Should journalists covering suffering allow their own emotions to become part of the story?
[see comments and selected tweets at the bottom of this article for reaction]
Jon Snow’s heartfelt monologue about the suffering of Gaza’s children has become a YouTube hit amongst those who have been shocked by the images of the appalling injuries and deaths of citizens in that narrow strip of land. Predictably, others have criticised it as a one-sided piece of propaganda.
What interests me is not just the alleged ‘bias’ itself, but the evident personal feeling that this broadcasting titan put on display. Will it help the cause he so obviously cares about? And does it make for good journalism?
The classic idea of ‘objective’ reporting on conflict and suffering is that the job of the journalist is to witness, analyse and leave the judgements and campaigns to others. The BBC’s Matthew Price expresses this doctrine perfectly in an interview [in at 2’48”] he gave after reporting on Haiti (where Jon Snow also famously emoted on screen). In it he says that his mission was to do the reporting straight in the hope that people would see the coverage and give money or take action as politicians to change things.
Of course, there’s no such thing as purely objective reporting, but it’s easy to spot journalism that isn’t. Sometimes the journalist will become involved and that can have a dramatic impact, as when Anderson Cooper famously rescued a child in Haiti from a riot on camera.
It’s impossible to make cast-iron rules about this sort of thing. Journalism is a craft not a science. Personally, I think that the best TV reporters actually under-write and let the images and victims’ own voices speak for themselves.
Certainly, human interest can be a great way to connect viewers or readers to remote victims of injustice or violence. However, when the journalist’s own emotions become part of the narrative then there’s a danger of losing trust.
Displaying such feeling may actually play into the hands of the next Israeli spokesperson interviewed on Channel 4 News. And viewers more sympathetic to Israel may also wonder if his heart is in it when he has to take other sides to task.
I always welcome it when journalists talk publicly about their work. (My think-tank would be in trouble if they didn’t!). It is good that journalists are transparent about how they do their job. But should this introspection become part of the editorial output?
Of course, journalists are only human and the strain of suppressing normal feelings in the face of the horrors of war is immense. We regularly have wonderful foreign correspondents come to give talks at Polis and it’s clear that they find it therapeutic. One outstanding journalist who claimed to have been unmoved by reporting on a disaster actually broke down when he viewed the footage again in front of the students. He had bottled up those emotions for over a year.
But that is the job. It’s a tough one but that’s the responsibility of journalism. To provide as honest and informed an account as possible.
So I remain somewhat uneasy about Jon’s video. I feel very uncomfortable with the way that people on social media approve of a piece of journalism simply because it reflects their point of view and disparage reporting that challenges them. So I don’t think it helps if journalists allow themselves to become emotional cheerleaders for causes in such a bitterly divided and complex dispute – even where the suffering is so disproportionately on one side. Channel 4 News were right to keep it on YouTube because it has to be seen as a side-bar to the programme’s main mission which is to strive for a kind of objectivity. Though with platform convergence that kind of separation loses meaning.
Some have argued that TV regulation is out of date and this kind of more personal narrative should be allowed on terrestrial TV. As it is, I am not convinced that it would have broken Ofcom rules in itself. Jon’s call to action: “we can’t let it go on…together we can make a difference’ was so vague to be somewhat meaningless. It’s not as if they put up a caption with a telephone number for donations to the Hamas Fighting Fund.
Impartiality is measured over a programme or series of programmes. The idea is that you are tough on an Israeli in an interview but then suitably tough on a Palestinian. Yes, Snow focused (almost) exclusively on the plight of Palestinian children and (almost) ignored the wider context but that’s the story he was telling in that particular film.
I suspect Channel 4 bosses will be delighted with the profile that this film – which remember was not broadcast on the TV programme itself – has given to a show that, like its rival Newsnight, is suffering from falling viewing figures. It’s certainly given a boost to their online traffic. It fits into their increasingly creative offering online.
But does it represent a shift in the ethos of public service broadcasting that ITN is legally obliged to follow? Has the Internet age made Ofcom’s stipulations on impartiality irrelevant? As James Ball argues in the Guardian, should TV be allowed to be partial in pursuit of younger audiences more used to non-stop comment?
Well, it’s not such a departure. Channel 4 already has a remit to be an alternative to the BBC so in that sense this kind of experiment is in their DNA. Many of C4News’ reporters already have plenty of attitude. I think the better question is whether a more extreme version of emotionally-charged, campaigning journalism would work?
Does Channel 4 News want to adopt the Fox News strategy of speaking on behalf of a particular political demographic? Does it want to brand itself, like The Guardian, as a ‘liberal’ news organisation?
As Channel 4 News is already heading into niche territory in the analogue market this might seem logical. Though the research suggests that when big stories break people run to organisations like the BBC precisely because they want to get the news in a relatively straight fashion. In an age of information overload and digital distortion people want trusted guides to events, not just bleeding hearts or subjective campaigners. I wonder if such a strategy would put off the many people who like Channel 4 News because it is a serious, intelligent, robust journalistic programme, not because it’s politically partisan.
