Journalists need to think: a reply to David Loyn

Jake Lynch
12 March 2003

Any conversation between journalists and observers of journalism about the issues involved in war reporting is difficult. There is a deep and enduring dissonance. For journalists, especially those like BBC correspondent David Loyn, who routinely put themselves in some of the world’s hardest places to bring us our news, the priority is for owners, editors and reporters alike to commit themselves to “pursuing the truth”. In the course of his attack on the principles of peace journalism, David Loyn uses the telling metaphor to describe journalism as favoured by Guthrie – the photographer character in Tom Stoppard’s play Night and Day – “turning over stones” to see what lies beneath.

That commitment involves making difficult decisions to staff and maintain overseas bureaux; fund lengthy investigations; resist the blandishments of spin and showbiz. These are all demands you will hear at any gathering of professionals, or at least those professionals determined, as David is, to bring readers and audiences a quality information service about the world we share. Any serious attempt to do so is indeed, as he says, “difficult, arduous, hazardous and expensive.”

Those who inspect the news from the outside, however, see things rather differently. They frequently complain that this clarion call for ‘truth’ begs the most important questions. There are many truths, they will say, and many stones. Journalism inevitably involves choosing among them, which to turn over and which to leave undisturbed. When David Loyn talks about polluting “the news agenda”, he sidesteps the crucial issues of how we decide which of a myriad of developments every day, even in a single story, are worthy of inclusion.

The organisation I represent Reporting the World attempts to bridge this gap – to provide spaces and workable concepts for journalists to think critically about what they do, how they do it, and why. We attempt to engage with the issues of responsibility they encounter daily at the ‘newsface’.

The conventions of news reporting

That has seldom been more clearly necessary than it is now. The most important stories are being distorted thanks to unexamined journalistic conventions – editors and reporters vying to turn over the same stones, but leaving others untouched, leading to clearly discernible patterns of omission.

In Loyn’s account, what is responsible for these patterns are “shared language and assumptions” linking journalists with their readers and audiences. But this cannot possibly explain the coverage we have seen, for example in the British media in recent weeks.

As Nick Robinson, political editor of Independent Television News, put it in a two-way for the ITV Evening News, Parliament is more pro-war than the country; the Government is more pro-war than Parliament and the Prime Minister is more pro-war than the Government.

Yet it is the Prime Minister Tony Blair who is never off the news, even when he has nothing new to say. The usual suspects are wheeled on time and again.

In terms of a news ‘line’, for example, his visit to Rome for an audience with the Pope was thin gruel indeed; meanwhile, the lead story in the newspapers as well as on TV and radio was that he was expected to reiterate what he had said before. Across the Atlantic, of course, the US President is even more pro-war than the PM, and he too is a regular on UK screens, whether he says anything different or not. Another day, another two-way: Jane Hill, presenter on BBC digital channel News 24, turning to Nick Bryant in Washington with the observation that listening to the White House was “like Groundhog Day at the moment”.

The case of the disappearing public

At the other end of the scale, we have witnessed, since the massive anti-war demonstrations in London and around the world, ‘the mysterious case of the disappearing public’. Plenty is happening in the anti-war camp, with direct actions, packed public meetings and the release of imaginative proposals for governments and the UN to apply in order to foster disarmament and democracy in Iraq.

In mainstream UK media, these ideas have been mentioned, in passing, in a handful of newspaper pieces and their authors interviewed a few times on rolling news outlets. ITN took six ‘ordinary people’ into Downing Street to meet the PM, and Question Time afforded a studio audience the chance to mix it with environment minister Michael Meacher. But these elements have commanded, between them, very little space.

In other words, even the most anodyne and repetitious statement from official sources is passed automatically into the public realm. Even the most novel and interesting initiatives from the public, from civil society, or from think-tanks outside the familiar alphabet soup of IISS, RIIA and RUSI, face an almighty struggle to see the light of day.

Yes, the coverage improved markedly with the Franco-German initiative to get the UNMOVIC weapons inspectors to be given more time. This, plus the impetus supplied by the demonstrations of 15 February, could have been the springboard for a much more extensive and rigorous examination of peace initiatives – the alternatives being put forward for dealing with Iraq, whether in a security or a humanitarian context. Instead, the opportunity was squandered in favour of a slavish adherence to the agenda set by Downing Street and the White House.

