Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Re: "War journalists will soldier on" by Peter Worthington

This is my response to Worthington's column in the St. Catharine's Standard (http://www.stcatharinesstandard.ca/ArticleDisplay.aspx?e=1562454).

I am the writer of the Ryerson Review of Journalism piece, Worthington cites in his article. I understand what he's saying, as I interviewed about 30 Canadian journalists who have gone through a range of war reporting with the Canadian military, including a four-hour long coffee with Matthew Fisher. But while I can see what Worthington's trying to say, I don't agree with a lot of it.

As he cites, in older wars, "embedding" and "unembedding" wasn't a problem for most militaries but the world -- and its militaries -- have changed how they view media, and the new standards of embedding are a reflection of that evolution, as I detailed particularly for the Canadian Forces, re: a peacekeeping nation to the Somalia affair to present day Afghanistan.

"In the old days, that would be considered questionable journalism -- no direct contact with the story, no nuance, no personal assessments, no colour, no feeling for mood or the Taliban environment." Worthington is writing about The Globe and Mail's Talking to the Taliban online doc series (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/talkingtothetaliban). But did he watch the videos at all? Smith has been a reporter in Afghanistan from 2005 to the end of 2008, and in that time has gained a wealth of knowledge about the war, Afghan people, and witnessed how exactly the Canadian military's efforts have changed over the past three years. The videos are filled with everything Worthington cites -- nuance, personal assessments, colour, feeling and mood. And it may not be direct contact, but that doesn't mean Smith didn't have direct contact with Taliban members at all in his three years there. He has run the gamut of doing it himself to having to use fixers for safety reasons.

"A concern for the Canadian military is that a journalist's Afghan 'fixer' may be a potential pipeline for the Taliban into the Canadian base. Journalists babble like brooks, and if the 'fixer' has Taliban links, he's potentially a foil and source of information for the Taliban." That's not really a concern for the military anymore because it now knows that all the fixers hired by the Canadian press have been with the organizations for years. And there has never been a known incident where a fixer betrayed his Canadian reporters. This just sounds like paranoia to me.

"There are cases of 'embedded' journalists being reluctant to go 'outside the wire' for fear of roadside bombs -- some getting their 'fixers' to do leg work for them. Journalists such as Matthew Fisher, who are old school and want to see for themselves, are becoming rare." Every single journalists I interviewed, "new" or "old" school, all said the same thing -- they know the story is off the base and they want to be out with the soldiers on missions; and go with the fixers to speak to Afghans and Taliban members. I think it's an extremely unfair assessment to assume younger journalists are "reluctant" to do the leg work. Take CBC Mellissa Fung's kidnapping in fall 2008. Do you really think this happened to her because she was letting her fixer do the leg work?

"Summed up, a journalist in Afghanistan who is not embedded with the military is incapable of getting the whole story, and is far more likely to be captive of what he or she is told by the Taliban, who are adept at using the media in a way our military wouldn't dare." I question this final thought, because nowhere in the entire article did Worthington prove or give an example of how the Taliban has manipulated the media in its favour in comparison to the military.

I think Canadian journalists strive every day with how to do better with the Afghanistan story. And they constantly acknowledge and struggle with the fact that it is an incomplete story they have to show. Fisher also admitted to him being unable to tell the whole story. And now NATO is barring journalists from travel in Afghanistan (http://www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5gXHes62vbQP-5axfjuEYw2Bk-_2w), and are being required to submit to biometric scans before they can even get access to military bases (http://www.google.com/hostednews/canadianpress/article/ALeqM5j9cLtJIfUbcjaR7pHDV9uIs4hR7A).

So I think we need to look at the politics and military when trying to understand how the Afghanistan story is being covered (which I tried to do in my piece). It's too one-sided to say the blame lies entirely with these "new embedded" journalists.

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