Ten years after the report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which had framed the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) the question of the role of the media in covering crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide, is still contentious among journalists.
Indeed, although they would not like to be seen as soulless cynics when faced with the worst of crimes, many journalists pretend to keep their distance and evoke standards of impartiality and neutrality. “We have no dogs in most of these fights”, such runs the slogan behind the journalistic practice.
No dogs in these fights?
We don’t? This Pontius Pilate approach misconstrues the mission and the reality of journalism. Journalism in fact has a long tradition of taking sides. Of course “partisan journalism” was marred by indignity when it led reporters and editors to support tyrants and hide facts, like New York Times Moscow correspondent William Duranty who minimized Stalin’s atrocities and in particular the Ukraine famine.
Other journalists however sit on the highest throne of the profession in large part because they warned the world about the rise of mass murderers and took the defense of victims of oppression. Like Ed Murrow who as CBS News London correspondent during the German bombing Blitz in 1940-41 campaigned in favor of the U.S. intervention on the side of the British. Or Albert Londres, the roving correspondent who struggled to have the French government close the infamous Guyana prison, exposed the miserable fate of Jews in the shtetels of Central Europe, denounced the trafficking of European women towards Argentina…and gave his name to the most prestigious prize in French journalism.
Michael Ignatieff, in fact, did not mean that journalists should be crusaders or advocates. He just meant that the media play a role in these discussions that may lead to passivity, reaction and even military-humanitarian intervention. It is also on the basis of news reporting and opinion writing that statesmen and the top military brass partly assess their options and decide policies. They know that media reporting of military-humanitarian interventions conditions in part their success or failure in justifying their choices and implementing them.
Journalists in other words, even if they see themselves as witnesses and observers, are “dogs in these fights”. Their decision to cover a story or not determines the attention that a crisis will be given in policy circles. Their capacity to report rigorously and thoroughly is a crucial factor in the complex set of factors conditioning the intervention.
There is an ethical dimension to the discussion. Confronted with the worst crimes journalists have a “responsibility to report” . It is a moral duty that engages their personal understanding of good and evil. It is also a professional duty since journalists are expected, in the famous words of the 1947 Hutchins Commission on a Free and Responsible Press, to present a truthful representation of the events of the day.
Where was the press?
In many cases journalists have failed to uphold these standards. In the early 1990s they neglected the warnings of human rights monitors about the impending catastrophe in Rwanda and in 1994 they under-covered the genocide. In the next decade while everyone had pledged “never again” most journalists waited up to one year before seriously reporting on the violence of the Sudanese army and its Janjaweed militias in Darfur .
The crisis of the media industry does not exempt journalists from assuming that responsibility. It is true that in too many media outlets international journalism has been downsized leaving a reduced news-hole that only accepts the hot news of the day. But there are ways to get around these limitations: by using the unlimited potential of the Web, by participating in global reporting initiatives offered by organizations like the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting or linking up with NGOs and think tanks that have developed their own reporting capacity, like Human Rights Watch or the International Crisis Group. Representatives of these organizations were present at the New York meeting and they underlined the need to think "out of the box" when it comes to cover stories of immense importance, like mass murder or genocide.
An existential responsibility
Media professionals, however, should also resume the old discussion on objectivity and commitment. A starting point could be the doctrine of existential journalism whereby in the words of Swiss professor of ethics Daniel Cornu “the journalist as an individual, wherever he stands in the chain of information, remains the seat of moral intuition, refusing to be a mere functional cog in a system whose objectives and mechanisms dominate him/her in order to be the agent who is responsible of the information that he/she delivers” .
As another contribution to the debate we would like to refer to Ed Murrow. In a great book on Murrow’s role during the Second World War acclaimed author Philip Seib provides a set of penetrating reflections on “committed journalism”.
Murrow did everything to engage his public and bring him close to the tragedy that he was reporting on. According to Archibald MacLeish who made a tribute to Murrow’s work, “over the period of your months in London you destroyed in the minds of many men and women in this country the superstition that what is done beyond three thousand miles of water is not really done at all; the ignorant superstition that violence and lies and murder on another continent are not violence and lies and murder here. You burned the city of London in our houses and we felt the flames that burned it. You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew he dead were our dead, were all men’s dead, were mankind’s dead and ours”.
Reporting or leading?
“Was that ethical?, asks Philip Seib. “Objectivity and detachment have been carved in stone as standards for journalists, he answers, but Murrow believed that such ideals should not be allowed to impede his ability to deliver the core truth that lay beneath the surface of the news. That truth was grounded in his belief that his country –his fellow citizens- had an obligation to stand up to a horrible evil and stop it from sweeping across the world.
He thought that in extraordinary times professional responsibility need to be redefined…As a matter of conventional journalistic ethics Murrow’s choices might be challenged, but history has justified his actions: he was right about Hitler’s menace.
America’s global role continue to be debated….The propriety of armed intervention is likewise still debated while the world watches evil that may not be as reaching as was Nazi Germany but has nonetheless proved lethal to millions in central Africa, the Balkans.
Sometimes the powerful must act, and to ensure that they do journalists should never hesitate to jab the world’s conscience and show why timely, forceful measures are essential. Murrow did not just report. He led”..
"The Responsibility to Report : A New Journalistic Paradigm”, by Allan Thompson, in The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, Pluto Press, London, 2007.
Mobilizing the Will to Intervene: Leadership to Prevent Mass Atrocities, by Frank Chalk, Romeo Dallaire, Kyle Matthews, Carla Barqueiro and Simon Doyle, McGill Queens University Press, 2010.
Fighting For Darfur. Public Action and the Struggle to Stop Genocide, by Rebecca Hamilton (who was on our New York panel), Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2011.
Journalisme et Vérité, by Daniel Cornu, Labor et Fides, Genève, 1994.
Broadcasts from the Blitz: How Edward R. Murrow Helped Lead America into War, by Philip Seib, Potomax Books, 2007.