Official sources become central at times like these. A Labour party conference here, a press briefing there; a dossier today, a troop deployment tomorrow. The Prime Minister’s powerful press secretary Alastair Campbell said after the Kosovo crisis of 1999, that his job had been “to hold the public interest on our terms”. It is not as simple as David Loyn’s distinction between “propaganda” and “truth”. Lies are a tiny part of the spin-doctor’s armoury. But, to enable readers and audiences to see round the edges of the official agenda requires a positive plan to seek out other sources, and contribute to the debate on different terms.

“Impartiality relies on Diversity” – The BBC

Actually Loyn’s own employers, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), have moved on from the idea that there is one news agenda. The corporation operates by virtue of Royal Charter, and its provisions are translated for journalists in a document called Producer Guidelines. This refers several times to the need to “ensure that a full range of significant views and perspectives are heard”, especially in dealing with “major matters of controversy”. Like a war perhaps?

The guidelines explicitly state that “there are generally more than two sides to any issue” and that “no significant strand of thought should go unreflected or under-represented”. The new War Guidelines, issued in January 2003 and intended to supplement the original document, remind journalists that:

“Enabling the national and international debate remains a vital task… All views should be reflected in due proportion to mirror the depth and spread of opinion. We must reflect the significant opposition in the UK (and elsewhere) to the military conflict and allow the arguments to be heard and tested.”

In other words, impartiality lies in diversity, and a recognition that language and assumptions cannot be taken as being “shared”, especially when it comes to major controversies. This, in turn, is supposed to ensure that viewers and listeners receive, the Guidelines declare, “an intelligent and informed account of issues that enables them to form their own views”.

So how come so much coverage, not only by the BBC but across mainstream media as a whole, covers the full gamut from A to B of options for pursuing security and humanitarian objectives in Iraq? The case for war as put forward by Tony Blair is that it offers the only way of ‘dealing with’ Saddam Hussein – a logic reproduced in the context of the threat from chemical, biological and nuclear weapons; links with international terrorism, and the moral imperative to overturn a brutal regime.

It is this case that readers and audiences should be in a position to assess for themselves. They need journalists to equip them with a full range of perspectives from which to assess it – including an awareness of alternatives. This is the minimum necessary for arguments to be genuinely “tested”.

As Reporting the World discussions in the last couple of years have indicated, many journalists aspire to providing such a service. Currently, we are conducting a survey of journalists and analysts around the world, asking them to what extent they think the reality matches up. ‘Not very well’ is by far the most frequent answer so far – and most choose ‘journalistic conventions’ from a list of options, as the main impediment.

Indexing – narrowing the field of debate

One of these conventions is ‘indexing’ (a word journalists themselves seldom use) – the habit of confining the frame of reference in the “news agenda” to divisions among official sources: projecting differences on to exchanges in Parliament or within or between political parties; pitting the courts against the executive; or perhaps getting recently retired senior military officers to criticise some aspect of war preparations.

This is what is responsible for the narrowness and staleness of so much recent coverage. Neither is it good for business – research shows that what actually gets viewers and listeners “reaching for the off switch” is precisely this – over-exposure for politicians who always seem to say the same thing.

What about using the Tony Blair news conference, the audience with the Pope or a speech by George Bush as a ‘top line’, disposed of in a 20-second sound bite or short quote, followed by a rigorous examination of one of the alternative plans for dealing with Iraq’s abuses of humanitarian law or weapons conventions? This would be more likely to deliver on aspirations set out in Producer Guidelines and widely shared by journalists. It is this habit of indexing that forestalls such an option.

Objectivity is also a convention

Such journalistic practices are developed in particular social, economic and historical circumstances. Ben Bagdikian, former Washington Post editor, in his book ‘The Media Monopoly’, emphasises the commercial utility for US-based newspapers – once they have successfully disposed of local competitors – of being able to present themselves as all-things-to-all-people.

As media analyst Robert McChesney has pointed out: a speech by, say, a state governor can be reported without necessarily carrying the implication that the newspaper agrees with it, simply because the speaker occupies an official position as governor. In these circumstances, a set of conventions known as ‘objectivity’ soon develop, becoming an apparently unexceptionable basis for deciding what should be in the news.

‘Objectivity’ offers a parallel political function for public service broadcasting in Britain, summed up in a recent slogan – ‘One BBC’. Once again, there had to be some way of appearing to be all things to all people.

