'Memory gaps': Conflict reporting, access and activism

Amid restricted access and an increasingly polarised environment, the challenges and nature of reporting are changing.

    There is much diversity in modern journalism, but it often comes with little depth, analysts say [Reuters]
    There is much diversity in modern journalism, but it often comes with little depth, analysts say [Reuters]

    Anyone who has paid their dues to field reporting would recognise Ryszard Kapuscinski's knack for encapsulating historical events in the fewest possible words.

    As the first ever Africa correspondent for Poland's state news, Kapuscinski was sent to cover the series of coups that swept the continent in the 1950s and 60s, heralding the end of the colonial era. His dispatches from Uganda, Liberia, and Rwanda have become pearls of documentation.

    Kapuscinski was among "the first oral historians on the scene, reporting history as it occur[red]", said historian Eugene Rogan, referring to the role of journalists. Speaking to Al Jazeera, Rogan, who teaches modern history of the Middle East at Oxford University, explained that "journalists' notebooks are often the best sources on the individual's experience of great events … the first draft of history".

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    In this sense, the longevity of Kapuscinski's work, which has become pertinent in contextualising re-kindling conflicts and ensuing displacement in today's Africa, is due in particular to the time he spent on the ground.

    While reporters' dispatches during the two world wars and Vietnam were certainly filled with subjective impressions, their lengthy expeditions allowed space for depth and context. Such punctilious narratives were not born out of criss-crossing through the continent, as expected of later generations of journalists who would fly into and out of expedited reporting missions to provide transitory snapshots of complex situations.

    Rapid digitisation in the 1990s and ever-evolving access to new reporting methods have equipped journalists with new tools and greater speeds of delivery - culminating in live and wire reports. Today, we enjoy unrivalled levels of diversity when it comes to the type of media that audiences can consume.

    From immersive storytelling that transports us to faraway locations through virtual reality, to palatable snippets of news events, the types of platform that exist online have been out beaten by every succeeding year of the past decade. Yet news reporting has become ephemeral and repetitive in equal measure, according to veteran reporters who lament the "CNN effect".

    There is a great deal of diversity in modern journalism, but it often comes with little depth.

    Al Jazeera spoke to war correspondents, media analysts and historians who discussed the impediments to "presenting the full picture" in conflict reporting, the prevalent notions of "neutrality", the challenges of fact-checking, access and safety, and how these elements have changed over the past decades.

    READ MORE: How to fight 'fake news' in a post-truth environment

    Given their physical and emotional proximity to the events, it is important for journalists "to pull the camera back and widen their aperture to the politics of the place, instead of getting buried in the 'colour' of the context," according to Vijay Prashad, a historian based at Trinity College in Connecticut, and an independent journalist covering global current affairs. "Without understanding the topography of power, you flatten the conversation," he told Al Jazeera.

    The "historical and sociological context of the intervening powers" is crucial for well-informed conflict reporting, said Prashad, adding that the whole premise of journalism should be to "help readers understand complex, fast-moving current events", rather than regurgitating the same first-hand accounts.

    Packaging complex experiences of people and places at conflict to fit "the narrow confines of ideologies" has reduced the conversations needed to rehabilitate their societies, according to Beirut-based author and journalist Lina Mounzer.

    "With information coming at us so fast that we need it broken up into byte-sized pieces to be able to digest quickly ... this [black and white imagery] is particularly deadly," said Mounzer, who was presenting her research on Syria at the American University when she spoke to Al Jazeera.

    Adding to the woes of writing for increasingly abbreviated attention spans, restrictions to access and verifiable information have made reporters on the frontlines and their editors in the newsrooms susceptible to propaganda. Amid the cacophony of social media alerts, conflicts such as those in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Sudan have been stoked by parallel propaganda wars amid news outlets.

    A civilian walks along a street during a dust storm in the northern Syrian town of al-Bab, March 10, 2017 [Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]

    A combination of monopolised media ownership, "shelf-lived" reporting, geographical bias, partisan views, technological dependency, and a fierce competition to be "first on the scene" have created toxic environments in the news industry.

