In covering barbarity, we fail
by Posted Fri, Sep 1 2000
Why should we who are alive and well at this moment feel at all troubled? The winds of democracy are strengthening. A scientific and technological revolution unparalleled in all of history is sweeping the planet. Everyday brings a new miracle of science or medicine that makes for breathless coverage in print or through modern electronics.
Except for isolated pockets, totalitarianism of the right or the left is on the run; economic and political freedoms are on the rise.
Medical scientists have mapped the human genome, bringing forth the promise of cures for diseases that have ravaged humanity for generations.
Computer scientists have developed the Internet, which brings all humans closer together and makes a reality of the concept to globalization and meaningful freedom of expression.
Space scientists are building a station in orbit that will expand the possibilities for extraterrestrial exploration.
And yet, as we enter a new century, it is apparent that the veneer of civilization encasing us is paper thin and capable of easy puncture, as articles in this issue attest. In Sierra Leone, Russia and all the other countries mentioned in “Death Watch,” journalists have been killed when fulfilling their professional duties. The question for all of us is how well does the news business do at informing the public of transgressions against civility or the brutality that threatens not just individual nations but civilization? Does the news business have any impact in curbing the barbarianism that, in a golden age of science and attention to human compassion, still threatens us all?
In the first issue of 2000, we carried a report on how the international press missed the story of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda while it raged for its first two weeks. In this issue we carry two reports on the brutality — actually bestiality — in Sierra Leone, which has made that country one of the first killing fields of the new millennium. We can say “one of the first” because Chechnya is another.
At newsroom water coolers and in journalism classrooms, there is much talk about how involved journalists should become in the stories they are covering. Do they remain objective spectators and report only the facts? Or do they take a position in the game and fight to make sure their side wins?
The controlling ethic here is situational. Certainly reporters should tell all sides of a story. But sometimes, where more than one side is presented, there is only one angle that is right and truthful. Nothing, for example, can justify genocide or anything that comes close to it. Nothing can justify gratuitous police brutality or the repression of one racial, religious or ethnic group by another.
The news business sometimes deserves severe criticism and often avoids it. One problem that it does not meet squarely is that of covering breaking news versus working on the stories that expose dangerous situations before they percolate to the surface. Related is the phenomenon of first exposing a dangerous situation and then not following up. Much of the barbarity of the 20th century was detectable in its formative stages. In fact it was detected and ignored in many cases — the rise of Nazism being the best example. It also ignored the disregard for human life in the early days of the Soviet Union and the cynically repressive racial policies in the United States for 100 years after the Civil War ended.
This magazine will not shrink from serious criticism of the news business. On too many occasions the press has failed to bring to light human sufferings before the tragedy exploded in full scale. The editors think the international news business needs a magazine of criticism that matches domestic journals in some countries.
With this issue, we are changing the magazine’s name from IPI Report to IPI Global Journalist. It is the first step in a long-term plan to make the magazine more meaningful and appealing to a larger global audience of journalists. We hope that in the coming months we will fulfill other goals of a lively and responsible magazine.
The International Press Institute is taking steps to broaden its membership and make itself a bigger player in fostering and maintaining the integrity of a free and responsible news business. Although we publish at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo. in the United States, we feel a deep commitment to IPI, headquartered in Vienna, Austria and presided over by Hugo Bütler, editor in chief of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung in Zurich, Switzerland. We are truly proud of our global role and plan, as IPI Global Journalist, to exercise our responsibilities with care — and vigor.