Recently, I listened to two BBC journalists in separate events discuss their experiences in the media and in war zones.
On disaster reporting, Jon Sopel spoke bluntly of the media’s role in war zones. How passive can we afford to be? What are the limits of reporting?
We know about our role in nature – we do not intervene; we let the antelope die. But what about when the antelope is a living, breathing person? When the only fundamental difference is that we had the good fortune to be born into a country without famine and war?
Razia Iqbal emphasised these same points on ethics and morals. She shared her story behind the decision to move from being a foreign correspondent (bullets and bombs) to being an arts correspondent (no bullets, no bombs). “Is any story worth your life?” she asked.
In war zones, there is a delicate balance for aid agencies when it comes to doing good and doing harm. And in many post-conflict societies, there is the so-called white saviour complex where the ego of the provider (i.e. the saviour) is assumed to be more important than the actual needs of the recipient.
Reporting is similarly nuanced, of course. It is so important for stories to be told, especially when they are awful. Action happens when injustice is recorded, documented, and exposed. After showing a graphic clip of victims of chemical weapons, Sopel stated very simply: “I’m sorry if that was horrible. War is horrible.”
There was a lot of rumination, and this is a problem in disaster reporting that cannot be “fixed”. It will always be dangerous but how can mitigate risk? Where does the buck stop when it comes to getting the story? Are these reported stories truthful and have they been reported on with integrity? When does reporting end and helping start? What is done (or not done) to the people who are being reported on — are they humanised? Was their autonomy and agency stripped?