Thursday, February 23, 2012

Syria presents ethical dilemma for peace journalists

Responsible journalists are supposed to be unbiased, to avoid advocating any agenda, and to not encourage violence—to never pour gasoline on an already blazing fire. However, the upheaval in Syria has left journalists questioning the wisdom of these traditional beliefs.

Syria, and revolts last year during the Arab Spring, present the ultimate conundrum for a peace journalist. This breed of journalist is dedicated to giving peacemakers a voice, avoiding inflammatory language and sensational images, and framing stories so that they do not encourage violence. In the case of Syria, however, even a peace journalist would have to acknowledge that violence, even war, may be the only way to stop Assad’s murderous regime.

So, under the circumstances, can a journalist, and especially a peace journalist, sleep well at night knowing that their coverage may be galvanizing the world to take up arms against Assad and his thugs? Does a peace journalist stop being a peace journalist if he is encouraging violence, no matter how well intentioned?

One answer might come from an examination of coverage from CNN and particularly Anderson Cooper’s show, AC360. The program has featured a number of sensational, brutal, bloody images from Syria during the last several weeks. One evocative image was a video aired earlier this week of a 2-year old boy who was wounded by shrapnel. The boy’s family attempted to treat him at a make-shift hospital, only to have him die in his wailing father’s arms. It was hard to watch the video without tearing up.

Later on that same show, Cooper openly labeled Assad and his regime liars for claiming that they were not attacking their own people.

These statements and images have been packaged with a very unambiguous agenda in mind. That agenda—to put pressure on the international community to act against the Assad regime.

The Syrian government, through its Syrian Arab News Agency, has released several propaganda pieces decrying what is says is the Western media’s biased agenda. One such article on the agency’s website said, “Political commentator Jonathan Steele criticized in an article in the British Guardian newspaper the foreign media coverage of the events taking place in Syria, accusing it of bias and suppressing the facts that "go against the dominant narrative about the Syrian crisis". Steele, the Guardian's former international affairs correspondent, said the western media coverage has turned into "a propaganda weapon" against Syria as all the key issues related to the popularity of President Bashar al-Assad, the Arab League observer mission and the US military involvement have been "distorted in the west's propaganda war…Most Syrians back President Assad, but you'd never know from western media." (SANA, Jan. 18, 2012)

Of course, this is transparent propaganda. Yet, a perusal of the BBC, New York Times, and CNN would confirm the propagandists’ central point—that the agenda of the Western media is unquestionably anti-Assad.

So, is the anti-Assad agenda undesirable, at least in terms of journalistic ethics?
In Journalism Ethics 101, we were told that we must always report from a coldly objective standpoint. Certainly, if anything we ever wrote revealed a bias or agenda, we were chastised by the old-school guardians of the profession. If those gnarly old-schoolers were still around, they would undoubtedly admonish CNN and Cooper for straying from “the facts” and not balancing each report with a Syrian response, even if that Syrian response consists of bold lies wrapped in jingoistic propaganda.

The old-schoolers are wrong. Since “the facts” are often in dispute, a journalist’s role is to sort through all the data and propaganda and decide what information one’s viewers and readers need to formulate an educated opinion about the subject.

On her last on-air interview a few hours before she was killed in Homs, journalist Marie Colvin and Anderson Cooper discussed their misgivings about coverage of the crisis in Syria. Cooper asked Colvin if she thought the bloody, inflammatory coverage was a necessary evil. Colvin replied emphatically that the coverage was vitally important so that the world could know and understand what’s happening to Syrians. Colvin died convinced that she and her colleagues in Syria were serving a greater good.

Colvin was right. The aggressive anti-Assad media agenda does serves a higher purpose—one designed to shorten and eventually end the suffering of the Syrian people. Feeding this agenda should make journalists, and particularly those dedicated to peace journalism, uncomfortable. Yet, the alternative—Homs ceaselessly burning and bleeding—is unthinkable.

--Follow me on Twitter @PeaceJourn --

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