    The constant pressure to "deliver" has made in-depth, informed reporting often untenable. Time constraints, restricted access and over-reliance on local advocacy groups have led to increasingly de-contextualised reports that resonate in a common echo chamber. Journalists and their media outlets have been guilty of forming polarised alliances based on the likenesses between their stories and antagonising those with opposing views.

    Moral myopia

    "There is something tantalising about the horrificness of evil," Syrian-American journalist Alia Malek said in a video interview with Vox News, referring to the global media responses to the recent chemical attacks in Syria and the reactive US military strikes on the country. "It is interesting why we object to the methods of slaughter versus the overall slaughter," the reporter and civil rights lawyer added.

    A careful look at the words we use would highlight the [bias] problem well: In Iraq, there is a 'government' and 'militants' or 'insurgents.' In Syria, we have a 'regime' and 'rebels'

    Nabih Bulos, reporter for the LA Times

    Seven years into an unrelenting war, Syria climbed back to the front pages of major publications on the premise that sarin gas, a nerve agent, deemed a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD), was used by the Syrian government in Idlib province. But it appears that political geography - how states and allies view their political roles based on their location, aspirations and timing - has dictated the coverage of events.

    Pending confirmation from the UN on whether the chemical agent was indeed sarin gas, the media reported heavily on US air attacks in Syria that were quickly followed by the use of the largest non-nuclear bomb in Afghanistan, purportedly targeting an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) base there.

    "Under the protection of God, the US will use the mother of all bombs to get rid of ISIS," President Donald Trump announced, with unabashed self-righteousness, according to the Real New Network.

    While the "right course of American action" in response to the use of chemical weapons centred the debate in the US, journalists based in Beirut and the region surrounding Syria surmised about the use of sarin and whether it warranted more outrage than the numerous deaths caused by other forms of conflict.

    Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch pointed out in its latest report published on May 1 that nerve agents have been systematically used by Syrian government forces.

    The "moral fervour" around recent Syria coverage is disproportionate when taking into account the past four years of aerial bombardment, according to Nabih Bulos, a reporter for the LA Times who has been covering Syria and Iraq since 2012.

    There is also a tendency in conflict reporting to assume differences between "their violence v our violence, rational v irrational violence, savage violence v civilised violence," anthropologist Isaac Blacksin told Al Jazeera.

    Without clarity from Washington on whether the recent US attacks on President Assad's military will be the only ones, and a lack of similar levels of condemnation of the use of barrel bombs and previous uses of chemical weapons, reporting on Syria has been disjointed and based on presuppositions, according to some journalists.

    "A careful look at the words we use would highlight the [bias] problem well: In Iraq, there is a 'government' and 'militants' or 'insurgents'. In Syria, we have a 'regime' and 'rebels'," added Bulos.

    A healthy dose of scepticism is important when reacting to government claims, Prashad pointed out.

    "Being in the US at the moment I find it curious that journalists like those from The Washington Post write the details of the Pentagon's press release about the attacks as straight facts. There is no suspicion or making links between the bombing in Afghanistan and Syria in terms of the nature of American interests," he said.

    Based between the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the American University of Beirut, Blacksin, who has interviewed journalists for his PhD on the politics of foreign correspondence in the Middle East, says that it is natural for journalists to use "right and wrong" and "victim and perpetrator" binaries in their reporting, provided they see the "porousness of their boundaries".

    Such subjectivity "should be engaged rather than repressed … but also contextualised with political analysis that is historically determined, politically situated and culturally contingent," said Blacksin.

    In this sense, journalistic integrity is compromised not because of the presence of subjective views, but when those views become the entire story while sidelining other emerging realities that counter the dominant narrative.

     WATCH: How the US media reacted to Trump's Syria attack (25:00)

    'It's about the historical context, stupid!'