[A big declaration of interest. I worked for eight happy years at Channel 4 News. I think Jon Snow is one of the best journalists I ever worked with and the show is as good as it’s ever been.]
Jon is not the only journalist talking about their emotions in connection with reporting on Gaza. AFP’s Sarah Hussein has written a powerful article on her return home after a spell covering the story.
There’s been lots of reaction to this piece and almost all of it passionate but polite and thoughtful. There are some comments attached to this blog but here is a sample of some the tweets. I will only include those that made critical or additional points and I realise that twitter is hardly representative of wider audiences.
Yes, ‘we’ are supposed to get emotional, but I was arguing that journalists should not. When a story is this emotional it really needs someone to add in some cold analysis about power and politics, otherwise it’s just a grief-fest.
Yes, Jon is perfectly capable of being balanced. My problem is not with his journalism, but what is in the mind of the viewer. As I wrote, it’s good for journalists to be transparent but once you reveal your feelings in such a strong way, it’s difficult for the viewer to see you as disinterested.
I think this is one of the problems of convergence. I don’t think the film was labeled as personal. Jon is THE face of Channel 4 News so it does feel like he is speaking as the brand itself. Many people will watch C4News online so won’t see this film as different to the rest of the output. The idea of a ‘blog’ as a personal space is no more certain anymore than the idea of one’s tweets being personal. That doesn’t make it wrong to make a film like that, but I think it makes it impossible to say it was ‘just personal’.
This (tongue in cheek?) tweet was typical of many that said that Jon would be right to cross a line and make a partisan plea because the rest of the media is so pro-Israeli. Let’s leave aside the conspiracy theories for a moment, but it is palpably not true that we haven’t seen vast amounts of coverage in the UK showing the suffering of the Gazans. Every newspaper and bulletin I have seen has shown huge amounts of emotionally searing testimony. There is a bigger and more complex question about how that coverage has been framed. But I would argue that taking an emotional approach actually hinders those who are trying to draw attention to the wider geo-politics that means Israel is able to carry out this operation without any threat of serious sanctions or reprimand. We need more analysis, not angst.
Jon Snow’s next interview with a Hamas spokesman was notably tough.
Credit to Jon Snow for taking this step, and I’m glad his video has been viewed a million times. He was no doubt doing it out of a sense of exasperation and a desperation to shake viewers out of the sort of stupor that can come over us all when we are subjected to horrible images of a warzone, day after day.
But the debate reminds me of the bit at the end of Broadcast News, where William Hurt, who plays a news anchor, raises his profile by shedding tears while interviewing. The audience loved it, but he loses the respect of his producer, who realises he must have forced himself to cry in order for the moment to be captured in the “noddy shots”, when the camera is turned around to face the interviewer at the end of the interview.
That scene raises a couple of questions relevant to this issue. Some might say that it was ok for William Hurt to cry in the interview (that’s what this blog post is about) but we all feel instinctively that it would be wrong for a journalist to fake an emotion to get an effect. But emotions are nebulous and subjective. How can the audience ever be sure that they are real? And is it even possible for a professional presenter, working with standard media practices, to show genuine emotions, without turning them into a sort of manufactured product?
Just describing what you see and what other people say is a lot easier.
He shared what he ‘saw’ with the viewers who are subject to majority media bias in favour of Israel. Utmost respect to Jon for this.
I would anyway prefer a ‘true personal’ journalism compared to a ‘false bias’ one like that of Fox.
Thanks for the comments.
To Penren: I don’t doubt Jon is tough on all sides. My point is that doubt will creep into the viewer’s mind when a journalist expresses their personal viewpoint. It might even be that they over-compensate.
To Littleshambles: I love your movie reference. Although Jon would never fake it!
To Sejuty: you are saying what a lot of people seem to say – ‘if I disagree with a piece of opinionated journalism then it’s biased – if I agree with it, then it’s OK.’ Fair enough if that’s what you want, but I don’t see journalism as a sport where you support teams regardless.
No mother or father, priest or imam, cousin or neighbour, by-stander or military could witness the killing of an innocent person without the experience generating strong feelings. I don’t think, as noble as the ideal might be, that it is possible for a journalist to remain impartial having witnessed such things. No matter how or why a person has died, there are feelings of anger and sympathy that, as humans, we cannot avoid having or, indeed, expressing. I’d rather read or hear or watch a dispatch from a journalist who is upfront, open and transparent about potential sources of bias in their report or analysis than one who claims, against all odds, that they have not been impacted by what they have witnessed.
I personally appreciated Snow’s honesty. I felt the same way. Had I wanted a different perspective I could have easily and quickly found it. Truth is always subjective and contextual. Had I approached the story from another perspective, I may very well have found equal, but different, truth. Such is the reported world.