Another convention of objectivity is its bias in favour of event over process – something David Loyn implies when he asserts that “news is what is happening”. As Mark Pedelty argues in his influential study, ‘War Stories’, it is incontestable that something like a riot or a battle has happened. It can therefore be reported without fear of attracting accusations of bias. (Interestingly, there are degrees of difference here between US and many European media, as Pedelty points out. Objectivity, North American-style, eschews the juxtaposition of such events with any but the most rudimentary contextualising material, lest that appear overly selective and, therefore, biased.)

But a concentration on events at the expense of process can exert a distorting effect. Greg Philo, Research Director of the Glasgow University Media Group, carried out a fascinating piece of audience research on coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, published in the journal, ‘Developments in Sociology’ in April of last year, in which he discovered that the proportion of respondents who could correctly identify both ‘the settlers’ as Israeli and ‘the territories’ as Palestinian, was just 9%. The proportion who wrongly believed ‘the settlers’ to be Palestinian and ‘the territories’ to be Israeli, was 11%.

How does this come about? Polls show that most of the public get most of their news from television. Television is, more than other media, biased in favour of event over process – partly due to the demands of pictures, it’s true – but also because of its adherence to the conventions journalists think of as ‘objectivity’.

When there is an Israeli military incursion in a Palestinian town, it is reported as an event and part of a chain of events – each event the basis for a news story. It seems to make sense, within this frame, to present it as a response to the previous event, the previous story – say, a recent Palestinian suicide bombing. This is, in fact, precisely the way the Israeli government presents it. It excludes any consideration of how Israel comes to be in a position to carry out such incursions on other people’s territory. It excludes the processes bound up in a 35-year illegal occupation.

Reports such as these, compiled under the conventions of objectivity, are both misleading and confusing to the public. This is why Reporting the World has adumbrated an ethical checklist in a book of the same name, which we have been discussing in our seminars and conferences in the last couple of years. In this, it represents a response, suitable for journalists in UK media, to the growing global dialogue about peace journalism.

What is Peace Journalism?

Broadly speaking, Peace Journalism is in favour of finding creative ways to illuminate processes that help to construct the course of events in a conflict – structural violence as part of the explanation for direct violence. (Never ignoring violence, by the way, as David Loyn mistakenly claims). To fail to do so is an act of commission, not just an act of omission, since it causes culturally established ‘stock’ explanations for people’s behaviour to prevail by default. ‘Ancient hatreds’ in the Middle East or the Balkans, and ‘tribal anarchy’ in Africa would be two examples.

It calls for diversity of perspective. This is not a question of requiring an individual piece to present a ‘complicated matrix’, but some positive awareness of the need to guard against the same elements being routinely left out of the picture. Many reports about conflicts frame them as a zero-sum game of two parties – not only an over-simplification but also inherently escalatory, since the only possible outcomes to a conflict imagined in this way are victory or defeat. Defeat being unthinkable, each steps up efforts for victory.

One way to ensure diversity of perspective is to pick up on peace initiatives, even if they are confined for the moment to activities at the grassroots by a minority within the conflict arena itself (they may nonetheless represent a majority opinion, either in their own society or across a wider range, or – as with Israelis and Palestinians campaigning for a two-state solution to the conflict based on the 1967 Green Line – both).

Inscribed in David Loyn’s recommendation to seek out peacemakers only if they are ‘successful’ is yet another unexamined theory: this time ‘realism’ as a way of interpreting international relations.

The realist convention

The realist notion, that significant change occurs as the result of deliberate decisions by states, governments and (other) men with guns, is looking rather threadbare in the light of recent events. Perhaps the most momentous political change of our times, the fall of Communism, came about because of decisions people made for themselves about what they wanted and what they were prepared to accept. The Berlin Wall fell first in millions of hearts and brains.

Then, nineteen airline passengers inflict a grievous blow against the most heavily defended state on earth, part of a strategy (as Professor Paul Rogers, openDemocracy Security Correspondent, has persuasively argued) based on exploiting fears and grievances shared by millions across the Arab world, caught between official discourses in which change is impermissible, and everyday experience, which argues that radical change is urgently required.

In this context, peace initiatives are successful if they attain a wider circulation, and find some way to enter the collective consciousness of societies in conflict.

Yes, states, governments and other men with guns brought peace to Northern Ireland, but they did so by setting the seal on a process nourished and sustained by thousands of determined peace actors over many years. Back before the Stormont talks that eventually led to the Good Friday Agreement, The Ulster Unionists were publicly hovering over whether they should join in. The feeling among their MPs at Westminster – said to be evenly split on the issue – was reported as a convenient and acceptable shorthand for the state of opinion among Northern Ireland protestants at large.

Then the Newsletter, the main Protestant newspaper in Belfast, commissioned an opinion poll. The first question was the familiar one – in an election held tomorrow, which way would you vote? To anyone who replied, ‘Ulster Unionist’, a second question followed – do you think the party should enter the talks? 86% said yes. The talks went ahead and the rest is history. What the poll was measuring was a successful peace process which had taken place below the radar of most journalists.

There is an entirely worthy view that news is about change – when you pitch a story, the editor wants to know what it tells us that we didn’t already know; what’s changed since the last time we did this? Peace Journalism calls on journalists to pick up peace initiatives as the first stirrings of change. In doing so, it will unavoidably amplify them and assist them in attaining a wider circulation, contributing to their success. But not doing so will, equally unavoidably, suppress and strangle them by depriving them of a way to enter the collective consciousness.

Journalists are always already involved

To address David Loyn’s caution against journalists seeking to become ‘active players’ in the stories they cover, it is worth pointing out that nowadays, in covering ‘what is happening’, we must also take account of the extent to which facts are created in order to be reported. Nik Gowing, in the influential study David refers to, was indeed one of the first to raise this.

How can sources – including parties to conflicts – know what to do, in order to be reported in the way they believe will bring them political, commercial or personal benefits? Only from their experience of previous reporting. Every new piece can potentially add to the collective understanding of how journalists are likely to respond. That understanding then forms the basis of instincts or calculations which, in turn, influence people’s future behaviour.

This is a Feedback Loop, and it has become unignorable in today’s media-savvy world. It means journalists are always already involved, whether they like it, seek it, or not. News is a factor in the sequence of cause and effect, and news is the sum total of the choices made in everyday working life by editors, producers and reporters.

Journalists need workable ways of engaging with the responsibility this implies. The aspirations set out in documents like Producer Guidelines are a good starting-point for this, but only a starting-point.

Of the recommendations David makes, I can wholeheartedly agree with two – leaving ‘objectivity’ aside, balance and fairness would be good friends in any systematic attempt to turn aspiration into reality. But the evidence suggests that in order to do so, we do need a positive agenda for change, based on critical self-awareness and an ethic of responsibility.

Responsibly reporting the world

The words Peace and Peace Journalism are unlikely, in Britain today, to help in bridging the gap between practitioners and the rest, or to form the basis for such a positive change agenda that journalists themselves could use.

(To suggest that “we are all in favour of peace” is once again to beg the important questions, in this case questions about what we mean both by peace and what is necessary to achieve it. One understanding of this I would espouse was crystallised by Gandhi in his famous dictum: “Peace will not come out of a clash of arms, but out of justice lived and done by unarmed nations in the face of odds”.

Peace, on this understanding and in a modern context, inescapably requires some redistribution – well OK, a lot – of wealth and power in favour of the poor and away from the rich. It would require policies that western governments have barely embarked upon. Where they have, those policies have proved highly problematical, like the Kyoto Treaty and the modest undertakings by rich countries in the Doha round of the WTO process. So by no means everyone is in favour of peace.)

Given the misunderstandings the word peace is likely to arouse, these same ideas have been presented under a different ‘brand’ – Reporting the World. The justification for them, here and now, is remedial – to help journalism carry out its promises and to redress the imbalances created by the application of unexamined journalistic conventions. It obviously leaves David Loyn unimpressed. But many journalists, including some senior figures in the industry, have welcomed it, and have been generous enough to say so in public.

On the other hand there are many countries where it makes perfect sense for journalists, along with other professionals, to ask themselves what they can do, throughout their professional activities, for peace. These are places where journalists do not have the luxury of visiting, then leaving conflict zones. Peace Journalism has flourished, under that name, in places like South Africa, through the work of the Media Peace Centre in Cape Town; in Colombia, led by Medios para la Paz , and Indonesia , where our own journalist training, for the British Council, as well as that offered by organisations such as Internews, has complemented sessions with a different emphasis by BBC trainers.

Neither Peace Journalism nor Reporting the World is a ‘brand’ to everyone’s taste. But the onus is firmly on journalists everywhere to think critically about the concepts we use in the everyday jobs of reporting, producing, editing and commissioning; to home in on examples of where those concepts impede us in meeting aspirations to provide a useful public service; and to devise workable ways of taking responsibility for the consequences of our journalism.

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