Al Jazeera Journalism Review

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ALEPPO, SYRIA: War photographers and journalists like the one depicted here on September 10, 2017, must reflect the truth about what is happening - and not leave out the 'bad' bits about the 'good' guys. [Mohammad Bash/Shutterstock]

Beware of activist journalists - they won’t always tell the ugly truth

It is the job of journalists to report the full truth - even when that might cast the ‘good’ guys in a ‘bad’ light

 

About 20 years ago, I was working as the foreign news editor at a Spanish weekly magazine. On one occasion, a young and eager journalist pitched a story: She was travelling to Southeastern Turkey and wanted to offer me a feature about how military action against the Kurdish guerrilla harms the civilian population. 

As we had covered that subject recently, I suggested that she research the other side of the coin: how guerillas were pressuring the local population to support them, often pressing very young people into their ranks. 

The journalist refused flat out. She didn't deny that this might be happening, but she, for one, wouldn't report it if it was. The Kurdish “resistance”, as she called it, was already suffering so much that, in her view, “there is no need to heap more trouble on them”. So ruled out writing any news story which would present the Kurdish armed group in a negative light.

Our collaboration stopped there but I was left wondering, every time I saw a news story from some eager, young journalist reporting from remote conflict areas and interviewing people about their plight, if they were telling the whole story or if they were filtering out information which might “heap trouble” on the political groups fighting against a powerful regime or military forces.

Right now, the European media is full of stories about the heroic resistance of Ukrainian soldiers, often told by reporters who have made a huge personal effort to get to the frontline. We don't need to give credibility to Russian state-controlled media to ask the question: do they tell us all we should know, or do many of them consider their work as part of a solidarity campaign with a country invaded by a powerful and ruthless neighbour?  

“A war always puts you into a difficult spot regarding neutrality. First of all, because you see things that are going to impress you heavily, like civilians bombed in Syria - or the morgue of Harkiv, where I was just hours ago”, says reporter Lluis Miquel Hurtado by phone, speaking aboard a train in Ukraine. “You look at that and you have to make a big effort to keep neutral”. 

On the other hand, he concedes: “Everybody who arrives at a war already has some political position, be it about Kurds in Syria or about Ukranians. And then, in a war, even writing in a neutral way might get you in trouble with one side. In Ukraine, you can be quickly labelled a spy just for doing your work.” 

“There is a human tendency to move along the narrative of the ‘good’ guys and the ‘bad’ guys, without seeking the many shades of reality”, says Laura Fernandez Palomo, who has been covering Middle Eastern countries for a decade. “In the case of Syria, some journalists definitely chose not to write news about the process of ideological radicalisation going on inside the militias which had been until then a rightful and legitimate opposition force against a ruthless regime.”

Too often, she adds, “we fall into the bad habit of not talking about bad things done by the ‘good’ guys; this might be happening right now in Ukraine, where, as we know, a Neo-nazi militia is part of the armed forces.”  

There are different reasons for it, says Hurtado. “Supporting a popular opinion is always easier than supporting an unpopular one. In the age of social networks, trying to please your followers comes as a natural thing. Of course you'll also work more easily if your boss is happy with what you say, but the pressure of your media outlet is often the least important factor: your boss generally pays you because he or she wants to have a professional journalist in the field and they mainly will approve of you if you show neutrality. 

Too often, we fall into the bad habit of not talking about bad things done by the 'good' guys

 

“It's most of all in social networks where you fall into the trap of being flattered by followers who want you to express a very specific position. And there is more than one journalist getting carried away and crossing the red line over into activism,” adds Hurtado, who has covered the Syrian war and the Kurdish conflict in Turkey for the past 10 years. “There are even some reporters who have this specific position and they only write for their followers, without caring about the rest.” 

Of course, biased reporting is often the result of a lack of information. In the classroom, journalists are told to always include contrasting opinions about a given subject, but whereas it might be easy to call a government and an opposition spokesperson from your office, getting a quote from “the other side” might be next to impossible when you are reporting from Aleppo or Kiev. A general disclaimer by Damascus or Moscow that “all are terrorists or Nazis” isn't a very useful piece of information either. 

“Here we are under pressure”, admits Hurtado. “In the hospitals they tell you not to inform people about how many dead and injured you see and you can't speak about troops moving around. When you have so many limitations, you can end up just parroting official statements.” 

In other cases, ignorance comes into the picture: many of the foreign correspondents flocking to Syria in 2012 and 2013 had never been to a Middle Eastern country before and might have mistakenly thought that radical attitudes from the groups which were turning into Al Qaeda affiliates were just “local culture” instead of a political process which gave rise, finally, to Daesh. 

But others probably tried to avoid “heaping trouble” on the people who seemed to be on the right side of history. This must be seen in the context of a conflict that has stirred an ideological debate widely beyond the frontiers of Syria. 

Speaking about jihadists among the rebels might have felt like validating Assad's claims that all of the opposition were just “terrorists”. This is still more visible in another highly polemic conflict - that of Palestine - where battles are still fought, but no longer won, on the battlefield - with victory and defeat frequently decided by public opinion, which ultimately means by newspaper front pages. 

Many foreign correspondents, who find themselves surrounded by a strong Israeli propaganda machine, feel that their mission is to counterbalance a one-sided coverage. In this situation, underlines Palomo, who has spent several years covering the conflict for the Spanish news agency Efe, many colleagues chose not to write about corruption in the Palestinian National Authority, nor about the hardships people were subjected to by the Hamas movement. They feared that writing about these subjects would make Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation and colonisation appear less legitimate. 

It is important not to get sucked into this fallacy, says Palomo. “We should stop following the narrative of absolute concepts, good and bad, black and white,” she says. “We should be honest about what we see is happening, with no other goal than reflecting reality. Conclusions might be drawn later in debates and we can even do it ourselves, writing an opinion column. But when reporting news, this is not our job. We cannot bend reality to adapt it to a specific narrative.” 

By not informing our viewers and readers about foreign fighters pouring into Syria from other countries, she adds, we failed to explain what was really happening in Syria. “We will now fail to explain what is going on in Ukraine if we leave certain Ukrainian militias out of the picture. Our job is just to throw light on what is happening, showing the many shades of reality.”

Ilya U Topper is a Spanish journalist specialising in reporting on Mediterranean countries

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance

 

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