Let’s not pretend we are capable of coming at such things without cultural,historical, and political baggage – we all do, every time, all the time.
I do disagree with you somewhat when you say ‘I don’t think.. it is possible for a journalist to remain impartial having witnessed such things.’ Reporters like Lindsay Hilsum, Matthew Price, etc do it all the time. Of course, they have all sorts of biases. The difference is that they don’t foreground the emotional reaction. Of course, all truth is subjective etc But the whole point of journalism as practiced by most foreign correspondents is to give the best version of facts, analysis, context not their own personal response. There’s plenty of that out there already.
You can give all versions of the facts but give your opinion too. The point is to know how. Jon Snow is so brilliant because he is experienced enough to do it correctly. The reason why so many people listen to him is because he shows full integrity in his reporting and shows that he cares. Placid reporting could be confusing and misleading for people who are not familiar with the field. A journalist who is not emotionally moved by people’s suffering cannot be a good journalist. The point is to know how to manage the feeling and mix it with professional balance. You name Lindsey as being different. Well I’m afraid I don’t agree with you. She is just as emotional as Jon and they are both great. They both have an added prerogative as journalists who have done many years of solid journalism from the field and now claim their right to state emotions too. There are many more like them in all the best of media.
When you know the facts of what is happening it is difficult to remain placid. I had a personal experience of this in the early days of the Taliban in 1990s when reporting for the BBC. I was criticized for not keeping the balance, and my answer was that as a woman reporting from a democratic country the best I can do is to be the voice of democracy –which does not approve of terrorists, aggressors, and those who violate human rights and international humanitarian law.
Really important what you say Charlie about reporters not allowing themselves to become emotional cheerleaders in complex disputes. What I want is reporting that does ask the tough questions – of all sides – and which keeps a critical distance. I want to know the stuff that the normal ‘news’ doesn’t cover, that the parties involved don’t want us to know. I want reporters to be able to critically review their own biases and assumptions. That requires reporters to manage their own reactions at times – otherwise, to me, they’re not doing their jobs.
Thanks. You’ve said in one paragraph what I took a whole waffly blog post to say.
US scholar Michael Schudson says journalism is a cultural construct, informed by literary and social conventions. It’s never been more evident than in the Net/Digital age with evolving social networks and the atomisation of this juggernaut we call television/video news.
There are obvious observed conventions in public service broadcasting in the UK over impartiality (bias) and objectivity (reporting facts ad evidence), which is perhaps why Jon Snow used the web, and Jeremy Bowen wrote a personal account of his time in Gaza , rather than broadcast this on the BBC.
Just in case any media students are reading this, what US networks e.g. Fox do is perfectly legitimate by their standards because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC ) scraped the fairness doctrine (Impartiality rules) in 1987/2011. This highlights Schudson’s point. Journalism’s canvas is culturally diverse.
A wider issue within pedagogy is ensuring the next generation are aware of these differences. UK TV may still play firmly to detached journalism, but the web/other cultures present different palettes.
Indeed, in a recently completed PhD, a new generation of award-winning journalists can be found to use emotion and cues observed in cinema, and the evidence conducted shows a visual literate audience (e.g. young people etc.) can decode what they’re seeing.
Channel 4 is due to launch a new website with younger audiences in mind. It’ll be interesting to see the direction they take.
University of Westminster
Grr, literal: ‘reporting facts and evidence’
I agree too with previous writers that experience is key. How you define experience is another post entirely
When push comes to shove everyone has to pick a side.
Sam Castan: the photographer who took up arms (From Requiem: By the Photographers Who Died in Vietnam and Indochina by Tim Page and Horst Faas)
“Sam Castan, a Life editor who went to Vietnam to do a story -words and pictures- about how US troops were holding up. He got trapped under fire, asked for a gun and led the group he was with, who would all have been killed, out in a bid to escape. He was killed and so were more of the group but four survived and two directly because of him.”
I couldn’t disagree more. Why do journalists ‘have’ to pick a side? I can’t think of anything more detrimental to good journalism. You then become a public relations officer for that side. Most conflict situations are highly complex and by picking a side you give the illusion that there are ‘goodies and baddies’. If that’s how you see the world then good luck to you, but I prefer journalists who try to remain sceptical and reflective about their stories.
I disagree David. To keep their unique position as observers looking at a story on behalf of the public journalists should NOT take sides. They should give as complete an account as possible on both sides. If they feel they need to they should refrain from reporting because sure enough they will lose their credibility. Having said that I think we shouldn’t mix Jon Snow’s humanitarian appeal on behalf of children with journalism. He made it very clear that it was his opinion and clearly showed in the message that his only interest was the effect of war on children. But even in his case if he felt very strongly he should have refrained from comment. He had already done blogs, he could have stopped there. However someone with his influence on news could affect policy when he makes a point in an unconventional way. Did it have the required impact? I think it did.