How can journalists be objective when writing about dead children?
Being calmly rational about Gaza feels like a very particular form of madness. Journalism must convey the emotion too
Giles FraserThe Guardian, Friday 1 August 2014 12.01 BSTJump to comments (1045)Palestinians gather around the body of 40-day-old baby Kerem Ebu Zeyid, who died after Israeli attacks in Gaza on 29 July. Photograph: Belal Khaled/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
It’s a controversy as old as the fifth century BC. “Man is the measure of all things,” said Protagoras. No, replied Plato. Nothing imperfect can be the measure of anything. And there we have the essence of a philosophical squabble about the possibility of human objectivity that is as alive in modern newsrooms as it was in the Athenian agora. For when a visibly shaken Jon Snow stepped out from behind the supposed neutrality of his newsreader’s desk to present a piece to camera on hisrecent trip to Gaza, it felt like he was crossing a journalistic fourth wall, thus allowing the audience to recognise his anger, his passion and his opinion.
“I can’t get these images out of my mind,” said Snow, describing a small girl he met in hospital, “terribly crippled by shrapnel that had penetrated her spine.” Was that objective, some asked?
Well, I admit it: I have been losing my cool. During the week, I decided that it didn’t make sense for me to write about Gaza any more. I was no longer interested in sitting calmly at my desk turning out more apparently ordered sentences, purporting to run smoothly from one solid proposition to another. At times, I feel shut down by the sheer horror of it all, encased in some bitter despondency, unable properly to process the frustration.
And then, by contrast, I worry that I am going to blurt out something that I will come to regret. Maybe I did that in this column last week, floating the possibility of what I called “just terrorism”. My friend, UN spokesman Chris Gunness, broke down during an Al-Jazeera interview. He managed the words “the injustice of it all is enough to make any heart burst” before he sank sobbing into his hands, unable to say any more.
On yesterday morning, the Guardian’s leader-writing team were talking together, entirely calmly and sensibly, about the way forward: we discussed Binyamin Netanyahu’s inaction, lost opportunities for peace, the problem of attack tunnels. But my mind wandered off and the conversation became distant chatter. All this being cool about it didn’t work for me. I think of the remains of that two-year-old boy that our Jerusalem correspondent Peter Beaumont was presented with in a plastic bag. And the kids packed into that UN school, sleeping on mattresses, expecting that a blue flag would keep them safe. My focal point wouldn’t extend past that horror. I see it up close and personal.
Mourners attend the funeral ceremony of siblings killed in Israeli airstrike in Gaza. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
I know that traditional journalism prides itself on maintaining a strict firewall between objective and subjective, between news and comment. The New York Times, for instance, has a separate management structure for each for precisely this reason. But isn’t this just a convenient fiction? I want the paper to write, in big bold capital letters: we hate this fucking stupid pointless war. “Reason is a slave to the passions,” as David Hume famously once put it.
I know, I know: this sort of emotion is not going to solve anything. But in the midst of unimaginable suffering, the idea of calm objectivity feels like a desperate attempt to maintain some thin veneer of civilisation protecting us from the total futility of it all. And when Netanyahu’s spokesman, Mark Regev, comes on the radio, intoning that false, calm sympathy straight out of the PR handbook, I want to scream. And the double frustration is that screaming is generally understood to be what you do when you have lost the argument. Whereas I can’t shake the feeling that, in these circumstances, screaming is the most rational thing to do.
Being calmly rational about dead children feels like a very particular form of madness. Whatever else journalistic objectivity is, it surely cannot be the elimination of human emotion. If we don’t recognise that, we are not describing the full picture.