News World Conference,
Dublin November 19-21, 2002
By Janet Key
The "Countdown to Conflict"
session that opened the News World 2002 conference began calmly enough, with Martin
Howard, director general of corporate communications for the UK Ministry of Defense,
explaining his efforts to get British officers to understand that "part of their
duty is to explain" military operations to the media.
The calm quickly evaporated,
"No, I wouldn't lie to
the media," Howard told an audience of some 500 TV, online and print journalists,
photographers, news technicians, academics, and students. "There might be some
short-term advantage, but your credibility would be destroyed for years when they
find out-and they inevitably will."
It was too much for Mark
Damazer, deputy director of BBC News, whose network has had a series of disputes
with the military about covering conflict in Afghanistan, the second Gulf War,
and the Falklands.
"I will trust you for
the duration of this session, but no further," he snapped, as several experienced
war correspondents in the audience nodded or murmured agreement.
The News World conference,
which took place November 19 to 21 in Dublin, focused on journalists' preparations
for the then-upcoming war with Iraq, looking at potential problems with official
sources like Martin Howard, discussing safety issues as well as the nuts and bolts
of coverage in hostile environments and debating the lessons learned from the
first Gulf war 12 years ago.
Now that the second Gulf
war has started, the conference has proven almost eerily prescient-timely, topical,
frequently contentious, and often provocative.
Debates raged about the
importance of multiple sources and the difficulty of finding them in combat zones
and under deadline pressure, particularly the pressure of 24/7 news programming,
"Twenty-four hour news
can be puppetry with no understanding or context," said Jacky Rowlands, a reporter
for the BBC, likening its news content to fast food. "It's live news-if you're
the dish monkey, you're chained to that [satellite] dish on the roof for hours
but you're not showing what ordinary people see, what they want and need to know.
To do that, you need to use bigger teams to cover what's going on."
But what happens to quality
in that situation, asked audience members again and again: "If you're feeding
news five or six times an hour, isn't there a risk that you'll exaggerate, that
you'll talk the story up?"
Another journalist countered,
"But you can cover a war by going out to report it-we keep losing sight of this.
It's good old journalistic enterprise, but we need to discuss how much of this
is possible [in a war zone]."
Discuss it they did, as
edgy journalists continued sometimes acrimonious conference sessions in the hotel
pub, in receptions, and in Dublin restaurants. Should news reflect the public
mood or provide dispassionate analysis or provide contextual narrative? And how
do you do any of that covering armed conflict?
How do you justify spending
millions for coverage-numbers of viewers, numbers of firsts, sensational videos,
depth of coverage? What constitutes an "acceptable" risk in covering conflict?
How much technology do you need for adequate coverage? How can you be honest and
not offend official sources in the military and government, sources who control
your access to information?
Vladimir Pozner, a broadcaster
and journalism professor, didn't mince words: "There's a limit to honest reporting
in times of conflict [because] very few journalists are willing to stand up [and
ask critical questions] when they can be accused of not being patriotic. "After
September 11, no one wanted to ask the question, 'Who are these people and why
are they willing to do this?' because they would be called unpatriotic," he said.
All of this debate took
place in the context of surveys that showed the European news audience changing-and
tuning out the news.
Ethics raised its head
in several forums, most notably one entitled "Bearing Witness" on whether journalists
should testify in trials of suspected war criminals, an issue that one broadcaster
said "goes to the heart of what it is to be a journalist at the beginning of the
BBC correspondent Jacky
Rowlands, who did testify against former Serbian strongman Sloban Milosevich during
his war crimes trial at The Hague, said that she did so as a matter of conscience
only after she had determined that her information was already in the public domain
and that no other journalists would be endangered.
Martin Bell, a former
British MP and former BBC war reporter who has also testified before the international
war crimes tribunal, agreed that the decision to testify should be a matter of
conscience, adding that journalists are "citizens first and journalists second."
Vladimir Pozner accused
both Rowlands and Bell of doing "serious damage to journalism" by their decisions,
but a poll of the audience showed that most would have followed Rowlands' course.
Safety issues were another
top item on the conference agenda. Chris Cramer, president of CNN International
Networks, warned journalists bluntly that threats to their safety were growing.
"For some, we have become
the target. There is no respect for our craft and we're often seen as an arm of
our government. We also a target for robbery and kidnap because we frequently
carry large amounts of money. All of this is much more of a threat this time around,"
Because of this, Cramer
said networks like CNN spend millions training its journalists how to operate
in hostile environments. "We have moral, ethical and legal responsibilities.
We never send journalists
into hostile territory without the proper training and [safety] equipment and
that includes freelancers. If your organization doesn't have the money to do that,
get out of the business.
"And don't believe someone
who says he or she doesn't want to endanger their staff by revealing their safety
measures. That's bullshit. That's code for not having any," he said.
Throughout the three-day
conference, News World ran a separate track of academic sessions entitled, "The
Next Generation," to debate issues in journalism education. Sessions discussed
the challenges of covering the African continent, whether journalism programs
are providing the right courses to train journalists, whether journalism programs
should offer hostile environment training and how schools are taking the classroom
into public service.
A documentary showcase
featured films like House of War (Diverse Productions), War Photographer (Christian
Frei, Switzerland), In Pursuit of Liberty-Civil War in Liberia (Camerapix, Kenya),
Avenging Terror (Norma Percy, Brian Lapping) and Four Corners: The Network (ABC
Concurrent NewsTech sessions
allowed manufacturers and suppliers to debate technology issues with senior news
executives and the reporters who rely on their products to do their jobs. Discussions
centered on new equipment, ways of integrating existing technology in the field,
and media asset and content management.
In its final session,
News World tackled the growing disconnect between politicians, media, and voters
in the US and Britain. Conference delegates learned earlier in the week that European
research has established that news programming-and political coverage in particular-is
increasingly losing its audience, especially among younger viewers.
Sir David Frost probed
the issue with journalists and politicians, including British MP Robin Cook, leader
of the House of Commons, David Gergen, White House communictions director and
special counsel to three US presidents, Bill Wheately, vice president of NBC News,
and David Mannion, head of Britain's ITV News.
But the political debate
was overshadowed by the continuing discussion about the coming conflict in Iraq-and
by the certainty that there are no clear-cut answers to the questions raised at
"You don't know how you
will deal with that kind of event [September 11 or the Iraq war] until you go
through it," said a delegate.
CNN's Chris Cramer agreed:
"There isn't a textbook for any of us." TBS
Janet Key, a lecturer
in the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications at the American University
in Cairo, has worked as a journalist for more than 20 years in the US, Northern
Ireland, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. She has worked for Newsweek and Business
Week magazines, UPI, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune.