When reporting on their homelands, diaspora journalists walk a fine line between emotional connection and objective storytelling
How can diaspora journalists report on a country located thousands of miles away while balancing accurate representation and emotional connection?
This question resonates not only among the diaspora community and the broader media landscape but also within my own journey as a Pakistani journalist based in the United Kingdom, striving to report on the ongoing conflicts gripping my homeland, Pakistan.
The nature of this question is complex, involving the intricate balance between journalistic integrity and personal identity. To answer it, we must detach personal emotions and cultural identity from the journalist's role, especially when covering a national crisis, such as a natural disaster or political unrest in our homeland.
This separation is important to ensure that the reporting remains unbiased, grounded in factual information and in line with journalistic principles.
In his 2010 study, titled “Emotion in Reporting: Use and Abuse”, published by the Center for Journalism Ethics, Stephen JA Ward presents criteria which journalists can follow when it comes to emotions. It includes advice to use emotions "proportionately", "test emotions", and "avoid self-aggrandisement".
This study lays the foundation for identifying instances in which emotions within journalism might be excessively used and manipulated during times of conflicts. Ward notes the power of stories of people caught up in tragedy but cautions against overuse to prevent compassion fatigue and divert editorial resources.
He further emphasises the need to verify emotional claims with objective facts. For a balanced view, audiences require both emotional expression and expert insights. This includes analysis of how political and other influences impact conflict responses. Lastly, he advises journalists to avoid using emotions to spotlight themselves and seek self-praise. He suggests, instead, "focusing on the story, not the storytellers", and countering the prevailing "all about me" media trend.
The last piece of advice is particularly significant for diaspora journalists. At times, their personal anecdotes derived from experiences in their homeland serve as powerful tools to illustrate a story and add authenticity, necessitating their inclusion in the story due to the unique situations they've encountered.
For example, whenever I write a piece about Pakistan, I find it challenging to avoid incorporating my own experiences. There are instances when it might seem like I'm reiterating certain aspects, but such repetition becomes necessary to ensure the clarity of specific points. These personal touches not only enhance the narrative but can also provide essential context that would otherwise remain unknown. In this environment, the diaspora journalist's coverage becomes a conduit through which the international community gains insight into the nuances of a conflict, for example.
From my perspective, Ward's criteria indicate that emotions should be used to enrich empathetic storytelling, whether a journalist is on the ground or reporting remotely from the diaspora, while also highlighting the importance of maintaining unbiased coverage.
Indeed, Ward acknowledges that: "Journalists are not automatons. Expression of emotions is expected."
Although personal emotions come naturally to every journalist, they take on heightened complexity for those reporting from a diaspora perspective. This is especially amplified when diaspora journalists are assigned the role of covering a developing national crisis in their country of origin.
For diaspora journalists, the stories we cover are not just abstract news items, they are a part of our heritage, culture and identity
For example, consider my case, where I am a diaspora journalist currently tasked with narrating unfolding political news from my homeland, Pakistan, while based in the United Kingdom. This task requires reliance on distant visuals, videos, and remote sources to construct a comprehensive and cohesive narrative.
Amidst this already demanding scenario, the situation takes a dramatic turn - what has initially started as peaceful protests has turned into violent demonstrations and a strong public outcry. The toll is staggering: thousands are detained, dozens are grappling with injuries, and lives have been tragically lost.
Adding to the gravity of the situation is the fact that these events are unfolding in the very city of my birth - a place now gripped by the unsettling sight of buildings engulfed in flames and the disruption of traffic on the main roads. As I navigate this journalistic journey, a crucial question arises: What role do my personal emotions play here?
A study by Sanem Şahin at the University of Lincoln, titled: "Journalism in Conflict-Affected Societies: Professional Roles and Influences in Cyprus", identifies that during national conflicts, journalists are likely to "take sides" with their community because of patriotic sentiments that may overcome professional ones.
It defines this through the concept of identity: "Journalists’ identities are not fixed but fluid. Depending on the situation, journalists negotiate and choose which role to adopt, thus moving between identities. That is why while muted during ‘normal circumstances’ under the observance of professional rules, sheer patriotism emerges in situations in which the ‘national community’ is considered to be at risk."
