Showing posts with label journalism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label journalism. Show all posts

Monday, April 19, 2010

Embedded war reporting cannot escape its own bias

| Alison Banville | Comment is free |
Television news reports from journalists embedded with the military have become familiar to us in recent years. The journalist lives with the troops, sleeps where they sleep, eats what they eat, faces the same dangers they do and gets to know them as individuals. They are humanised, and surely that is a good thing – what could possibly be wrong with that? Nothing at all, if you are unconcerned about seeing impartial and balanced news coverage. But if you value these things, you should be worried. The praise heaped on embeds both by their colleagues and their audience for delivering to us "the reality of war" discounts one very important fact: that those journalists are invariably embedded with one side only. And that, in no shape or form, is balance – the very principle our major news channels claim underpins everything they do.

The boast of "greater reality" attached to embedding is a falsehood which actually clouds the vision of anyone attempting to make sense of a conflict. News channels showing reports from journalists embedded with British troops while failing to give equal airtime to reports from embeds with opposing forces or civilians qualifies not only as blatant bias, it is fertile territory for propaganda. So why are we so eager to accommodate embeds?

The BBC's John Simpson gives us a clue: "I don't want to spend my whole time with people to whom I owe my safety, my protection, my food, my transport, and then be expected to be completely honest about them, because there's always that sense that you're betraying a trust." The difficulty a journalist might experience in being "completely honest" about men he or she has bonded with is understood well by those who allow access to troops. US journalist Norman Solomon also addressed this issue in the 2007 documentary War Made Easy. Commenting on US embedded journalists openly telling audiences how they had bonded with troops, Solomon says it is "all very nice, but it has nothing to do with independent journalism, which we never need more than in times of war". In 2004 Solomon wrote that the Committee to Protect Journalists had reported that "the close quarters shared by (embedded) journalists and troops inevitably blunted reporters' critical edge" before quoting LA Times reporter David Zucchino, who was embedded with the 101st Airborne: "Often I was too close, or confined, to comprehend the war's broad sweep... I was ignorant of Iraqi government decisions and US command strategy."

And on the other side of the debate, John Michael Turner, a young US Iraq veteran, stated: "Any time we did have embedded reporters with us our actions would change drastically. We never acted the same, we did everything by the books." Turner made this statement at the Iraq/Afghanistan Winter Soldier hearings in 2008. It is one of the most moving and affecting things I have ever witnessed. Bravery comes in many forms in times of war, but the particular brand required to face the world and admit to atrocities one has personally committed must rank among the rarest – and most precious.

All of these statements are the missing pieces of the picture we need if we are to make up our own minds about whether any war fought in our name is just. But we are not encouraged to seek motivations, to see complexity or cause and effect, we are only seen fit for the most simplistic propaganda – and we lap it up, because we want so desperately to believe our sons and daughters are fighting and dying for something worthwhile. No one is denying the bravery that can be displayed by our troops, as well as by the journalists who embed with them. But we never need truth more than in time of war. It's time for the British public to start asking the difficult questions of both their government and their media; questions mothers like Rose Gentle, who lost her son Gordon in Iraq, have had the courage to ask. Because the truth, however painful, will not only set us free – it will bring our soldiers home.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Rise of non-profit journalism

Pulitzer progress for non-profit news | Dan Kennedy | Comment is free |
As I was driving to work on Monday morning, I listened to the podcast of a radio documentary on Magnetar, a hedge fund whose sharp dealings in mortgage-backed securities cost investors billions of dollars and may have been a major contributor to the near-collapse of the financial markets.

The story, I suspect, will be one of the few pieces of journalism in 2010 that I'll remember when the year draws to a close. And it was largely the work of ProPublica, a nonprofit news organisation.

Later that afternoon, we learned that an article published in the New York Times Magazine last August on the suspicious deaths of elderly patients at a New Orleans nursing home following Hurricane Katrina was the recipient of a Pulitzer prize, American journalism's most prestigious award.

The story, a riveting account of the life-and-death decisions made by healthcare workers at a facility cut off and under siege, was one of the few pieces of journalism published in 2009 that I remember all these months later. And it was written by Sheri Fink of ProPublica.

For good measure, a series on the oversight of nursing care in California that was published by the Los Angeles Times was a finalist for a Pulitzer in public service. It, too, was the work of ProPublica journalists.

At a time when the long-term viability of commercial journalism remains uncertain at best, the success of ProPublica is a heartening sign that non-profits can pick up at least some of the slack.

Yes, traditional, for-profit newspapers both large (the Washington Post won four awards, the New York Times two plus the ProPublica collaboration) and small (the Bristol Herald Courier of Virginia took the coveted public-service prize) dominated Monday's Pulitzer announcements.

But for ProPublica to produce so much important journalism just two years after its founding is strikingly good news.

"To have a reporter get an award in investigative and another a finalist in public service, those are at the top of the list of categories for the kind of work we do," ProPublica editor-in-chief Paul Steiger told Joe Strupp of Media Matters for America. "It suggests that our non-partisan, non-profit model can serve a role in this time of expanding change in the media."

Some observers argue that there isn't enough money on God's green earth for the news business as a whole to switch from the for-profit to the non-profit model. The media consultant Alan Mutter recently wrote on his blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur, that "it would take $88bn – or nearly a third of all the $307.7bn donated to charity in 2008 – to fund the reporting still being done at America's seriously straitened newspapers."

But as New York University media scholar Clay Shirky has suggested, there is no single solution to the news crisis. Instead, a variety of experiments – for-profit, non-profit and volunteer-driven – should be attempted in order to replace at least some of the public-interest journalism that was once the purview of newspapers.

Even today, when we are still at the beginning of this road, non-profit journalism is having a much deeper effect than is generally supposed.

At the macro level, National Public Radio and public radio stations in general (where ProPublica's Magnetar story was heard) constitute our most vital broadcast news medium, serving tens of millions of listeners every week. (Non-profit television news is less successful, although the stolid PBS NewsHour has its admirers, and the documentary series Frontline occasionally forces everyone to sit up and take notice.)

At the local level, non-profit news sites such as Voice of San Diego, MinnPost (serving Minneapolis-St. Paul) and the New Haven Independent have emerged as serious alternatives to the financially strapped newspapers that serve those cities.

ProPublica has hardly been perfect. The project endured some well-deserved mockery last fall when it was revealed that Steiger, a former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, had received a $570,000 salary in 2008. One suspects that is not what the funders expected their money to be used for.

Then, too, non-profits are sometimes accused of serving the agendas of the foundations that fund them, though that hardly seems any more pernicious than the fear of offending advertisers that pervades most newsrooms.

According to the results of a survey released on Monday by the Pew Research Centre's Project for Excellence in Journalism, executives at newspapers and broadcast stations are deeply pessimistic about the future of their business. "Fewer than half of all those surveyed are confident their operations will survive another 10 years – absent significant new sources of revenue," according to the report. "Nearly a third believe their operations are at risk in just five years or less."

In such an environment, the rise of non-profit journalism, though hardly a cure-all, is something to be celebrated.