The Problem With "Just Raising Questions" About War Reporting
A group called HonestReporting put the lives of photojournalists in danger with an irresponsible blog post.
Hello readers. Parker here.
Last week, a group called Honest Reporting published a blog post titled “Photographers Without Borders: AP & Reuters Pictures of Hamas Atrocities Raise Ethical Questions.” And hey, if you know me, you know I love a good journalism ethics story. Naturally, I dug right in.
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The story strongly insinuated that there was something shady happening with photojournalists who published some of the earliest photos from Hamas’ brutal October 7 attack on Israel:
What were they doing there so early on what would ordinarily have been a quiet Saturday morning? Was it coordinated with Hamas? Did the respectable wire services, which published their photos, approve of their presence inside enemy territory, together with the terrorist infiltrators? Did the photojournalists who freelance for other media, like CNN and The New York Times, notify these outlets? Judging from the pictures of lynching, kidnapping and storming of an Israeli kibbutz, it seems like the border has been breached not only physically, but also journalistically.
It honestly sounds like HonestReporting doesn’t understand conflict reporting or the limits of what journalists can do when covering a militant group like Hamas, the Taliban, or ISIS.
The story of the journalist who embedded with ISIS.
In 2015, PBS’ Frontline released a documentary called “ISIS in Afghanistan.” One of the people interviewed for it was a journalist named Nijibullah Quraishi. Quraishi embedded with ISIS, and recounted some genuinely horrifying stories. He witnessed schools where children as young as eight or nine were “learning weapons; instead of grammar or math or something else, they were learning what is jihad, how to do jihad, how to kill, weapons, how you kill people.” He called it “shocking.”
James Foley, Steven Sotloff: It goes without saying that reporting on ISIS is one of the most dangerous assignments there is for a journalist. How worried were you about your safety?
To be honest, when you go inside something, then you are not with you. You are in the hands of somebody else, and you don’t know what they will do with you. Sometimes it seemed exciting that I was going to meet the most dangerous group ever, but sometimes when I was thinking about what they have done with other journalists in other countries, and how they are behaving with other people around the world, then I was thinking about my safety, and I had no hopes to come back again. I was saying this would be end of my life … They can do whatever they want to. And this was my worry. I was wearing proper Afghani clothes with a white hat on my head to show them I’m an ordinary person, but still, there was lots of risk. But as a journalist, if you want to explore the world, you have to take a risk.
Was there a particular moment where you were most concerned?
Yes. When I was following the two [teenage] suicide bombers, they went inside the mosque, and I didn’t know it was forbidden to film them inside the mosque. One of the fighters was shouting at me, basically not shouting, swearing on me. My fixer came to me and took my hand and told me to come out of the mosque. So when we came out, he said, “You didn’t hear the shout?” I said yes, I heard something, but I didn’t know it was for me. So when I heard this, we left the area. I told to my driver, just leave the area. We wanted to spend the night with them, then when I heard that from my fixer, I said no, it’s going to be dangerous for us. If we stayed during the night, he might do something. Safety was my priority. Not only my safety, my team’s safety. So I decided to leave. It was a dangerous moment for me.
Should Quaraishi have alerted someone ahead of time about the suicide bombers? If so, by what means? And how do you do so in a way that doesn’t result in ISIS killing you (as they’ve killed several other journalists)? A big part of covering war and conflict is detachment.
As far as ethics are concerned, this is all a massive gray area, and far from the black-and-white world HonestReporting suggests. Should Quaraishi have been treated as a member of ISIS for embedding with the group to report on their actions? Should he have been treated as a terrorist? I don’t think so. Reporting (even as an embed, meaning with the permission of the group you’re following along with) is not participation.
Blast from the past.
Ethics in these types of situations have been debated for decades. There’s a moment in a 1989 episode of Ethics in America in which journalists Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace (among others) discuss what they would do in a hypothetical scenario in which they were reporting from inside an enemy military faction (the fictional North Kosanese)’s camp and were faced with the question of what they’d do if they came upon a group of American troops. Would they try to warn the Americans? Would they stay silent? Would they film the enemy attack on Americans?
Jennings flinched, saying that he would try to warn the Americans. Wallace said that he was “astonished” that Jennings would do that.
“I’m a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you are an American, you would not have covered that story,” Wallace says at one point. Jennings would eventually chime back in to say he “chickened out” and Wallace was right.
You can watch for yourself how that conversation played out below. The full episode can be found here.
In 1996, James Fallows wrote a piece published in The Atlantic titled, “Why Americans Hate the Media.” It dealt with that episode. Here’s an excerpt:
[Wallace and Jennings]’s reactions spoke volumes about the values of their craft. Jennings was made to feel embarrassed about his natural, decent human impulse. Wallace seemed unembarrassed about feeling no connection to the soldiers in his country's army or considering their deaths before his eyes "simply a story." In other important occupations people sometimes face the need to do the horrible. Frederick Downs, after all, was willing to torture a man and hear him scream. But Downs had thought through all the consequences and alternatives, and he knew he would live with the horror for the rest of his days. When Mike Wallace said he would do something horrible, he barely bothered to give a rationale. He did not try to explain the reasons a reporter might feel obliged to remain silent as the attack began—for instance, that in combat reporters must be beyond country, or that they have a duty to bear impartial witness to deaths on either side, or that Jennings had implicitly made a promise not to betray the North Kosanese when he agreed to accompany them. The soldiers might or might not have found such arguments convincing; Wallace didn't even make them.
Did the freelance photojournalists know about the October 7 attack ahead of time? We don’t know. Maybe some of them were aware of what was about to happen, maybe they knew something was going to happen but not what, or maybe they were completely in the dark. Maybe they sympathized with Hamas. Maybe they didn’t. My point here is that regardless of the level of detail known, it’s an ethical and moral gray area.
My issues with the Honest Reporting blog post
[Photojournalist 1], a freelancer who also works for CNN, crossed into Israel, took photos of a burning Israeli tank, and then captured infiltrators entering Kibbutz Kfar Azza.
Okay. And? The photo of the burning tank is a powerful image with obvious news value. There’s a reason it was the lead photo in AP’s “A week of war brings grief to everyday Israelis and Palestinians alike” slideshow. This is not some damning claim.
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