The brutal murder in the name of Islam of American reporter James Foley by a British Jihadist outlines – once again – the extreme dangers journalists, many of them freelance, now face when trying to cover the world’s conflicts and humanitarian crisis zones. But the broader remains: who is going to provide the credible reporting we all need about what’s going on in the world, and who is going to pay for it? Journalist and author Edward Girardet explores what needs to be done to keep people informed.
Geneva – While on a book tour in Missoula, Montana, about war and humanitarian reporting, I was asked by a local businessman why Congo or Afghanistan matter. Why should we care what happens in Somalia, Sri Lanka or North Africa?
“Basically, your survival – and your jobs – depend on it,” I told him. “No one can afford not to be informed today. In fact, you’d be stupid not to.” I have given up being polite, but I had also come prepared.
Driving into town, I had noticed several goods trains with up to 50 wagons of coal or copper grinding their way westwards for on-shipment to China. Montana relies heavily on chemical, mineral and agricultural exports. “What happens if the Chinese, who are seeking natural resources the world over, get better deals elsewhere, say in Afghanistan or Zamibia?” I ventured.
The same goes for wars and humanitarian crises. While they may be enriching the privileged few, such as the Robert Mugabe’s of this world or private contractors who thrive in security zones, disasters and economic collapse are generally bad for business. “Just imagine how an end to strife in Afghanistan – or between India and Pakistan – could transform the region economically. Even Montana could benefit from this,” I said.
Whether in Missoula, Manila or Nairobi, people need to grasp why climate change, food security and access to water or energy resources are among the world’s greatest threats. But they also need to understand how the whole puzzle fits together. And why, if they are really serious about receiving the right sort of credible information, they need to pay for it. That’s the bottom line.
The shooting down of Malaysian flight MH-17 has placed the Ukraine firmly in the forefront, but for all the wrong reasons. Today, no nation can afford not to be concerned. Africa, despite all its minerals and food production potential, needs to be taken more seriously with targeted investment that benefits local populations, not power elites. Otherwise, brace yourself for rising tides of migrants. The same goes for the United States and its southern neighbours with their drug wars and street gangs.
What all this comes down to is the need for more credible information. But the problem is that mainstream media are cutting back on global coverage. They are also reneging on their responsibilities to support the freelancers willing to risk their lives from the field. Part of this is financial, but also because we are dealing with a fast-changing media platform more obsessed with apps, tweets and YouTube than content.
Quality reporting has suffered. So has our ability to assess what is happening on the ground. While the BBC, Al Jazeera, Reuters and a clutch of major newspapers are still focusing on nitty-gritty newsgathering, even they are strapped for cash. Others have shut down or have given up on foreign reporting.
These means poorer media diversity, including even less informed monitoring of humanitarian crises. Quality journalism still remains the most effective means for promoting transparency in the public eye. And yet, all too many aid agencies seem more interested in fund-raising than genuinely helping victims.
Gone are the days when intrepid reporters, including adventurous young freelancers, could simply propose an idea to the foreign desk, and then head out. While a few flagship TV programmes remain, solid investigative initiatives are rare. Many, too, are based more on celebrity figures rather than dogged, on-the-ground reporting. The foreign correspondent has become a dinosaur.
All too often, “in-depth” now depends on ‘surge’ reporting of major crises. The slow-moving, peripheral stories are largely ignored. My former editor at the Christian Science Monitor used to urge me to return to the Horn of Africa or Afghanistan not because they were news, but because he felt the situations needed to be looked at. Again. For him, consistency was critical. Social media can help alert us, but they do not replace solid reporting.
Nevertheless, there is a growing emphasis on ‘cheap’ or ‘reality’ news, notably free content provided by ‘citizen’ journalists or other “voices of the people.” While their YouTube videos or blogs may stand out on multifarious websites, they cannot be considered reliable information sources. As anyone who has worked in a conflict or humanitarian czone knows, local citizens, guerrilla factions or even international aid agencies have their own agendas.
Good reporting helps determine what is credible, and what is not. Major crises are now largely covered by journalists parachuted in from New York, London or Berlin. While the more experienced journalists and producers can rely on previously acquired background to cover places like Haiti or Iraq, others lack historic or comparative context.
The end result is that many news organizations no longer have the cultivated contacts at their disposal. Even more crucial, trusted young freelancers, the initial backbone for raw reporting, can no longer survive. And yet, these are the very people prepared to take the risks to follow up on stories.
While some news organizations still encourage firstline coverage, most are reluctant to cough up on expenses. The world of journalism is constantly losing good reporters and photographers because they cannot afford to remain in the business. Or, as Tom A. Peter writes in the New Republic, he – and others – no longer consider it worth risking one’s life to cover wars. Local and regional media are equally vital to the global reporting picture, yet many lack the experience – or the editorial freedom.
Many Turkish, Jordanian or Lebanese journalists covering Syria do not fully grasp how a humanitarian operation works, or is supposed to work. Often, too, their personal risks are far higher than those of international journalists, who can leave if the going gets rough.
Given steadily eroding media cutbacks, there needs to be a complete overhaul in thinking. This includes figuring out how to pay for better foreign reporting. Good journalism does not come free. And nor should it. Some quality news organizations are doing well financially, others not.
So where should the funding come from? The BBC, NPR and other public broadcasters rely on tax contributions and sponsorship to operate. A handful of foundations such as Thomson-Reuters, Ford, Pulitzer, Pew, Center for Investigative Reporting and others also seek to back independent journalism, but their resources are limited.
Clearly, quality reporting is in the public interest, but only if it remains independent and cross-cutting. The UN agencies, NGOs and donor governments need to recognize this instead of constantly viewing journalists as a means of promoting their own PR. They could make a significant difference by providing no-strings-attached reporting support. But for this to happen, they need to push the issues, not themselves.
One approach is funding for journalism workshops and field trips on themes such as climate change, human trafficking or access to health. But such initiatives need to involve ALL players, regardless whether the UN, NGOs, donors, banks, or even the military. Michael Moller, a straight-talking Dane currently acting as interim head of the United Nations in Geneva, is pushing this as part of his “International Geneva” approach. Yet many agencies or NGOs are far behind in their thinking. They find it difficult to collaborate with each other. And there is a general aversion to have the private sector involved.
A more radical approach would be the setting up in the public interest of an international reporting fund, perhaps as part of a consortium of foundations. This would provide small, medium and large grants to journalists, producers, film-makers, photographers and new media to undertake critical and independent reporting of wars, humanitarian crises and other key themes. The money should come from donor governments, but also the aid agencies themselves as a small percentage of their operating costs.
The private sector, too, should contribute, regardless whether this includes eco-friendly, Body Shop firms or questionable corporate giants such as Philip Morris International, British-American Tobacco and Monsanto. Once donated, the funding becomes ‘laundered’ with contributors having no say whatsoever on how it is used. They would simply have the privilege of knowing that their support is helping ordinary people around the world make more informed decisions about their lives – and the future of their children.
Edward Girardet is a Geneva-based editor, journalist and author. His latest book is Killing the Cranes – A Reporter’s Journey Through Three Decades of War in Afghanistan. He is also editor of Le News, a fortnightly English-language newspaper for the Lake Geneva region, and the 4th fully-revised edition of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan published earlier this year.