Speaking out: when reporting changes history

On 8 April, 2016 a panel at the International Journalism Festival explored the status of conflict reporting and how it has shifted in character in the modern era of press agencies and widespread flow of information. Featuring Domenico Quirico, award winning Chief Foreign Correspodent for La Stampa, and Richard Colebourn, Middle East Bureau Chief for BBC News, the discussionl was moderated by Sergio Cecchini, Director of Communication and Fundraising at Médecins Sans Frontières, who guided the panel through some examples of remarkable war reporting: the coverage of the Saddam Hussain regime in 1991, the Syrian war in 2013, the Kunduz hospital airstrike in 2015.

What made the conversation such an inspiring one was the combination of personalities from media outlets with very distinctive and different strategies. On the one hand, the bright wisdom of Domenico Quirico, ‘old-style’ print journalist who lives stories through the eyes of his interviewees. On the other hand, Richard Colebourn, television pioneer always on the look for the stories that could change the world.

“It is very likely we haven’t changed history, but for sure we have brought the issue to the public eye,” said Cecchini.

An idea that is shared by Colebourn, who recalled how investigative reporting has given eyewitnesses in warzones the chance to get their voices heard and at the same time has allowed people in the Western world to see for themselves the aftermath and destruction left by conflicts.

“What are the stories that really break through and how do we draw attention to them?– he said – The challenge lays particularly in getting stories that resonate with the audience and for which we can trust the source.”

Discussing the story sources indeed became the very core of the panel. Today war reporting does not necessarily rely on the on-field experience of the reporter – news agencies and local reporters are putting themselves in the middle of the process of collecting information to then deliver it to other newsrooms.

“Journalism has been murdered by complying to habits – said Domenico Quirico – We need to look for new writing tools and storytelling techniques when reporting conflicts. We can’t solely rely on chit-chats and turn them into news articles. We can’t expect our readers to develop any sort of ethical bond with the stories we tell if we don’t experience them ourselves.”

The La Stampa Foreign Correspondent then moved to stress on the crucial role of the journalist in the storytelling process. He shared with the audience his personal experience in Syria, where in 2013 he was held captive for five months . When he got there, he was able to cross the closed border thanks to smugglers who took him with them: “I found myself in a camp surrounded by rebels drinking tea. I told them I was a journalist who wanted to get into Aleppo and they took me with them.

“Journalists are not mediators who go beyond things – he continued – First person reporting should not be a taboo. Journalism is about being into things, not around things. It is about sharing what you felt and who you met with your readers, offering your feelings to them.”

It is through the journalist, then, that war reporting should bring stories forward. However, Colebourn argued that the presence of a reporter on the field does not necessarily mean effective news-gathering: “I’ve seen television reporting that has been incredibly powerful in the West, but it hasn’t made the change that people suffering in countries like Syria hoped it would bring,” he said.

It is clear how the whole concept of reporting requires change, on both ethical and technical grounds.  It needs to be redefined in a way that generates a form of collective conscience among the recipients of stories.

“Journalism is going to be saved by the absence, by the blank page, by the ability to drop the pen and write nothing when we experience nothing – said Quirico – I won’t sell myself to any agency, I won’t tell anything that I haven’t witnessed with my own eye. This is going to create an ethical relationship between what I live as a journalist and what I write.

“War reporting is not about what presidents and ministers of foreign affairs think. It is about those people who I met for one hour, one day, one week and that now are all dead. It is about people going through a collective experience of pain that is making them one.”

On the other hand, Colebourn defended the reliability of news agencies and stressed on how creating a shared network among different news organisations could also mean investing on the local presence and trusting local sources.

“I believe in the idea of the correspondent present on the ground. If it’s not possible, I’d rather rely on local sources then having a blank sheet in the paper – he said – The reporting of the Syrian conflict shows the inevitable compromises that are made to gather material. It is our responsibility to acknowledge these compromises and be transparent about them.”