Media needs alternative to simplistic coverage of crisis

Newsweek: escalating standoff

The media is simplifying the issues surrounding the impending war with Iraq and denying the British public a full picture of the complex humanitarian and political situation, it has been claimed.

Reporters must look for alternative sources to governments and their mainstream political detractors if they are fully to cover the wide range of perspectives from the international community, argued freelance journalist Jake Lynch, speaking at a Reporting the World discussion in London.

He said the current convention of indexing, in which coverage of an issue is limited to presentation of government policy and criticisms of it by the “usual suspects”, has led the media to “run the full gamut of issues from A to B”.

Lynch cited the “saloon-bar” refrain, “Of course, it’s all about oil” as an example. “We don’t really get to go behind this phrase very often. We need to get beyond the slogan and explore in what way it is all about oil.

“We are inclined to want to project differences or controversies onto differences among official sources, whether that be a knockabout at Prime Minister’s questions or perhaps a recently retired army chief criticising the government.

“If we are going to offer a range of perspectives in order to equip readers and audiences to reach their own assessments, then we need to go beyond the proposition ‘are you for or against the war’.”

He also suggested that this polarisation played a part in the escalation of the standoff between the US and Iraq, and used a Newsweek magazine cover as an example. It depicted Bush and Saddam, with the coverline: “Who will win?”

“You could say this framing of the story has played its part in leading us to the present situation where the way it is set up means you automatically ask ‘who will win?’ with the corollary ‘who will lose?’ If winning and losing are the only alternatives on the table, everybody is likely to step up their efforts to win.”

Adrian Van Klaveren, the BBC’s head of newsgathering, said he agreed that the media had a tendency to rely too heavily on official sources.

However, he argued that BBC TV and radio had aired the complexities of the crisis. “We deliberately set aside an hour-and-a-half on BBC1 to do a debate on Iraq. That, in primetime on a main channel, shows a serious commitment to understanding the issues.”

He said the public could not absorb all the coverage. “One lesson journalists can learn is that often we think we have covered something but people have not heard it, seen it or read it, or it is not necessarily getting through.”

By Mary Stevens

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