What to avoid when reporting on conflict
Reporting about conflict and working in a conflict zone is complex. Often the facts are not revealed in a way that offers the level of understanding the situation demands. The journalist needs to be sensitive, have an understanding of history, be aware of cultural issues, and put people before the story.
1: Don’t write in clichés
“The Heart of Darkness” is the title of a book by Joseph Conrad written in the early part of the 20th Century about a trip up the River Congo. It does not need to feature in every story about the Congo and especially not in the headline.
2: Don’t believe everything someone tells you
International NGOs by definition are on the side of the victim, the underdog. They are keen to generate interest in their perspective. They have a story to tell. Often that story is shocking in its own right without the extra tug of emotion, the extra twist given by the NGOs. This especially important when dealing in second-hand accounts of what eye-witnesses said.
3: Don’t hunt for the ‘definitive truth’
The truth is out there, but it’s incredibly hard to find it. Take the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example. It is a huge country – bigger than Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland combined. As a journalist, unless you’ve experienced the situation first hand, you’ll have to rely on what someone else tells you. Do so with caution.
4: Don’t get things out of context
What you witness may be terrible locally, but be sure to offer national, regional, global and historical context to your reporting so that those you are informing have the widest perspective of the significance.
5: Don’t accept information without question
Facts are loaded. A review of the cuttings file on Congo will show you that 5.4 million people have died in the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Do you know how this figure was arrived at? Do you know what period the statistic covers? If you don’t, then don’t use it.
6: Don’t forget the human face of suffering
Sexual violence and rape are terrible crimes. When reporting, don’t forget that all the headlines and stories written have a human face.
7: Don’t be sloppy with words
Use language with care. Genocide is a specific legal term with a particular meaning. It does not automatically follow that, because a large number of people have been killed, it’s genocide.
8: Don’t be led by another’s agenda
It’s all about timing. Remember that pressure groups will often release information to coincide with significant events in the political calendar. For example, UN Security Council debates are often previewed by NGO’s making demands calling for action. As a journalist, you set the agenda – don’t have it set for you.
9: Don’t ignore the local pressures
Congolese journalists work in a completely different political environment than the one you are lucky to work in. They face censorship (or self-censorship), harassment, intimidation and murder threats. They are often not able to report what they would like to.
10: Don’t ignore history
History repeats itself. Journalism doesn’t have to. Journalism should not be an accumulation of clichés ending with the latest addition to the mix. Think originally, think laterally. Find stories which tell the untold facts and which get beyond the clichés.