As a journalist with strong feelings about political reform, social development and human rights – I often find myself torn on this sacred notion of ‘objectivity’. In light of the NSA leaks and the recent media attack on Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who broke the Edward Snowden story, questions on the role of journalists have come under even closer scrutiny.
Before attending graduate school for journalism, I lived in Lebanon for the majority of my life and worked for a UN governance and political dialogue project in Beirut, where my work included heavy amounts of media monitoring.
Media in Lebanon is largely (and that is an understatement) based on being a mouthpiece for political parties. Which channel you watch and what newspaper you read defines where you lie on the political, and sometimes even religious, spectrum. Objectivity is not a goal; it is your ticket to unemployment.
In Lebanon, I was also a very lazy freelance writer but a very busy freelance photographer of social and political events, mainly demonstrations. Although I was covering the demonstrations in Beirut, I was also a fellow demonstrator calling for separation of religion and State, and establishment of a secular state in Lebanon.
My boss of three years was a white South African who was a journalist, editor, and filmmaker for 15 years before moving into the field of conflict resolution and national dialogues. He fought against the Apartheid and worked with Mandela after he was released from prison.
While working as a journalist in South Africa, he wrote an article, Debunking the Big ‘O’, about how objectivity was overrated, even ‘old-school’.
He argued that journalists should recognize that their bias is inevitable and in turn, take an ACTIVE role in the stories we cover, specifically in times of conflict. According to him, journalists should become the ambassadors of justice (as they understand it?), a medium for breaking down barriers and encouraging, sometimes even facilitating, dialogue with the ultimate goal of social change. When I did some free-lance writing, he would drill me with the same line: “Think about WHY you are writing this story and WHAT you want to achieve by writing this story.“
This always left me with a dilemma: Am I restricting my role as a journalist to informing, and simply telling people the “5 W’s”? Or is my role as a journalist greater than that, whereby I am more than just an observer and narrator?
Last year, Saudi Arabia gave women the right to vote. Upon reading the story, I posted it on Facebook. The headline of the article was “In bold move, Saudi king gives women right to vote”. I subtitled my post with “I’m not sure ‘bold’ is the right word here… I would say ‘In a that-was-so-last-century-but-better-late-than-never move’”.
I got a few “likes” and comments but I soon received an email from my sister who wrote that if I was serious about being a journalist, I needed to think twice about posting such condescending comments. This is a huge move for Saudi, she wrote, and I needed to be more sympathetic and refrain from inserting my personal opinion.
She was right, I think, and so I deleted the post. However, with such passionate ideals and opinions about human rights, especially for women, it’s almost torturous to take an objective tone when reporting on such a story. Shouldn’t I write a story that maybe Saudi women will read and become inspired to push for their rights? Shouldn’t I be critical of governments that I feel are corrupt or unjust?
Can a journalist also be an activist?
I have yet to answer this question, but I hope the answer is yes.
(OTI 1, journalist, Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, Agence France-Presse,Washington DC)