Telling Stories

This weekend the Observer published a strong, moving article about the nature of foreign reporting, in particular the propensity of news networks to parachute in special correspondents at a moment’s notice, who may miss or misinterpret a story as they struggle to get up to speed, often supplanting the freelancers (or “stringers”) or local journalists who have been faithfully plugging away at a story (before it got sexy). Every African, and I’m sure many others,  has a example of this, such as the CNN “Kenya election violence” nonsense before the last election, which was not only wrong but inflammatory and which spawned a hashtag by the Kenyan twitterati: #someonetellCNN .

The article also pointed out the changes to news gathering and reporting more generally, which should be of concern to us all, given how important the media is:

“The western news media are in crisis and turning their backs on the world, but we hardly ever notice. Where correspondents were once assigned to a place for months or years, reporters now handle often 20 countries. Bureaux are in hub cities, far from many of the countries they cover. And journalists are often lodged in expensive houses or five-star hotels. As the news has receded, so have our minds.

To the consumer, the news can seem authoritative. But the 24-hour news cycle rarely gives us the stories essential for us to understand the important events of our time. The news machine, confused about its mandate, has faltered. Big stories are often missed. Huge swaths of the world are forgotten or shrouded in myth. The news both creates these myths and dispels them, in a pretence of providing us with truth.”

Actually this article made me think of something I read by a female stringer in Syria, who in 2013 blew the lid open on the conditions she had to work under and the lack of support from her news organization. She pointed out that stringers often undertake dangerous work for little pay, but that their role is so important. (I would add; local journalists too, like the 18 year-old Syrian kid who took photographs for Reuters and died earlier this year – though there are other ethical questions here given his youth and lack of protection)

“People have this romantic image of the freelancer as a journalist who’s exchanged the certainty of a regular salary for the freedom to cover the stories she is most fascinated by. But we aren’t free at all; it’s just the opposite. The truth is that the only job opportunity I have today is staying in Syria, where nobody else wants to stay. And it’s not even Aleppo, to be precise; it’s the frontline. Because the editors back in Italy only ask us for the blood, the bang-bang. I write about the Islamists and their network of social services, the roots of their power—a piece that is definitely more complex to build than a frontline piece. I strive to explain, not just to move, to touch, and I am answered with: “What’s this? Six thousand words and nobody died?”

There is a tension the media industry, which is at once a business and a public information service. Managing editors have to balance the books and all of the outlets (with the exception of some, like the Guardian that have a governing Trust rather than an owner) have to walk the editorial tightrope of independence and pissing off the person that pays the cheques. It’s what makes Murdoch’s dominance of the industry so frightening.

It’s said that the media “doesn’t tell us what to think, but is remarkably successful at telling us what to think about.” What makes the news, how often and in what frames can have a profound influence on public awareness of an issue and subsequent policy decisions.

Reports like these from stringers, and others by local journalists, show that we should all be concerned about what gets reported, why, how and by whom.

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