Working the warzones

The Frontline Club may have been away from home territory when it ventured to New York last month, but the spirit of debate that has come to characterise its London events made the trans-Atlantic trip admirably.

About 200 people gathered at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Arena on Nov 13 for a vigorous debate on the theme: Is it over for frontline reporting? The audience were treated to the thoughts of Robert Fisk, Ron Haviv, Francesca Unsworth, Chuck Lustig, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and John Owen.

Each had a say about the current and future state of frontline reporting and the presence and actions of western journalists in the world’s various danger zones. In true Frontline tradition, the panelists engaged in heated discussion and took tough questions from a captive and vocal audience.

They discussed the difficulties in determining news agendas, prioritizing and budgeting, attracting younger news consumers, the growth of the blogosphere, and the need to challenge authority by bringing accountability to those in power. With the Iraqi war as the backdrop, Fisk, who has spent more than three decades in the Middle East, opened the debate. He said: “It shouldn’t be over. But I think that one of the major problems we have now is reporters.”

 “We give the impression to our viewers, readers, and listeners that we have this kind of tour d’horizon, that we can walk around and check out a bombing and find out how many Americans have been killed by terrorists, but we can’t.”

The panelists seemed to agree that this is a result of problems with access to sources and security, both of which are challenges that Fisk said he has little patience for.

“The fact that we accept the expression ’embedded’ says a lot about modern journalism,” he said. “I don’t object to the fact that journalists have to live this way, they have insurance problems, marriages, and children, but what I do object to is that they don’t tell you that they have these restrictions.”

The floor was then turned over to Unsworth who said that while she took exception to some of what Fisk said, there was also some truth in his words. “I agree that if we’re not telling stories of ordinary people then we’re not doing our job properly,” said Unsworth.

“Where I depart is in that Western news organizations are still telling the stories of ordinary people. I’m not saying it’s easy and I’m not saying its restricted in terms of what we do, but we are telling these stories.”

Unsworth said that while there are challenges in travelling to areas outside Baghdad, embedding with the military has facilitated the reporting of local stories that would have otherwise gone untold. “We would love to wander around and talk to ordinary Iraqis, but unfortunately that’s not possible. What we are attempting to do is surely better than nothing,” she said, adding that embedding can reveal important information about how the forces interact with the local population.

Lustig, also representing a large mainstream media organization, echoed Unsworth’s comments and said, “We make life and death decisions everyday at the news desk. There are clearly limitations to embedding, but it’s a way to bring the war home to the viewers.”

Abdul-Ahad said he agrees that embedding is limited but useful and said the whole issue boils down to access. “Some of us are fortunate to have a beard and speak the language so we can go to the streets of Baghdad,” he said.

“I have a beard and (Fisk) has more than 30 years in the region, either way it’s all about access.” He then discussed the difficulties that local Iraqi journalists face, specifically the fact that these reporters have to go home at the end of the day and sometimes don’t make it.

Fisk also pointed to the fact that the death of an Iraqi journalist does not garner the same attention as the death of a Western reporter.

“One of the things we are doing more and more is we are using Lebanese journalists on the streets of Tripoli and Iraqi journalists on the streets of Baghdad. These are becoming our foot soldiers and of course, they’re considered expendable.”

The panelists discussed the idea of better utilizing local reporters already on the ground by taking advantage of the fact that there are journalists in these danger zones who have access to local stories.

While they said that it is indeed the responsibility of the reporters and their news organizations to make sound editorial decisions, Haviv said that the onus is on the consumer to help determine the news agenda and set the standards for what they will watch, listen to and read.

“I think that it’s important to say that a certain amount of responsibility lies with the people,” said Haviv. “You have such an easy ability now when it comes to the internet to actually go and be not passive acceptors of the news, but actually aggregate your own news.”

Whether the future of frontline reporting lies with embedded journalism, the expanded use of freelance reporters, the co-opting of local journalists in a given area, or a combination of these approaches, the panelists seemed to agree that it is not over for frontline reporting.

Perhaps most importantly, the audience was vocal about their desire for quality journalism that tells the stories of ordinary people in the world’s political hot spots.