The reporter’s battle: Objectivity and independence on the frontlines in Afghanistan
by Allison Cross
November 12, 2007
Jas Johal reporting in Afghanistan in June 2006. Photo by Jeff Stephen.
On his most recent visit to Afghanistan in June, Jas Johal met a 27-year-old soldier from Kingston, Ont.
The soldier was married with a two-year-old son and expressed dedication to his mission.
The two clicked right away and struck up a friendship, said Johal, a television reporter for Global BC. At the end of his six-week stay with the troops in the Kandahar airfield, Johal packed up his belongings, said his goodbyes and left to return to Canada.
On July 4, six Canadian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter were killed when their armoured vehicle hit a roadside bomb. After a detour on his return journey that cut him off from the news, Johal arrived home in Vancouver to find out one of the dead soldiers was his friend, Capt. Matthew Dawe.
“There was only a month left before [Dawe] was going to go home,” Johal said. “For the first time, it really hit me.”
Johal realized he had significant footage of Dawe out on patrol and decided to put together a segment about the soldier. It aired on Global National and implied a close relationship between the two men.
“You do your best to provide an accurate, objective view of what’s happening there,” he said. “But it affects you.”
Johal’s experience getting to know Dawe and sharing his story with the world isn’t necessarily characteristic of journalists reporting from Afghanistan, who do their best to maintain some distance from their subjects. But reporters sent to the conflict live directly with the troops, who in turn feed them and give them a place to sleep, write and edit. Journalism ethics are a constant issue because journalists must report critically and objectively on the soldiers who work to keep them alive and have to navigate the wishes of military public officials who make it tricky to tell the whole story.
“In a perfect world, you’d want to live separately,” Johal said. “That’s the toughest part. We go on patrol with these troops. You’re there to ask critical questions, but at the same time, they are responsible for your safety and security.”
Reporters who take a hard line with their interview subjects or pursue controversial stories can’t help but wonder if their tactics will result in decreased access to patrols and meetings.
Johal said it’s only natural to expect journalists embedded with troops to produce stories about soldiers, but these journalists also have a responsibility to expand their coverage.
This sometimes means hiring a fixer – a local guide and translator – in Kandahar and taking to the streets without protection.
“When we’re gone, we’re on our own,” Johal said. “We’re in the city doing interviews as much as possible. We do make a conscious effort to go out. You need to be on the front lines.”
Reporters might make the extra effort to find the untold story, but it’s the responsibility of their newspapers and networks at home to release the content, said Chris Waddell, an associate professor of journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.
“The ironic situation is that reporters might actually end up giving a sanitized version of war because legs that are blown off or incinerated, those images are deemed too disturbing to put on TV,” Waddell said.
Still, the concept of embedded journalists has been around since World War II, he said, and reporters today enjoy significantly more freedom in what they can print or show on TV.
“In embedded situations, you can’t report on issues of military significance and you can’t report on things that might benefit whoever the enemy might be,” Waddell said. “You can’t report on casualties before the family has been notified.”
Jonathan Fowlie, a Vancouver Sun reporter who spent six weeks in Afghanistan in the spring reporting for CanWest News Service, said it isn’t uncommon for military public affairs officers to recommend stories or ride along with journalists on patrol.
“There were a few times where I wrote things I was told not to write,” Fowlie said of the military’s close watch on the stories he pursued. “There was a bit of a distressing trend I wasn’t all that happy with.”
When one public affairs officer was unable to accompany Fowlie on a patrol, he asked Fowlie to email him his story before it was published so he might check for factual inaccuracies.
After a talk with his editor, Fowlie agreed to send his story to the officer and the CanWest News Service desk in Ottawa at the same time. When that officer came back with requests that he take out a quote and change the wording in a couple of paragraphs, Fowlie said no. Without any factual errors or details that might put the troops in danger, he wasn’t about to change the story.
“I told him, ‘I don’t feel anything you’ve asked for is valid,’” Fowlie said. “I printed it and it was fine. And the issue was, if you want to go out with the troops you have to go through [that officer]. I just didn’t like it.”
Fowlie knew his desk in Ottawa was ready to back him up, in case his decision to publish the story got him kicked out of his post.
“What if I had a desk that wasn’t willing to back me?” he said. “If you stand on principle and get kicked out, it means your papers don’t have coverage. And you have to live with that. My desk was behind me 100 per cent. I think most desks are like that.”
ALLISON CROSSis completing her Master's in Journalism at the University of British Columbia. Her work has appeared in The Province, the Nanaimo Daily News, the Ottawa Citizen, The Tyee and the Victoria Times-Colonist. She has a degree in English language and literature from Queen's University.