    Borrowing from the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid!" - coined by Bill Clinton's campaigners in 1992 to oust George H W Bush a year after his decision to invade Iraq - context is often the first casualty of parachute journalism.

    Americans want things solved quickly, and we like a stark good-bad dichotomy in the story line

    Repps Hudson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist

    For instance, despite reprimanding Bush senior over the 1991 Iraq War, Clinton's administration oversaw a "quiet war" of its own in the late 1990s that set the stage for the junior Bush's 2003 invasion.

    The US war in and on Iraq never fully ended after it began in 1991. Yet over time, most media developed a contextual myopia towards the overarching reality, and cited the 2003 invasion of Baghdad as a fresh start of US military attacks in Iraq.

    The nucleus of contextualised war reporting lies in the recent and distant history of the region waging war and the region experiencing war, according to Repps Hudson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who served in the Vietnam War and later reported on the country.

    "Americans want things solved quickly, and we like a stark good-bad dichotomy in the storyline. We understood so little about Vietnam's very long history of resisting foreign occupation, whether by the Chinese for 1,000 years, or the French, or us," said Hudson, who is also an adjunct professor of journalism at Washington University in St Louis.

    Similarly, the US government's lack of appreciation for Iraq's relations with its neighbours well before they became nation-states, and the Bush administration's "impatient view of history", according to Hudson, created tectonic shifts in the region's political alliances. The media towed the government's shortsightedness in the pre-war and initial invasion period.

    A majority of Western media played an active role in perpetuating the "myth of humanitarian intervention" in Iraq, according to Howard Friel and Richard Falk, who wrote The Record of the Paper. The authors argue that by accepting the narrative of the "global threat of the WMD", Western media blindly rallied to the government's call for imminent action in Iraq.

    For instance, the authors write, The New York Times failed to mention the terms "international law" and "UN Charter" in any of its 70 editorials between the September 11 attacks and the US invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

    "Many Americans fundamentally want to be isolationists, and not the 'world's policeman'" is a view that is often missing in media coverage, according to Hudson.

    Also citing the Iraq WMD example, Bulos said that reporters should be more cognisant of the "fiction that can be fabricated" if they do not actively "seek out coverage that contradicts what they have heard and assess its veracity".

    The 2003 Iraq War and the ensuing decade of fighting and patronising different political actors and armed groups awakened historic rivalries, and created even more volatile geopolitics.

    READ MORE: Fake news 'symptomatic of crisis in journalism'

    Covering the realignment of political, social and religious identities across Iraq's borders is more important than ever. But, while contextualising the sectarian-identity rifts in the region through history, journalists should avoid blanket fallacies such as overt Sunni-Shia hostilities being "timeless", Rogan pointed out.

    "As someone who has lived in or travelled through the region continuously since 1971, I am struck by how modern the phenomenon is," he said, adding that the 2003 invasion of Iraq "destabilised Gulf politics and Sunni-Shia relations in the Arab world in very direct ways".

    Pointing to the latest coverage of the US bombing in Afghanistan, "do people even know that there are tens of thousands of civilians who live in the area that was bombed?" asked Prashad. "Are people aware that the tunnel complexes that were attacked were built by Osama bin Laden and the CIA to facilitate the Mujahideen in the war against the Afghan government and the Soviets?"

    While Prashad emphasised the importance of navigating local realities through a wider geopolitical lens, Bulos pointed to the importance of being intimately familiar with the terrain and languages to form a nuanced picture.

     WATCH: Media mea culpa and the Iraq war (25:00) 

    Filling the memory gaps

    Decades after the likes of Kapuscinski set new precedents in war correspondence, several conflicts in Africa went unreported. The Congo civil war that claimed 5.4 million lives, the world's deadliest conflict since World War II, received little coverage. Congo was not forgotten, it was ignored, according to Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a media watch group that explored the prioritisation of the Darfur "genocide" over the "poverty" war in Congo during the early to mid-2000s.