As I collect sources, conduct interviews and analyse events, I am mindful of the potential risks of bias, and the delicate balance I must strike - juggling my emotional ties with staying objective.
My deep connection to my heritage could unconsciously shape my reporting, potentially distorting the truth. How do I ensure that the stories I tell remain authentic, unbiased, and meaningful, reflecting both my background and my dedication to journalism?
For diaspora journalists, the stories we are covering are not just abstract news items, they are a part of our heritage, culture and identity.
The challenge gets tougher when diaspora journalists are connected to or back one of the political parties, creating extra professional and moral dilemmas. In such a situation, Şahin states: "They become part of the conflict and find themselves having to deal with the values that are at odds with each other. On the one hand, their professional role requires them to maintain autonomy and stay neutral. On the other hand, they are members of their communities and their attachment makes it difficult to be impartial towards the conflict. In other words, journalists are in a ‘crossfire’ as they try to balance professional autonomy with pressures from political leadership and military as well as audience expectations of patriotism."
The strong emotional bonds that Pakistani diaspora members, including myself, often maintain with their homeland's politics are quite noticeable. This is especially relevant when considering their sentiments towards the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party and its charismatic chairman, Imran Khan.
Many members of the diaspora maintain close family ties back home, and these connections keep them engaged with and concerned about the political landscape. Furthermore, the PTI's focus on engaging with the diaspora and acknowledging their contributions to Pakistan's development fosters a sense of belonging and investment among overseas Pakistanis. This acknowledgement of their importance strengthens the emotional ties they have towards the party.
However, following the outbreak of violent clashes across Pakistan on May 9, 2023, triggered by the arrest of Imran Khan, also the country’s former Prime Minister, The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in Islamabad increased its monitoring of the Pakistani diaspora.
In a statement issued by the FIA, members of the diaspora were urged to refrain from inciting unrest in Pakistan. They were explicitly advised that their social media content should not promote hostility or sedition, and that they must ensure their online posts remain within “legal bounds”.
Journalists are in a ‘crossfire’ as they try to balance professional autonomy with pressures from political leadership and military as well as audience expectations of patriotism
The statement further cautioned: “If they commit any offence, the red notices through Interpol can be issued to arrest them and their names can be put on the Exit Control List (ECL).” Essentially, the directive advised against openly endorsing any political party or advocating against them.
This scenario also acts as a poignant reminder of the potential consequences that can occur when personal viewpoints spill over into the journalistic responsibilities of a diaspora journalist.
The real struggle, then, is finding the balance between when to be an advocate for your home country and when to be an observer upholding a journalistic duty. Striking this balance requires several steps:
- Acknowledge your personal connection: There is a need for constant self-awareness and recognition that your strong ties to your homeland might influence how you perceive events. Being aware of this connection is the first step.
- Validate information from multiple sources: Make sure you cross-reference information and engage with diverse voices - whether they support your ideas or not. This will help you avoid a one-sided understanding of the situation.
- Reflect on your own biases: Regularly assess whether your personal feelings might be altering your interpretation of events.
- Engage with challenging opinions: Actively engage with perspectives that challenge your own. Doing so can help counteract potential biases and offer a more balanced view.
- Uphold journalistic principles: Keep in mind your role as a journalist. Your primary responsibility is to report objectively, ensuring your coverage is based on facts rather than emotions.
- Navigate ethical considerations: Strive to maintain impartiality and fairness in your reporting, regardless of your emotional connection.
- Transparent communication: If it's relevant, openly communicate your diaspora background to your audience. This transparency builds credibility and offers context for your perspective.
Overall, achieving a balance between emotion and objective reporting is an ongoing journey. There is a need to continuously evaluate approaches and adjust as necessary to ensure that coverage remains truthful and fair.
The emotional bond diaspora journalists share with their home countries, connected with personal histories and values, influenced by family legacies and historical narratives, serves as a double-edged sword. While it offers invaluable insights and cultural understanding, it raises concerns about potential bias and subjective reporting.
Diaspora journalists carry a distinctive power to amplify the voices of their homelands for global audiences. However, this power must be used responsibly and carefully, with a deep respect for the principles of journalism that go beyond geographical boundaries.
Anam Hussain is an independent journalist based between the UK and Pakistan
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance