Journalist are trained, supposedly, to report the facts and not pass value judgments on the news.
If a person says, “I’m against this war,” we (well, I’m really no longer part of the “we”) are supposed to report that fact. “John Smith is against the war, he said.” Reporters shouldn’t write, “While John Smith says he is against the war, we don’t really know if that what he truly believes.”
Of course, there are whole seminar courses in J-schools on “What is Objectivity.” It’s as much a philosophical discussion and a vocational one. One man’s objectivity is another man’s bias.
I think by and large, most professional reporters do their best to provide straightforward, honest news coverage. The biases that sneak in are more a product of the natural tendency to see the world through the indoctrination of one’s own background than a conscious effort to distort. News reporting is about choosing which facts are the most important, and that is, at the end of the day, a value judgment, and no value judgment is made in a vacuum.
That being said, journalist covering dictatorships have some real hard ethical questions they need to answer.
Much has been made of the CNN dust up and the admission that the cable network compromised its news coverage of Iraq in order to ensure it had a presence in Baghdad.
That is a glaring example of bad news judgment, where a news organization decided to sacrifice its commitment to providing truthful news coverage to its own corporate, profit-driven interest. And if you think this wasn’t a profit-driven decision by CNN, to what other end might CNN have made this compromise? A commitment to getting the news story in Baghdad? If so, it was a commitment to report a lie. No matter how truthful might have thought the individual reports in Baghdad were, each report was, in fact, a colossal lie predicated on the fact that the real truth about Saddam’s regime was being suppressed — and we were even being given a hint that it was being suppressed.
But the journalist lies told during this war do not begin and end with CNN. The lies were many and manifold. As Dean Esmay points out (via Instapundit), Nick Kristof told a whopper that was only slightly mitigated by his later disclaimers in his column.
The NYT summary (column now only available for payment of an archive fee):
ABSTRACT – Nicholas D Kristof column says he has concluded from interviews with scores of ordinary people in Iraq that Iraqis dislike and distrust Saddam Hussein, but they hate United States even more and are even more distrustful of American intentions; says while he found few people willing to fight for Hussein, he encountered plenty of nationalists willing to defend Iraq against Yankee invaders; says if Saddam thinks average Iraqi is going to miss him, he is deluded, but if Pres Bush thinks invasion and occupation will go smoothly because Iraqis will welcome Americans, then he too is deluded …
As we now know, the opposition to the U.S. led invasion was, among the general Iraqi population, shallow at best. In the same column, Kristof admits that the people he talked to were forbidden to talk freely.
Kristof was not the only journalist to fall into this trap. In the weeks leading up to the war, there were several news accounts with quotes from Iraqis — we don’t want this war; we hate Bush; we hate Americans, etc. I took each of those reports with a grain of salt, knowing that no Iraqi had the freedom to say, “Come and rescue us, please,” which we know now was the prevailing sentiment of the Iraqi people. But I also saw anti-war leftists propping up their ludicrous anti-war arguments with statements about how we wouldn’t be greeted as liberators, how the Iraqi people loved Saddam Hussein and what folly it was to think our soldiers would be hailed with flowers and hugs.
Clearly, the anti-war propaganda the media handed to Saddam Hussein had its intended effect — to confuse the debate and give ammo to his supporters in the anti-war crowd.
So my question is, if the people living in a dictatorship are unable to freely speak their mind, what good does it do to even report their remarks? Even if you provide a disclaimer that your sources are being monitored by men who will kill them if they misspeak, is it ethical to even quote these people?
What, after all, is the news value in quotes and opinions from people who have no chance of saying what they really think?
Clearly, remarks given under duress are of no news value. The real news of such an interview is that the person was unable to speak freely because of retribution that would be sure and swift if he did.
Reporters covering dictatorships need to realize that the higher ethical calling is not to parrot the regime’s line, but to either insist on providing the unvarnished truth or get out of the country. To report only what a dictator wishes is not news; it is, instead, turning such controled news organizations into the puppets of monsters.