Fast war stories vs. the need for complex coverage

First, I have to explain that this title was meant to connect to “fast food”, that kind of thing you only have either because you really love it or because you don’t have the time to have anything better. The title’s original version in Portuguese is “Guerras Enlatadas” (“Canned Wars”), but I don’t know which of them is worse. Moving forward:

The debate about the responsibility of journalists covering conflicts or wars already abound. It should be helpful to ponder the role played by the media on the violence cycle or, on the other hand, in the promotion of alternative perspectives – for instance, that of peace as possibility. However, questioning the often-stereotyped coverage of conflicts by the “big media” can be a dive in a swamp.

By Moara Crivelente (text and pictures) | Originally published in my column at Portal Vermelho and Oriente Mídia (both consciously taking stands) 

Recently, I went to a seminar in São Paulo (Brazil) hoping to have that debate on the working conditions of journalists that find themselves amid armed conflicts, having to produce positively complex stories about a reality so “distant” that he or she will be, for the majority of their audience or readers, the only contact with that reality. I wrote “distant” because those were the conflict referred to, those conflicts happening “there”, with multi-faceted dynamics, conducted by a myriad of actors, and promoted in a system of exploitation dependent on war, but rarely focused on.

Read here an article/paper I wrote/presented recently in a conference, on the Israeli media’s role, and another one here, on the subject of conflict analysis for media coverage, part of my MA dissertation. 

The cases were: Libya, Syria, Ukraine and, slightly, Somalia; the conflicts happening there have been summarized, by most of the traditional media, in a Manicheaist and simplistic narrative. In some cases, the point-of-view is that only “barbarity” is possible for some people, and only war can be the response, even a “humanitarian” one, given by others – those who concede themselves legitimacy to wage it.

The round table on the “Challenges of the Journalistic Coverage in Armed Conflicts and Emergencies” brought Editor Yan Boechant, journalist Lourival Sant’Anna and photojournalist André Liohn. This important initiative was promoted by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has dedicated its arduous work to protect people, including in times of war. According to Portal Imprensa, “the idea” was to “talk about the ethical principles that the journalists interested in the subject have to follow and to show how a coverage should be done with a humanitarian focus.” Pretentious and attractive idea.

Sant’Anna reproduced a video full of clichés: in Syria, Arabs – and the characterization will be explained below – shouting, enraged, towards a camera pointed and close to their faces, so they could express their hatred towards the Syrian President and Government, generally named the “dictator” and the “regime”, respectively.

Liohn spoke, among many other things, about Libya, and referred to Sirte as “the place where Kaddafi died”. The choice for terms is always interesting, and completely natural, it seems; the tale of objectivity is indeed fantasy. Referring to the former Libyan President, who was dragged to the street, stabbed and executed in his home city, it was as if Kaddafi simply stopped existing, “died”. Curious. They did not mention NATO’s “military intervention”: it was a long campaign of bombings conducted by this belligerent organization, an instrument of imperialism – and here you can read an example of my own partiality.

A “debate” did not seem to be expected by Liohn or Sant’Anna – the latter, a journalist working in one of the main newspapers in Brazil, O Estado de S. Paulo. The auditorium was packed with enthusiastic students interested in the journalists’ experiences and in the possibility of one day be in the frontline. Sant’Anna and Liohn brought stories of adventure and danger. Boechat pondered about his stories – “cold” ones – and his search for context and real characters.

A young man raised his hand for the first question, after a long exhibition of photos and Liohn’s “exempt” narrative – this is how he classifies his work – plus images and an audio reproduced by Sant’Anna, in which many weapons, smoke, shouting, gunshots and himself were the main characters. The young man asked how he could prepare for this job and Sant’Anna answered: with reasonable local contacts, but taking “only a light backpack and easy-to-carry equipment.” Liohn agreed. Next question.

From left to right: Yan Boechat, André Liohn and Lourival Sant’Anna

When I raised my hand, I was probably expected to say something like: “I want to be just like you when I grow up.” Frustration made me be perhaps indelicate, not paying compliments to their “true grit”. I mentioned a UN course on civil-military coordination and the safety of journalists in conflict situation, and commented on the need for greater complexity when covering conflicts, less simplism and less war propaganda – a term one of them had also employed before. Liohn interrupted me to say he does not engage in propaganda. I tried to continue, questioning the absence of images from the demonstrations in favor of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria – for whatever reason: would it seem relevant to someone who considers himself “exempt”?

Liohn was irritated and interrupted me again: “so, what is your question again?” I explained I was merely making a comment, but he asked, after over an hour of their talk to that audience: “can we talk about ourselves now?” He was upset because “all people do is criticize” and said that journalism is not going to change the world, but it can “bring democracy” to those people – and here I thought only Barack Obama said that nowadays. I asked if he would be the bearer of “the word”, but I do not remember what his reply was. Sant’Anna, on the other hand, limited himself to say, looking at his colleague: “there were no demonstrations pro-Assad”, with sarcasm. Here you can see an example of source for this information, in one of those media considered “impartial” (not by me).

Soon afterwards, the term “Orientalist” ran away from me – offended by the superficiality of the discussion there – before I could use it: Sant’Anna tried to explain why conflicts “happen” in certain regions, or in those he “knows”. For this journalist who writes for a newspaper that sells approximately 250,000 copies every day (according to the Instituto Verificador de Comunicação), in the “Arab World” – a pseudo-unity that sounds at least ethereal – rules are “flexible” – and he seemed to be explaining something complex, maybe “cultural” – and “there is a lot of lying, corruption…”

Not even certain warmongers use this narrative anymore – although they say exactly that with different words – so they do not sound the neocolonialists and/or imperialists that they are. I left, saying aloud that this was unacceptable. It was evident that we are not only lacking the study about the conflicts’ history and context, or the analysis regarding roots and the many actors involved in the promotion of war, or in the quest for alternatives. I regret having left. Is the discourse – in that “lecture” and in the massive media, in the interpretation of “reality” and its communication – really supposed to be “owned” by them, and not by us? A discussion is needed on the discourses that matter, on the promotion of war tied to these narratives and, of course, on the difficulty of holding a debate. Conflicts, wars and their victims should not be served as fast food, it does not matter how great the hazard faced by journalists.


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