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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Moral Equivalence in Reporting From Afghanistan

Journalists for Human Rights had a public session a few nights ago at Ryerson University in Toronto. The aim of the organization is to look at how human rights are covered - or not - around the the world. Many of the members of the group are my students and I know them to be thoughtful and increasingly sensitive to the complexities of overseas reporting.

The theme of the evening was "Conflict Coverage" and the panel included Esther Enkin, executive editor of CBC News, Olivia Ward, foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star and James Murray, who has reported from Afghanistan for CBC Radio and TV News. George Hoff a former CBC News foreign editor, bureau chief and field producer acted as moderator.

Everyone on the panel agreed that the issues are more complex and more demanding, especially as news organizations insist on multi-media reporting. The challenge of filing early and often places tremendous pressures on reporters, especially in war zones - none of which was surprising, although it was illuminating and confirmed that the nature of news reporting in general is becoming more fraught as the demands of the media continue to grow.

James Murray is a young and talented journalist. I met him more than ten years ago when he was just starting out as a local CBC radio reporter. His move up the ranks has been impressive. So I was somewhat surprised to hear him articulate the view that there are no "good guys" to be found in Afghanistan. Neither the Taliban nor the allies seem to encapsulate any values that Murray could identify with. The Hamid Karzai regime is, according to Murray, murderous and corrupt. The Taliban are murdering fanatics and the allied forces continue to kill civilians. No heroes anywhere in sight, said he.  I haven't been over there, so I am in no position to gainsay him.

But I was struck by James' moral neutrality which sounded world-weary and cynical. It sounded as if it came from a much older foreign correspondent who had seen too much. Instead of being analytical about the prospects in Afghanistan, James spoke deeply about the human tragedies he had witnessed. I believe him when he described the horrors of war that he had seen. But what was missing that evening - for me at any rate - was a sense of any global perspective about what is happening.

This is a pendulum swing away from the dry diplomatic journalism of a generation ago. In the 1980's, we were told to avoid the televisuals of so-called "white men in suits going in and out of chancelleries." Instead we sought to tell the stories of "real" people who lived out the dreadful consequences of what the politicians and the military attempted to do. There were lots of victims in our journalism and we made sure that they featured prominently in all our stories.

Today, we hear, see and read mostly the stories from that micro point of view. These stories have more emotional resonance which is something news organizations try to find. The big (and often less emotional) picture is ignored, or simply confined to analysis pieces in the New York Times or The Economist. As a result, reporters like James Murray have been conditioned to tell only one aspect of the story - the human aspect which is indeed, pretty grim. This is not to blame this particular reporter, but we are only hearing half the story.

There is a way out and like it or not, it is largely a political story. If journalists are able to report that as well, then we might hear fewer pieces that equate the Taliban with the Allies with the Karzai regime. That kind of reporting is called moral equivalence and it's simply wrong.

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