Shining a Light on the Crisis

Shining a Light on the Crisis

The last panel of the 2016 Aurora Dialogues, titled “Shining a light on the crisis,” focused on the role the media plays in covering humanitarian crises and shaping the public’s opinion about them. The discussion was moderated by Ted Koppel, a prominent U.S. journalist and a senior contributor the CBS Sunday Morning News. Much of the discussion centered on the evolving media landscape and the role that social media plays in the way humanitarian crises around the world get reported. “Breaking news is no longer in the hands of CNN, or ABC or NBC. Citizens break the news,” said Joyce Barnathan, president of the International Center for Journalists.

The panelists agreed that the greater role social media and citizen journalism now play in shaping the global news agenda is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, most mobile phones now have cameras and information has become harder to conceal, even for authoritarian governments, while news is being broken that would not have traditionally received airtime in mainstream media. “We are not fighting to break news anymore, let the news be broken like it was in the case of Osama Bin Laden, via Twitter,” said Steve Kurkjian, former Washington bureau chief and author of the investigative column “Spotlight” at The Boston Globe. 

                                         Panelist Steve Kurkjian 

Social media and citizen journalism can also help to bring more humanitarian crises to the attention to major media outlets, as many of them are still ignored. “More than five million people died in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, how much airtime did that war get?” Koppel asked. “The kinds of stories we heard here today are the kinds of stories I want my reporters to cover. I haven’t read today’s stories in the mainstream media. Setting up a network of dependable local reporters is the responsibility of senior editors,” said Kurkjian.  

On the other hand, however, social media can also be used to spin stories, in which case information becomes a weapon. While we now live in “an era of authenticity,” our world is less and less “fact-based.” In a world where traditional media’s authority is waning, it is becoming more difficult to aggregate the various points of view and create an objective, verifiable reality. According to Koppel, journalists used to be the “gatekeepers” through which all information had to pass, but unfiltered information spreading through social media without anyone verifying the facts poses real danger. “As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, ‘Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.’ I am a firm believer in the essential qualities of editing. Journalism is not a one person process, it requires editing, and there is an enormous difference between social media and journalism,” said Koppel. “Where do people really go now to look for someone to tell them the truth?” he asked.

                                          Session moderator Ted Koppel

Another problem posed by the emergence of social media is that in all of its fragmentation and diversity, it narrows our field of vision because readers are free to just follow outlets that cater to their tastes. “The problem is that now there is nothing in our media world that pulls people together. The effect of the new media, this revolution that blew up ‘mainstream media,’ is that rather than challenging what people think and telling them what’s really essential, you have media tell you what you already think is correct. That reinforces the prejudices that you already have,” said David Ignatius, an author and columnist at The Washington Post.

                                             Panelist David Ignatius

The overall attitude of the panelists was that of cautious optimism. For example, officials have resigned over the publication of the “Panama Papers,” which over 400 journalists in the world collaborated to produce. “The power of social media combined with professional journalism is incredibly exciting in this era,” said Barnathan. But even with the advent of social media (and especially because of it), there is a pressing need to support real, independent and courageous journalism, especially when it comes to furthering humanitarian causes. “You can make a case for any aid policy, but you are more likely to achieve your goals with independent media,” said Barnathan. 

The panelists also agreed that these are incredibly dangerous times for journalists. “Think about the challenges of covering ISIS, you have a big target on your back. They don’t need us anymore to tell the story; they have their own social media. So getting credible information is very difficult,” said Barnathan. Thus journalists need to collaborate and work in global solidarity. They need to be activists in making sure other journalists are protected. “If we don’t stand up for them, who is going to stand up for them?” Barnathan asked. 

Tremendous work on covering humanitarian crises can be done and is being done, as demonstrated by Rukmini Callimachi of The New York Times, the inaugural recipient of the ICFJ’s Integrity in Journalism Award. “But don’t underestimate the challenges. We are in the storm now, but you still see great stuff happening,” said Barnathan.