Objectivity is the cornerstone of journalism (or at least one of them). From the get-go, would-be hacks are taught the truth is paramount and must not be in anyway distorted by personal leanings. Every side of a story is reported or in Al Jazeera parlance, every angle, every side is given due diligence. This is all fine until the stories become more complex, more intricate, or even sometimes when the stories become more blatantly dichotomous.
Last year in a talk given by Alex Crawford at Coventry University, right after her stint in Libya as the first correspondent to report on the end of revolution, I recall listening avidly to what she had been saying. An audience member asked if objectivity was an issue when reporting from zones of conflict. She said that during times of obvious bloodshed, it is no longer about objectivity; there is a clear distinction between right and wrong. That response struck me as both odd yet rather human. Why would you expect a journalist to be objective after they've watched one of their own crew members get shot in the head?
Journalists reporting on conflict quickly become immersed in the issues. Regardless, they are still trained professionals that can maintain a true commitment to fairness and accuracy in their coverage, if not objectivity for its own sake. However, the previously clear cut lines set by objectivity are now becoming more and more blurred with the emergence of citizen journalism. Internet access and endless blogs and social media connectivity has allowed room for people who previously had no voice. This is naturally a democratic advantage.
However, it raises a whole new set of dilemmas. Given the situation in Syria, in the last two years, media outlets have relied heavily on the outpouring of citizen journalists online reporting from within Syria through Facebook, twitter and YouTube. As a general process, incoming sources are verified in some way or the other.
Verification typically entails cross-referencing information from the source against already existent facts. What it does not entail, due to the lack of clarity on the matter, is verification of motives and personal agenda. One of the most recent videos to emerge from Syria is one of a rebel fighter by the name Abu Sakkar, eating the organs of a soldier he had killed.
The video had been seen by journalists at TIME magazine who intended to post it online after extensive verification. The video ended up surfacing on a pro-regime website. When witnessing something as atrocious and out of the ordinary as deliberate cannibalism, it's only natural to seek a motive. Why would someone do something like this? A journalist would ask why would someone film and distribute something like this.
Is Abu Sakkar seeking fame or in this case infamy? Could he be looking for money from groups that tend to fund insurgency movements for whatever motivations?
While citizen journalism has brought on a new wave of completely unadulterated content allowing for unheard voices to be heard, it has also highlighted the need for new ways to scrutinize incoming media. In their namesake, citizen journalists tend to be involved in the issues they report on. They may even be invested on one side of a situation. Does this make for better journalism? Or does it create a space for people to promote their own ideas, throwing objectivity out the window?