What does it mean to be objective as a journalist? And does it necessarily involve getting to the truth?
Three accomplished foreign correspondents came together to unravel the notion of objectivity during Sydney Writers Festival’s Eyewitness event at Walsh Bay on May 22.
Recently returned from her posting as the ABC’s South-East Asia correspondent, Australia’s Zoe Daniel was joined by American investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and American-Egyptian writer Yasmine El Rashidi.
Ms El Rashidi, who is known for her writing on the 2011 Egyptian revolution (much of her work is collected in The Battle for Egypt: Dispatches from the Revolution) said she chose early on to take an immersive approach to her coverage of the uprising.
“I think that it is really important to acknowledge and to be responsible for the fact that you are a witness. As a witness, you have to try to share everything you have seen,” she said. “I cross the line all the time. I write about a place that I’m from. I was involved with the revolution, supporting it as an Egyptian citizen who also happens to write.”
More recently, she helped to save historical artefacts after a bomb tore into Cairo’s Islamic Art Museum earlier this year. “When this library was burning down on the perimeter of Tahrir Square we were trying to save books. And in the morgue – they always need help in the Cairo morgue,” she said.
“When you read my pieces I’m very present in what I’m seeing and experiencing. That act of crossing the line, I don’t hide that.”
Mr Scahill explained that the focus on objectivity could be harmful to passionate journalism. “I don’t think there is such thing as objectivity in life or in journalism,” he said. ”Objectivity as it’s defined in powerful, Western societies is often used as a weapon to target journalists who care about their stories.”
“In the United States, it is generally defined as a semi-slavish devotion to the narrative of the state at the expense of the stories of the ‘other’, or the people that don’t have a powerful base of support or advocacy for them.”
The panellists also addressed the responsibility for journalists when at the scene of disaster. Mr Scahill said he had seen “countless journalists throw their cameras aside and run into the scene of devastation in an attempt to participate in the rescue operation.”
Ms Daniel spoke about her experience of reporting on a stampede in Cambodia, during which 347 people died in the capital Phnom Penh. “In journalism school, you’re taught that you need to distance yourself and take an objective position,” she said.
“The reality of the situations is you cannot operate as a separate entity to what is happening. Particularly when the situations involved disaster, conflict, crisis and usually extreme grief for the people that you’re talking to and who are allowing you to feel that with them.”
“In those situations I feel my role is to give them a voice and actually allow myself to be part of what’s happening,” she said.
Mr Scahill added that the goal of objectivity in reporting should be tempered rather than discarded completely: “When I say that the notion of objectivity in journalism is bullshit, I don’t mean that journalists should be irresponsible and hammer away at partisan agenda.”
“On the other hand, I think that there is absolutely nothing wrong with caring deeply about the subjects of your reporting, empathising with them and at times championing their cause for justice.”
Mr Scahill is the national security correspondent for The Nation magazine. His investigative journalism has taken him to Iraq, Yemen and Somalia, and he has written two books, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army, and most recently, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield.
Ms Daniel has been a foreign correspondent for the ABC in Africa and South-East Asia. Her account of her experiences during these postings, Storyteller, was published earlier this year.