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Ethical News gathering challenge for Al Jazeera International 27 December 2006

Posted by Nalaka Gunawardene in Asia, Communication rigthts, media, Media ethics, Television and video.

If products of child labour and blood diamonds are no longer internationally acceptable, neither should the world tolerate moving images whose origins are ethically suspect.

This is what I said in a recent op ed essay, originally published in MediaHelpingMedia website 

And now there are three, neatly arranged in English alphabetical order too: Al Jazeera International (AJI), BBC World and CNN International. 

On November 15, the decade-old Arabic channel’s entered the highly competitive 24/7 news and current affairs TV market in English. It was preceded by months of speculation and anticipation by those who adore the controversial channel -– and those who love to hate it. 

If you believe that any publicity is better than no publicity, the new channel has had a head start that neither of its global rivals did. When CNN (US) was launched in 1980, few people believed there would be a demand for round the clock news coverage. Some ridiculed it as the ‘Chicken Noodle Network’. Yet its success inspired other such channels to emerge at global, regional and national levels. Its influence prompted a former UN Secretary General to suggest that CNN International — the global version started in 1985 -– should be considered the 16th member of the UN Security Council. 

The new kid on the block isn’t exactly new -– it just acquired a new tongue. Described as the only political independent TV station in the Middle East, Al Jazeera has been broadcasting from Doha, Qatar, since 1996. Although reliable audience figures are hard to come by, estimates suggest that its global satellite transmission in Arabic has at least 50 million viewers -– rivalling BBC World’s estimated 59 million, according to the Wikipedia.  AJI will no doubt build on this brand recognition, but their sights are set much higher. The channel wants to ‘balance the information flow from South to North, providing accurate, impartial and objective news for a global audience from a grass roots level, giving voice to different perspectives from under-reported regions around the world.’ 

It wants to revolutionise English language TV in the same way it turned Arabic TV upside down, ending the monopoly of the airwaves by state broadcasters and governments. Noble ideals, indeed — and we fervently hope they succeed. In recent years, the self righteous arrogance and the not-so-subtle biases of BBC and CNN have become increasingly intolerable.  

But unless it’s very careful and thoughtful, AJI runs the risk of falling into the same cultural and commercial traps that its two rivals are completely mired in.  While CNN can’t get out of its US-centric analysis even in its international broadcasts, BBC news team is more like a hopelessly mixed up teenager: one moment they are deeply British or at least western European; the next moment they are more passionate about Africa than Africans themselves.   

Desperately seeking legitimacy and acceptance in wide and varied circles, these two global channels have sometimes traded in their journalistic integrity for privileged access, exclusives or -– dare we say it? – to be embedded.  They have increasingly come to epitomise a disturbing trend in international news and current affairs journalism: the end justifies the means. 

Take, for example, a major news story that broke in my part of the world two years ago: the Asian Tsunami of December 2004.  In a few dreadful hours, the disaster killed, injured or otherwise shattered the lives of millions. The ‘media tsunami’ that followed added insult to injury by turning the plight of affected people into a global circus. The right to privacy and dignity of thousands of affected people was repeatedly violated. The visual media, in particular, had no qualms about showing the dead, injured and orphaned: the story was gory.   

One CNN reporter later wrote a whole book recounting those few momentous days, when his team apparently managed to get stories before anyone else. Seemingly because they threw more money, equipment and diplomatic clout than others. The ‘gung-ho’ tone in that book is revolting yet revealing.  Such journalists’ only operating guideline seems to be: get the story, no matter what — or who gets hurt in that process. 

Of course, the rest of the world had a right to know -– and in that instance, it was the combined media coverage that spurred donations of US$ 13 billion to the affected countries.  But did that justify the affected people’s most vulnerable moments becoming Canon-fodder, beamed around the world at light speed to the accompanying chatter of visiting reporters? I’m not so sure. 

One year ago during an international media conference in New Delhi, India, I moderated a wide ranging discussion involving film makers, television journalists, media researchers and environmental activists. A key concern was the conduct of film and TV crews from the North who regularly roam the South, looking for images of poverty, decay and suffering for various news channels or documentaries.  

One activist cited examples of foreign film crews bribing officials to obtain filming permits and access restricted areas such as wildlife sanctuaries and heritage sites.  A senior editor recalled how, years ago, a visiting Canadian film crew had asked if they could film the intentional breaking of a poor child’s leg — a brutal practice that was believed to exist so that maimed children could be employed as beggars.  

“It’s going to happen anyway,” was how the film crew rationalised their bizarre request.These and worse experiences are certainly not confined to India. While media exposure can trigger much needed aid, reform or public outcry on certain issues, that is not a justification for getting the story by any means.

If products of child labour and blood diamonds are no longer internationally acceptable, neither should the world tolerate moving images whose origins are ethically suspect. So that’s the real challenge to Al Jazeera: to usher in real change, it needs to transform not just how television news is presented and analysed, but also how it is gathered 

To accomplish this, it has to move well beyond the outdated UNESCO rhetoric of reordering the world’s information flows. That call might have had some validity in the 1970s and 1980s, but where does the global North end and the South begin these days?  There are bits of North across the South –- and vice versa. Migrant workers and diaspora populations have remixed our once neatly demarcated world beyond recognition.  

It’s this complex, nuanced Bigger Picture that Al Jazeera must cover in an authentic, credible and ethical manner. 

We will be watching. And not just what’s shown on AJI, but how those pictures get there. 

Read my earlier essay, ‘Communication Rights and Communication Wrongs’ on SciDev.Net: Nov 2005