Tag Archives: reporting

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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Reporting on Suicide

This morning the front page of the Metro (which you really can’t avoid as a Londoner, it’s everywhere) had a lurid spread on how Robin Williams killed himself and why. I didn’t bother to read it but the headline jumped out at you. I admit, I was curious. But I didn’t because I feel like it’s none of my business. He’s gone; that is such a tragedy for all who knew and loved him, and a lurid expose that’s not aimed at helping anyone else in a similarly desperate situation is not worth it.

I was going to write something about the reporting when I saw, via Twitter (of course) the best blog on this, by a writer called Mary Hamilton. I think she said it all. An extract:

“Let’s be clear, this is not a hypothetical danger: a review of almost 100 studies worldwide has found a strong, coherent and consistent association between certain types of media reporting and increased risk of suicide in vulnerable people, and the Bridgend suicides should be known by every UK journalist as an example of how the media can make things worse.

This is happening in the UK, where funding is being stripped from already-stretched mental health services at the same time as punitive welfare policies strip money from the poorest and force severely unwell people to attempt to work despite disabilities that make it impossible for them to do so safely. A population that is already incredibly vulnerable is being made more so by lack of access to treatment and to funds. The UK is currently in the grip of an acute mental health crisis. This context is important.”

And further to that context, according to the Office of National Statistics, the leading cause of death for 20-34 year olds is suicide and poisoning:

Suicide and injury/poisoning of undetermined intent were the leading cause of death for 20-34 year olds, for 26% of men and 13% of women. Factors that could lead to these deaths include: traumatic experiences, lifestyle choices such as drug or alcohol misuse, job insecurity and relationship problems. “

We need responsible reporting about suicide that follows the best practice outlined by the Samaritans. However, we also need to address the root causes and ensure that those who need the extra support can access it swiftly.

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As a communications student, David Loyn’s (BBC Afghanistan correspondent) article for the Guardian critiquing Jon Snow’s Gaza video appeal was quite interesting. I’ve posted the video below along with my own thoughts as part of the post titled ‘Gaza’. I found it very moving.

I expect journalists to be affected by what they witness. It would be mad if they weren’t; they’re human. But Loyn raises a salient (yeah, maybe a bit of inside cricket here) point on impartiality and professional media values – at least here in the UK. The US is a different story, but perhaps not as different as we would like to think as we sit over here on our high horses. You only have to look at the right-wing monstering of Ed Miliband on a regular basis to see that our press is hopelessly biased.

But our TV? Yes, but less so perhaps. And Loyn is concerned at the framing of Snow’s statement – on Youtube certainly so not broadcast on Channel 4 – but still filmed in the studio, in his capacity as anchor of the news show. The reporting that Loyn holds up as exemplary and restrained, in particular Peter Beaumont’s piece on the father who gathered the remains of his two year-old in a plastic bag, is seared into my memory. Although it was done with restraint, the radio piece was so evocative that it has stayed with me.

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 they 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.”

I certainly don’t hold it against Jon Snow to have said what he did. Channel 4 did make an effort to separate reporting from commentary, too. That said, Loyn does make a good argument for restraint and objectivity. In the end, though, the facts of the conflict stand apart as truly awful, all on thier own.


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