September 4, 2005
Objectivity Gives Way to Outrage
As Jack Shafer noted in Slate, reporters — especially broadcasters — seem to have abandoned their fealty to the “objective” institutional voice when it comes to Katrina. From the visceral anger of FNC’s Shep Smith and CNN’s Anderson Cooper to the quiet candor of headlines on WashingtonPost.com, this catastrophe seems to have made journalists visibly mad, and it’s showing through the coverage.
I haven’t read or heard any complaints. It seems fitting that reporters should be outraged along with the rest of us at the bumbling of those in command. And it seems appropriate that journalists are batting away the lulling equivocations of politicians with the constant reminder that our people are dying unnecessarily and in droves.
What comes to mind again and again is Jehane Noujaim’s documentary Control Room, a look at Al Jazeera’s coverage of the war in Iraq. Before Control Room, I knew Al Jazeera only as an anti-American propaganda outlet. After Control Room, I wondered how Americans could regard Al Jazeera as any less objective or more jingoistic than our domestic news sources. U.S. news organizations shared the perspective that whether the war was generally “right” or “wrong,” U.S. victories in Iraq were always “good.” Control Room showed journalists at Al Jazeera questioning this lens, turning the issue back always to the point that overshadowed everything, the only point that seemed salient — our (their?) people are dying unnecessarily and in droves.
So the folks at Al Jazeera aired the footage of children dying we were mostly spared here in the U.S. And while U.S. news outlets demurred, Al Jazeera baldly speculated about the role oil played in the invasion. From the American perspective, Al Jazeera’s coverage felt out-of-balance. But to journalists for whom Iraq had been home, who grew up immersed in the country and its history, this frame is the only one that makes sense.
We know perfect objectivity is impossible. We also know there may be value in striving for it. What we don’t remember is how much objective truth is determined by the broadness or narrowness of our frame. In a newsroom entirely contained within the Middle East, the death of a child at the hands of a soldier is only that — a blameworthy, unmuddied wreck. Stretch your frame across the Atlantic, to a newsroom in Virginia, and that same death becomes a tragic but small part in a “victory,” a march forward for democracy.
In a newsroom safe from the ravages of floods and fires, an anchor urges a shakened reporter, “Let’s have some perspective.” In a giant, too-small dome littered with the bodies of the dead and the waste of the living, the reporter shouts back, “This is perspective.” And maybe they’re both right.
Update: Howie Kurtz breaks it down.