News reporting is losing its impartiality, says Ibrahim Helal. In a climate of heightened global anxiety and conflict, the objectivity and balance of the media are at risk. The line between information and opinion is becoming blurred. But balanced coverage of global events is crucial to stabilizing an unstable world

A striking phenomenon has evolved in our world since September 11, 2001. It is the globalization of risk. The worries of far-flung communities have now become global concerns.

But another trend has also emerged in this climate of heightened anxiety – the spread of unchecked information has taken on a new, menacing aspect.

Now, even a simple telephone call from a journalist to a friend in Spain, for example, is cast as potential evidence of links with terrorist attacks. The whole world has succumbed to a kind of virus in which paranoia undermines the search for truth, and instead breeds needless suspicion.

News reporting is far from immune. If anything, it has played a vital role in spreading this climate of anxiety by reinterpreting many global events, both violent and non-violent, using the same new “dictionary of terrorism”.

Against this backdrop, and to help us interpret this new style of news reporting, it is useful to raise some key questions. I draw them from my experience at al-Jazeera since September 11, 2001.

What drives a news organization to cover a particular event? Are we driven by availability, exclusivity, technology and investment more than we ourselves can drive these factors?

What decides how we should cover an event? How can we find a balance between competitive concerns and our editorial and ethical values? Where is the fine line that separates national interest – whether defined by our editors or by our governments – and our genuine journalistic values? Can a news organization keep itself distanced from the new manufactured conflict between the west and Islam?

It is now more difficult than ever to claim impartiality while covering major news events. It is easier to try to maintain objectivity. A lack of impartiality means that one’s interest decides what is covered, but the coverage itself can still be objective – that is, true and unbiased. So it is our initial positions which are likely to affect whether or not to cover a particular event, although the coverage itself might still be accurate.

Take the Sudanese peace negotiations in Kenya, for example. When the two parties moved quickly towards a final settlement it became a story of regional interest to Arabic media organizations.

So al-Jazeera’s decision to send a team very early to Kenya – one of the most expensive news locations – was affected by the fact that

al-Jazeera is reporting in Arabic to an Arabic-speaking audience. It is in our interest to cover it. Competition plays a vital role in making it easier to pay the cost of such coverage.

Or take the BBC’s coverage of Zimbabwe. The BBC’s initial position towards Zimbabwe – its interest in the story – pushed the story to the headlines of the BBC’s main services. So although its decision to cover Zimbabwe with such prominence was perhaps not driven by impartiality, when deciding how to cover Zimbabwe the organization’s coverage was driven by objectivity. Nobody can rightfully claim that the BBC mishandled the story.

The problem of impartiality has become more chronic since the start of the so-called “war on terrorism”, when the initial positions of many news groups became more sensitive – and occasionally subject to the whims of governmental bodies or security officials.

Since September 11, a new relationship has emerged between media and governments in both democratic and non-democratic countries alike (in fact, as a result, democracy itself has become a concept that might need rethinking.) This new relationship has not changed many of the rules of media organizations in non-democratic countries. But it has dictated a new style of reporting in countries that have enjoyed relative freedom of press, with scope for dissent.

Al-Jazeera veered away from the “American track” in reporting the war in Afghanistan. Clearly, the American administration was trying to control the flow of information coming from the region, but al-Jazeera was beyond its control.

The media group was subsequently accused of inciting religious hatred and being a propaganda tool for Osama Bin Laden and his terrorist network.

In the wake of this accusation, whenever western news agencies subsequently quoted al-Jazeera during the war in Afghanistan, they would preface their quotes with the qualifications: “… and that could not be confirmed by an independent source…”, or “al-Jazeera showed pictures of what it claimed were civilian casualties….”, suggesting that our organization somehow lacked such independence or credibility. Such language demonstrates clearly the perception of Arab and even third-world media by global news agencies.

Of course, those qualifications might have been understandable if al-Jazeera had been an Afghani channel or a channel owned by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, but that – fortunately – is not the case. It was simply ridiculous to preface the use of our footage of women, children and old men killed in Afghanistan with comments like “al-Jazeera claimed ….” Pictures do not lie. We became faced with reputable western media conflating opinion and information.

The same widely respected media groups exhibit similar mix-ups when dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The widespread use of the new, fabricated euphemism “targeted killings” to describe the assassinations of Palestinian activists by Israeli forces is a good example of how the media can be intimidated and forced to adopt an opinion in times of conflict.

The war on Iraq has provided hundreds of examples, the most obvious of which concerns the supposed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. The BBC’s stance on this issue – a stance that led to a deep row with the British government – is worthy of some praise.

It stood defiantly against the conventional line, based on its convictions. It took a critical position. This stance could not have been taken by any American media organization.

The media world became divided clearly according to the rift separating the two camps: the coalition for the war with Iraq and the coalition against it. But it should not be a role of the media to support a stance or an ideology. What we need from the media is a clarification of the “who, what, why, when, where” of a story.

We face a huge political challenge in the environment since September 11. That challenge has made many broadcasters think about the ideological or educational roles they ought to play alongside their primary informational role. This is where the confusion between opinion and information becomes obvious.

But there are many other challenges. For al-Jazeera, technology has proven to be the most important factor. Because of technology, the rules of competition are changing. Young journalists are better qualified than experienced ones to reach a greater audience. Media organizations are now able to do better jobs because of the budgets at their disposal, not necessarily because of the editorial line they may adopt. As a result we have seen more editorial concessions than was the case 10 or 20 years ago.

To cope with competition, many news organizations – especially, and ironically, in democratic countries – have had to cover specific stories with specific styles. That does little to help stabilize an unstable world.

But there is still some hope that emerging media in our region can balance out the spin, stereotypes and propaganda – not necessarily by providing an alternative, but by alerting the global audience and drawing their attention to forgotten angles of news coverage.

Fortunately we can still do that by establishing a sort of a coalition with western news organizations. During the sensitive period since September 11, al-Jazeera has partnered with CNN, the BBC, ABC, ZDF and NHK, among others.

This might not be enough to balance both sides of any given story, but at least we have now established a common ground of respecting and trying to understand each other. We can now talk with each other about our differences. And after the war on Iraq, where many news organizations felt trapped because of competition, there is now a new emerging feeling of a common danger. We should not allow the global future to be set by a single-handed agenda.

Ibrahim Helal
Ibrahim Helal is editor-in-chief of al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite broadcaster.