The Fine Line Between Journalism and Exploitation

Covering war and atrocity is necessary. But all too often it can feel like a secondary form of abuse of the traumatized

The Fine Line Between Journalism and Exploitation
Colleagues react as the corpse of veteran Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is brought to the offices of the news channel in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on May 11, 2022 / Abbas Momani / Pool / AFP via Getty Images

This piece was originally published in New Lines magazine’s Just Landed newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

As I wrapped up this issue of the newsletter, I received the tragic news of Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing at the hands of Israeli forces while she was doing her job, reporting on Israeli incursions in Jenin. She was shot in the head despite wearing a flak jacket with the word “PRESS” on it. In committing this awful murder, Israel continues its streak of summary killings in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and many international media outlets continue to rely on vague terms and obfuscation, going out of their way not to point fingers at Israel, as is often the case. Only when someone is shot dead in cold blood by Israeli forces do they “die while reporting” or get “killed during clashes.” An upcoming newsletter will discuss this devastating loss for Shireen’s family, colleagues and journalism as a whole, in addition to that dangerous trope in reporting on Israel’s crimes in international media.

Scene I: Out of smoke and rubble, a Middle Eastern woman in her 50s, wearing a long coat and a headscarf, hurries out, wailing and screaming for divine help as she repeatedly slaps herself on the face with both hands.

Scene II: Sitting on a sidewalk seemingly unaware of the hustle and bustle around him, a mustachioed man in his 70s or 80s wearing a red-and-white keffiyeh and a gray galabieh sheds a tear as his vocal cords fail him.

Having grown up watching televised reports from countries such as Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and later Syria, I can close my eyes and conjure thousands of stereotypical images like these — I daresay that many of you can, too. I also contributed to the construction of those images in the minds of others when I worked as a journalist.

These are powerful images. The ability of some to remember them years later is proof of that. To produce truthful and powerful images is part of the job of any journalist, not just those working in broadcast media. But I have always had some questions about the practice, especially when I started working as a journalist and found that journalists could often be insensitive to those whom they are reporting on during very serious moments of pain and loss.

From cameras pointed at a parent who had just lost their child in a violent attack on their neighborhood — before that parent even got a moment to understand what had just happened — to microphones pointed at another as they climb out of the rubble of their own home, not knowing what harm had befallen them, their spouse and their children, while looking back at their home that had just been reduced to nothing.

How far can we go in intruding upon the misery of someone who has just gone through a tragic event? Is it always OK for us to rush to accept someone’s consent to be filmed or recorded when they have just been through a tremendous shock? Do we really need to create a certain atmosphere and continue to rephrase questions until we get the emotional response we are hoping to capture on camera to make the report more powerful?

I think that, almost all the time, this is done in good faith: A TV correspondent may want those who are watching the report from the peace and comfort of their home to see how it feels for a fellow human to have just lost theirs in a moment after an airstrike on a residential area. They want the families sitting together around the screen to be aware that this is a privilege someone has just been deprived of, perhaps after a tragic terrorist attack.

This also has an undeniable effect. We have seen it in Syria and Palestine, and we can see it now with the war on Ukraine. The emotional response triggered in many of those who are moved by the reports they watch or listen to can prompt them to take action: help out refugees, send money, pressure their governments to do more to help put an end to the suffering, to name a few.

In a previous issue of this newsletter that dealt with the disturbing comments of some reporters who drew unkind comparisons between the “relatively civilized Ukraine,” rather than Iraq or Afghanistan, reminding them that this tragedy is not unfolding in “a developing third world nation: This is Europe,” I argued then that this could also have been, more or less, accidentally racist. This was definitely not an attempt to justify those comments, but simply an observation that the reporters were trying to evoke a certain level of empathy with their main audiences, whether in France, the U.K., the U.S. or elsewhere.

Journalists have to push and insist until they get what they want; I completely agree with that when it comes to information or comments one needs to extract from, say, a politician or a businessperson. But does it have to be the same for someone who, moments ago, lost a home, a loved one or a limb?

I’m not aiming my spear at fellow journalists here. I have been part of this in the past, too. I remember incessantly calling the children of a loving father and a peaceful activist who had just been assassinated for a comment on an article I was co-writing. One of them wanted to speak, tried to, but could not bring himself to do it.

That was for a newspaper. I find that this issue is more prevalent in TV than in other types of media. There are many challenges to being a TV correspondent, field producer or cameraperson that those who work in print journalism do not have to face.

Rather than merely having to find a source, persuade them to speak to you, then have a conversation with them in person or over the phone, you have to worry about other aspects of the job. Are they standing in the best possible position for this location? Are they against the best backdrop? Does the audio work well? Can they stand aside for a second and endure an argument between the cameraperson and the producer about a technical issue? Can the interviewee, albeit a very knowledgeable person and a useful source, speak concisely and clearly to give a sound bite that could be used? Are they happy to pretend that they are having a conversation with the journalist, notwithstanding the inability of one to understand the other, as they walk side by side, gesticulating while their interlocutor nods, for the sake of a cutaway shot? And so on.

But the choices of what to do when faced with the suffering of others are a bit more complicated. I had my own experiences with this in Syria, and to a lesser extent in Lebanon, when I worked as a local producer for foreign TV crews. I have been advised to phrase my questions in a certain way, connect with the interviewee on a certain level to evoke a response from them, not just in elaborate wording. “Could you ask him again about the loss of his son?” I remember being told repeatedly despite having addressed it with the interviewee; but he was not being emotional enough.

There was even a time when we witnessed an explosion and then followed the cars and ambulances carrying the wounded to the nearest hospital. A nine-year-old girl who had been on the balcony when the blast happened was mortally wounded, and her mother was in a delirious state. The last thing she may have wanted at that moment was exactly what she got: a camera and a microphone repeatedly shoved in her face. This may have been the first time I started to wonder whether this is a good thing for us to be doing.

I do not have answers to the questions I pose in this newsletter. I think that as we try to figure this one out, it is important to weigh the amount of shock a person has just endured against what we want to expose in our coverage, and consider alternatives to doing that if there is the slightest possibility that their consent to be interviewed is caused by a momentary state they might later regret, especially if they say something that would put them in danger in police states.

As for the attempts to force emotions out of people, this should no longer be practiced. Efforts to awaken compassion in audiences should not be pursued through means of creating sentiment-evoking material in a manner that itself lacks compassion.

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