Once upon a time there was journalism. Many have recited the de profundis for the reporting profession over the last few years. Because of the economic crisis, which has been stifling newspapers for the last two years.
And before that, in an even more substantial way, because of how conflicts in the post 9/11 world have changed the way of telling History and the stories of those who are called upon to cover them. In the future, journalism handbooks will still exist, along with the profession itself. They will still be written, perhaps not on paper, but, in my opinion, they will nevertheless be published digitally and read on Kindle. These manuals of the future will dedicate an important chapter to that sunny morning in Manhattan: 9/11 changed the world as we knew it, but it also changed journalism.
Until that day, the men and women with notebooks had lived in a sort of limbo: the pen and the recorder had almost always granted them a sort of immunity and a form of respect, albeit vague, from the factions in conflict. This, however, did not always work: during the fifteen years of bloody civil war in Lebanon, saying sahafie (journalist) at checkpoints wasn’t enough to avoid being stopped and taken hostage, sometimes even for years. Nevertheless, these cases were always conceived as marginal ones that did not tarnish the overall concept of immunity.
However, everything changed with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: journalists slowly understood that the press label wasn’t enough, that the guarantee of impartiality was no longer the same, and that even those who took sides with the “victims” (the civilian population in those countries) were no longer safe. That was because they were recognized as westerners first and journalists later: they were therefore, by definition, either targets for revenge or sources of economic revenue. Many colleagues from notorious newspapers have lost their lives in this context, Corriere della Sera and El Mundo lost Maria Grazia Cutuli and Julio Fuentes; but papers typically associated with leftist and anti-war ideologies were also affected, such as Manifesto’s Giuliana Sgrena and Libération’s Florence Aubenas, who were kidnapped and held hostage for several weeks.It was therefore almost natural for colleagues to resort to a type of journalism that has been forcefully establishing itself: embedded journalism. This American expression has been applied to reporters travelling with military units, following them everywhere and reporting their work, taking advantage of the security bubble that they (sometimes) offer. In 2006, embedded journalism was basically the only type that had survived in Iraq, telling us of the battle of Fallujah and of the bloodsheds that brought the country on the verge of a civil war.
In those months, many criticized the media accusing it of a lack of objectivity, and many took up the cudgels in its defence. I believe that the ultimate answer was given by Kevin Sites, an embedded correspondent for NBC who had filmed a group of marines shooting the final rounds against a wounded insurgent in a mosque in Fallujah. The footage was aired, provoking outrage and making a few heads roll. The journalist was overwhelmed by criticism: many accused him of having betrayed the pact that had bound him for weeks to the troops he was embedded with, who had fought to save his life too, just to be then paid back with that video. Sites defended himself, explaining that the real pact was the one he had with his job: telling reality without filters or constrictions. And in that case, reality was represented by those deadly shots against a wounded man lying on the ground.
In my opinion, that reporter saved the soul of today’s journalism, demonstrating that the press can benefit from the troops’ protection to reach areas otherwise inaccessible, but that this does not necessarily imply embracing the military’s point of view on everything. This lesson is far too frequently forgotten (particularly in the Italian context, which is the one I know best) in favour of a more servile and slovenly way of reporting: one that is not very useful to the writers, to the sources or to the readers, and one that runs the serious risk of proving right the doomsday prophets of the demise of journalism.
Translated by Olivia Jung, UNICRI
* Francesca Caferri is Vice-Editor (World affairs section) of La Repubblica, one of the main Italian newspapers. She has provided extensive coverage on the Middle East, USA, Africa, Europe and Latin America, specializing in development issues and major international events, with an emphasis on the Middle East. Previously, she has also worked for CNN covering humanitarian issues, international organizations and European Union issues. Francesca Caferri is a Professor of International Organizations and Foreign Affairs. In 2005 she was awarded the highest prize for Italian journalists (Saint Vincent Journalism Prize) for reporting from Cuba during the first meeting of the Cuban opposition.