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BLOG 4: Role of Journalists in Times of Crisis

My initial feeling about the role of journalists in times of conflict is that they should not challenge the government just for the sake of challenging the government.  They should report the facts and hold the government accountable to their promises and declarations.

This is much easier said than done, of course.  There is an unavoidable tension that exists in practicing objective journalism while maintaining a sense of patriotism.  There is also debate about exactly what patriotism looks like.  I think patriotism should motivate citizens to help move the United States forward in the most ethical and honorable manner possible.  As watchdogs, journalists can be catalysts for progress if they seek to balance, to the best of their ability, the need for transparency and the need for national security.

To be honest, the topic of journalists’ role in times of crisis is not something that I consider very often, though I recognize its implications for the practice of democracy.  Consequently, I now turn to the opinion and experience of others to supplement my own.  In 2003, our friend Bill Moyers interviewed author Susan Sontag about her experiences recording war.  Sontag reminds Moyers that she is not a journalist, however, her insight about experiencing war in Sarajevo is still relevant to challenges that journalists face:

When you go home and people say ‘How was it?’ You really can’t explain.

Images will disgust you, but they won’t tell you which wars are worth fighting.

One of the biggest questions hinted at by Sontag centers on the definition of Patriotism. Is Patriotism consensus or debate?  I think Sontag would lean more toward that argument that Patriotism is best expressed through honest debate.  The conclusion that Moyers and Sontag reach is that it is the job of writers and photographers to bring awareness to those who are comfortable.

When considering the danger of consensus by journalists, the first historical event that comes to mind is the Holocaust.  This article mentions Eli Wiesel’s distinction between information and knowledge:

On its own information meant only the existence of data. It lacked an ethical component. It was neutral. Knowledge, implied Wiesel, was a higher form of information. Knowledge was information that had been internalized, crowned with a moral dimension that could be transformed into a call for action.

Journalists thus have an ethical responsibility not only to report data, but to interpret it in ethical terms, according to Wiesel.  While Wiesel is admired for his writings on ethics and humanitarian issues, this approach to journalism during times of conflict muddies the waters of journalistic repsonsibility beyond comprehension.

The same article points out how cautiousness in German and American journalism were detrimental in the effort to combat Nazi Germany:

One explanation was that the Nazis were so skillful at hiding the facts. They used the tools of modern totalitarianism to control the flow of information, to confuse the enemy, and to stimulate a rush of pride and patriotism among their own people. They not only dominated the German press, all of which was filled with propaganda, lies and distortion; they also controlled and intimidated the small number of sympathetic, Berlin-based foreign correspondents, who came to understand that they had to play ball with the Nazi authorities or they’d be expelled or imprisoned. They functioned, to the degree that they functioned at all, under a rigid system of censorship. Their reporting, like soft porn, was soft propaganda. There was no real reporting from Germany — no equivalent of CNN’s Peter Arnett in Baghdad. There was no broadcasting, no television (then still in its infancy), and no wire service dispatches. German and foreign reporters were intermediaries of Nazi propaganda. The news from Germany was the news from Hitler’s headquarters.

My fourth reason concerned the very nature of journalism, as practiced in the United States. During the war, American journalists, never an adventurous lot, performed, with very, very few exceptions, like obedient servants of the U.S. Government. Reporters were cautious patriots, comfortable with their role as cheerleaders in a cause against fascism, which they fully supported. Vietnam was still 25 years away. The story was the prosecution of the war, the pursuit of an Allied victory, unconditional surrender. Like most other Americans, journalists covering the war had no other objective. Their editors wanted stories about the home front and the war front. Neither the editors, nor the reporters, were geared to do stories — quite fantastic stories, it seemed — about millions of Jews being gassed and burned to death as part of a systematic German campaign to exterminate a people. Now, with hindsight, we can second-guess the editorial limitations of the time, but then it all seemed perfectly natural.

Challenging the government when necessary is an act of patriotism.  It is also a responsibility that transcends American ideals and enters the realm of basic human decency (as ironic as that sounds).

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  1. March 4, 2011 at 2:29 pm

    Interesting post. There is a lot here to discuss. At the beginning of your post you say: “journalists…should not challenge the government just for the sake of challenging the government.” But how can anyone figure out what the inner motivations of journalists are? Is is possible to tell whether they are challenging the government just for the sake of challenging the government? And if journalists are challenging the government to make sure the government is doing what it says it is doing, then would this be OK?

    I think you are right that we must understand what patriotism is before we can figure out how journalist behavior during national crises relates to patriotism. The academic literature points to several different types of patriotism: national identity (identifying with a country), uncritical patriotism (believing whatever a country does is good), and critical patriotism (believing that asking questions is good for the country). So different forms of journalism would fit with each of these types of patriotism.

    Finally, the discussion of information versus knowledge is interesting. We have discussed information and communication and class, so it would be interesting to add knowledge to that mix.

    I wrote these comments quick, so there are probably typos.

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