recent post – my first on the Israeli’s attacks on Gaza – I mentioned my reluctance to get into the debate because of the tendency of defenders of the […]

  3. Josh Gale says:

    The slippery issue of morality, so subjective. A universal “global humanitarian” moral system is required, but how to ever get everyone to agree on it?

  4. […] won’t repeat myself, but if you haven’t read The Moral Purpose of Journalism by now, perhaps you’d like to at this […]

  5. […] – the dangerous business I wrote recently about the moral purpose of journalism, in part I noted: The bottom line is that, consciously or unconsciously, reporters and editors […]

  6. Am a student in mt Kenya university persuing Journalism and mass media.For the last one year we have covered the following,
    2.Public Relation
    3.International Business Communication
    4.Broadcast Journalism
    6.TV and radio production
    For that little experience that I have I request you assist me get attachment as either a radio or TV presenter and I promise to do it to my level best when given a chance with no supervision at all.
    Thanks very much.

  7. Oadiah, I’d love to help you, but you would have to be in New Zealand I’m afraid. You could come to study at AUT in the Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism.

  8. […] [more on Martin Bell: The moral purpose of journalism] […]

  9. JJ says:

    Silly me – i thought the purpose of journalism was to report what’s happening in the world.

    Won’t make that mistake again!!

    And if you seriously think Israel is an “imperialist construct” you have no idea about the world anyway.


  10. […] [EM's previous post on this topic: The moral purpose of journalism] […]

  11. […] been to EM before, you’ll know I don’t pull any punches on the Palestine question Gaza, Israel, and that I’m hardcore on the war on […]

  12. […] isolado. Antes dela, o professor neozelandês Martin Hirst já havia criado um blog chamado Ethical Martini, no qual lidou durante anos com a polêmica sobre os fatores éticos que influem no exercício do […]

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