    Such disproportionate conflict coverage has rendered certain wars "globally important' while relegating others to the margins. When violence re-erupted in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, last year, the chronic lapses of media attention had already created memory gaps.

    But outlets such as News Deeply which create platforms dedicated to specific themes and countries claim to challenge the conventional news cycles by filling the narrative gaps and consistently covering their topics.

    "Syria Deeply was well-placed to make connections between what happened over April in Syria [with chemical attacks and air strikes] and the past few years of conflict. For example, it was because of daily coverage that we saw ISIS creeping across the Syrian landscape, even before the takeover of Mosul," Lara Setrakian, the company's founder, told Al Jazeera.

    During the first two years of the Syrian conflict when there was virtually no coverage in the mainstream American press, Setrakian says she decided to cover the country around the clock, especially on all the "other days when things go quiet".

    But in most conflicts today, journalists have been directly targeted, making access difficult to impossible. Amid an information vacuum, local advocacy groups have played an enhanced role in conveying "ground realities".

    "There is definitely a category of content coming out of Syria that is a result of media activism. In fact, the term itself started in the Syrian conflict," said Setrakian, adding that editors should gauge the issue of restricted access to government-held areas in comparison to the opposition ones, while diligently coaching local reporters to follow journalistic norms and at the same time being open about their sources.

    While Prashad finds a strict divide between advocacy and neutrality "unsustainable", he believes that reporters should better explain the facts behind their strong opinions, while disclosing the limitations of their access.

    Beyond the battlefields

    A point where both media critics and journalists increasingly converge is when there is more to conflict reporting than the frontlines of the battlefields. The deeper causes of strife are often found within the non-armed segments of conflict zones.

    Johan Galtung, a Norwegian sociologist who founded the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, explored a key part of understanding conflict: structural violence. He examined how "the political, economic, religious, cultural or legal restrictions placed on the citizens of a country", often by the state, but also other political actors, create deep divides, inequalities and rivalries.

    For a cessation of hostilities to become a reality, whether in Syria or South Sudan, Galtung would have thought that the prevailing structures of violence must be dismantled. Such a process is bound to be fraught with competing interests and differing views, but it is essential for journalism to keep the conversation alive, while presenting a spectrum of ideas and not just the ones that are agreeable to them.

    The goal, after all, should be to present multiplicity in voices to explore how civilians can return to peace, according to Mounzer.

    READ MORE: Is the media being played?

    The fragmentation we see in the cities and villages experiencing conflict - from identity divides between neighbourhoods to frayed community structures - must be negotiated to lay the ground for reconstruction. But such socially focused reporting is challenging because it requires exploring violence as a systemic and systematic reality, rather than holding one single, direct, personal actor accountable.

    All of the interviewees reiterated that the only way journalists can avoid propagating one view over another is by avoiding the "herd mentality".

    "I learned journalism the old-fashioned way. You arrive at a location, you learn what is going on and then calibrate the gap between the official account and the kaleidoscope of popular stories," Prashad said.

    Part of the onus is also on the reader, according to Mounzer. When people ask her what to read about Syria, Mounzer's answer is to "read with the awareness that you have to find a way to let the stories change you, rather than you changing them to fit your own preconceived ideas".

    With YouTube and WhatsApp becoming important contact points for journalists - making them secondhand witnesses to conflicts - transparency about the sources of access and acknowledging their limitations are essential to the storytelling.

    "Everyone may be lying, but the war is real," Alessandria Masi, managing editor at Syria Deeply, says about reporting the Syrian conflict without being inside the country, in this year's opening chapter of Attacks Against the Press.

    "Being denied the ability to observe circumstances first-hand means that our necessary circumspection and caution, and our desire to remain unbiased, become a form of censorship, too," she adds.

    Disclosure: The author is the founding editor at Refugees Deeply, part of the News Deeply organisation.

    Follow Preethi Nallu on Twitter: @Preethi_Nallu

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News



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