A journalist’s role in reporting on conflict

Two Sri Lankan bloggers who I read regularly have recently had interesting things to say about the reporters who write about the long conflict on their island. They raise fundamental questions about the role of journalism in society, a debate that is heightened in conflict zones.

Blogger-turned-columnist Indrajit Samarajiva gave this quick bit in a recent post:

“I don’t get why the international media wants to come in and gawk when Sri Lankans are suffering and the pictures are bad, but doesn’t want to see or help actual improvement. Wait, I do get it.”

Is journalism a civic engagement? James Fallows of Atlantic Monthly has argued for “civic journalism” since his book Breaking the News came out in 1997. Here’s how he sums up his argument in Slate:

“The main argument of the public journalism advocates was that reporters and editors should think of themselves as being inside society, affecting through their coverage the way other people thought and behaved, rather than being wholly detached observers from outside. When viewing a society somewhere else in the world, members of the American press accept this point immediately. They know that the existence and quality of information flow will have a huge impact on other aspects of that society—whether people can hold their government accountable, how realistic a picture they have of other cultures, how unified or divided they seem.”

Journalist-turned-blogger Nalaka Gunawardene has a different take on journalists’ roles:

“What we lack – and urgently need – is plain good journalism that covers development, conflict and other issues as an integral part of human affairs. Noble intentions of saving the planet, or making world peace, sound good at beauty pageants. But these catch-all lines don’t give anyone the license to engage in shoddy journalism that lacks accuracy, balance and credibility – the core tenets of the profession.”

Gunawardene cites remarks by Javier Solana, EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy:

“The reporter is there to report. We should be careful not to weigh down the media with additional responsibilities over and above their primary task of providing information. A healthy media environment is diverse and plural; it is there to explain but not take sides. The profession of journalism needs no justification and no sophisticated qualification.”

I’ve written about access to information in Sri Lanka for the Far Eastern Economic Review and continue to delve into the issues surrounding journalism in wars. I’ll be participating in a panel about reporting from hot spots in July at the South Asian Journalists Association’s annual convention, so I am culling ideas for framing the conversation. Are the main questions practical — how can journalists access information and stay safe? — or is it important to focus the discussion on the role of journalism in violent conflicts? Send me your thoughts, especially if you plan to be at the convention.

  • Many thanks for citing and amplifying my blog post. The pros and cons of advocacy journalism have been debated for at least three decades, and perhaps even longer. I’m not opposed to advocacy journalism, and in fact, far prefer that to the clinically detached, cold and dispassionate approach to reporting and commenting on events. Whether we like it or not, we do get involved when we bear witness — either as mainstream or citizen journalists.

    Our challenge, in my view, is to resist becoming crusaders to the point where we lose sight of the first principles and primary responsibilities. It’s a sad truth that many use the media outlets and platforms to peddle hatred, suspicion, xenophobia and other sentiments that fuel and sustain conflicts. But the reaction to such extremism should be show and discuss matters as is – warts and all – rather than become dove-bearing, see-no-evil ‘peace journalists’. This is why I have always found the populist brand of peace journalism naive, ineffective and irrelevant.

    But let’s see what others think!

  • Nalaka, thanks so much! Do you think foreign reporting on Sri Lanka has lost sight of its primary responsibilities?

  • I’m not sure that foreign journalism is the issue. I don’t think this is a time where we necessarily need a western filter to process information. There are good journalists in Sri Lanka who could be given airtime on international stations rather than sending people here with limited access and their own agendas.

    I don’t think good journalism is necessarily foreign anymore. Too often I see images of a western reporter standing in front of some cityscape essentially reciting Wikipedia. Sometimes I think you could get more information from a local trishaw driver. For all the coverage, you rarely see locals speaking for themselves, and we actually can.