The appalling events in Gaza over the last couple of weeks have brought to the fore a long-standing debate about the proper place of emotion and subjective judgement in journalism. Those reporting on such topics as war, famine, the death of children and so forth are constantly faced with difficult moral questions about their own conduct, their role in packaging horror for a mass audience, and the expectation of neutrality in all their accounts. The decisions of Jon Snow and Channel 4 that he should to express his personal view in a YouTube video while maintaining the normal appearance of objectivity and aloofness on air has been widely discussed, including a passionate but problematic article by Giles Fraser in yesterday’s Grauniad: How Can Journalists Be Objective When Writing About Dead Children?
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.
This is powerful and persuasive – but I can’t help feeling that it’s also wrong and even dangerous. The much-cited New York Times division between news and comment can never really guarantee absolutely objective reporting, as we’re all too aware of the way that the selection and presentation of ‘facts’ can shape readers’ reactions without the need for overt editorialising – but it expresses an important principle, that the task of the reporter is to try to achieve that objectivity, to work in the service of truth rather than to promote their own agenda. This doesn’t require them to eliminate all human emotion; it does require them to try to eliminate it from their reporting.
Fraser seems to conflate or confuse the smooth, emotionless rationalism of the Israeli spokesman with the hard-won rationality of the reporter, and to conclude that because the former is inhuman and terrifying the latter must also be. Perhaps the psychological mechanisms required to suppress emotion are the same, but they serve vastly different ends; the former must deny or suppress any feelings of horror in order to be able to justify the events that promote the emotion, the latter does this in order to report on the events effectively. The reporter may indeed feel like screaming or crying – but the risk of expressing these emotions in print or on camera is that they then become the story, rather than the events themselves. Resorting to screaming is not necessarily an admission of losing the argument – but it is an opting-out of rational argument, and in some cases an attempt at winning through emotional manipulation instead.
I think, as ever, of Thucydides, whose calm, clear-eyed rationality and objectivity in the face of horror and death have been praised for centuries. Would his account of the plague at Athens, or the civil war at Corcyra, or the massacre at Plataea, or the final retreat of the Athenian army from Syracuse, be more effective if they were more emotive and emotional? On the contrary, I think their effectiveness is grounded in the way we are confronted with the horrific reality of those events, calmly enumerated without any comment, rather than with the spectacle of the historian’s own reaction. For example, the almost casual manner in which he refers to the destruction of Melos and the enslavement of the women and children is more effective than an extensive, emotive description would have been. Of course this is a literary technique, a means of creating the ‘reality effect’, and (as Eduard Meyer remarked) of seeming to leave the reader to reach his/her own conclusions while managing things behind the scenes to ensure that they reach the conclusions the historian desires. One might say that it’s not only a more effective technique, it’s also a technique that serves the cause of genuine understanding, rather than just the promotion of a particular view of events.
Equally, Thucydides declines to issue condemnations of anyone involved (with the partial exception of Cleon); we are left to reach our own judgements from what he describes. In some cases (Plataea, for example), it’s clear that the blame is fairly heavily weighted on one side rather than the other – but we are kept aware of the complexity of events and the extent to which all sides involved (at any rate the men) are to some extent complicit. Again, Fraser seems to confuse the issue of the reporter getting emotionally involved with the issue of him/her becoming an advocate for one side – there’s an obvious causal connection, but these are different things.
Thucydides is interested not only in individual decisions but in the structures that shaped those decisions and their consequences, beyond the short-term understanding of the individuals involved. His practice of calm objectivity is intended not, as Fraser would suggest, to deny the nihilistic horrors of reality by applying a thin veneer of civilisation, but to achieve an insight into the nature and causes of those horrors that goes beyond superficial impressions and reactions. This involves not an inhuman purging of emotion but a superhuman self-restraint in the service of truth. As such, Thucydides remains the founding figure of contemporary war reporting.