War reporting: two online reports – spot the difference

Two approaches to reporting on war have crossed my virtual desk recently. First, a broadcast journalist at ITV News told me about their video blogs from Afghanistan – embedded below:

Second, Reuters send me a press release about ‘Bearing Witness, “a unique multimedia package and online documentary to mark 5 years of reporting war in Iraq”
Watch the video. Then, go to http://iraq.reuters.com/

Spot the difference?

For years journalists accused blogs of being indulgent navel-gazing ego-trips. The ITV News video blog from Afghanistan doesn’t do anything to challenge that myth, with little insight, reflection or indeed seriousness. The feeling, as I tweeted at the time, is of a lads’ jolly. Put another way, the film uses the narrative of a ‘behind-the-scenes’ promo, as if this is indeed only a “theatre” of war, where the stars remark on the quality of the catering and the sets.

Oliver Luft at Journalism.co.uk went further:

“Three things stand out: First, it’s just like a traditional piece of broadcast news, presenter driven, sets constructed and people artificially placed to interview. Second, if there is a war about, it seems a very jolly one – no blood and guts, not too much slumming it for the ITV boys. Third, there seems to be millions of them out there, using a tonne of kit. Why not just send a reporter with a lightweight camera and a laptop?”

The Reuters piece, on the other hand, tells a very different story.

“Covering news in hostile places is a worthwhile thing,” says former Iraq bureau chief Andrew Marshall at the start. “It can bring about change, it can inform the world, and it is worth us risking our lives.”

Video, audio slideshows, maps, timelines and links are combined to provide a reflective and informative angle on the conflict. This genuinely is ‘behind the scenes’ – the dangers faced by journalists, what they do and why they do it.

And importantly, it goes some way to address the cynicism of viewers who believe journalists are only there for the scoop and the status.

Now obviously the video blog and the multimedia interactive are different mediums with very different investments of time and money. But the reflectiveness of the Reuters piece could have just as easily been done with a video blog.

Instead, ITV have gone for entertainment over insight – which is understandable: that’s what ITV News is known for, what the audience has perhaps come to expect. This is blog-as-diary rather than blog-as-journalism.

But while hearing producer Matt Williams talk about the “fun” of being a fellow soldier with Prince Harry may be entertaining on a personal level, it may also damage the journalistic reputation of ITV News when viewers ask, understandably: “Where is your critical distance?” Or: “It’s not ‘fun’ for my brother on the front line”.

Put another way: imagine that these were on the journalist’s own personal site, or Facebook page, and a viewer came across them. What would they think about the journalist?

In both these examples of online journalism the implicit question is ‘Why are we doing this?’ The answers provided by the two pieces could hardly be more different.

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7 thoughts on “War reporting: two online reports – spot the difference

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  4. Charlie Beckett

    That’s a bit unfair Paul – completely different audiences (and budgets i suspect) but you are right with your implied praise for the fantastic piece of work by Reuters.
    cheers
    Charlie

    Reply
  5. paulbradshaw Post author

    @Charlie: perhaps, and I acknowledged the audiences and budgets thing, but still, it does smack of a lack of imagination. You can still appeal to that mainstream audience by being marginally reflective or at least understanding of the sensitivity of the situation you’re talking about.

    Reply
  6. Andrew

    I liked them both.

    The ITV piece is honest, just not earnest. Not a bad thing. Little bit of a look at what it’s really like being there – without self glorification.

    Reply
  7. paulbradshaw Post author

    “honest, just not earnest” is a good summary. As journalists we know the black humour and flippancy that rules behind the scenes, but I’m not sure it’s always wise to make that public.

    Reply

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