former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Tweets can be verbal shrapnel in war zones

In Blog, Uncategorized on July 25, 2014 at 8:23 pm

I know, I know. Journalism is the first draft of history. But even first drafts will profit from a little scrutiny. Which is one of the conclusions I drew after listening to Folkenflik’s thoughtful piece on covering the conflict in Gaza.

His story made the point that anyone who ventures into reporting on Mideast politics is likely to get criticized, with every nuance and word choice scrutinized for bias.

That’s unfair, if unavoidable. But reporters are adults, and provided they have responsible editors to support them when the charges of bias are not justified, the attacks are part of the job.

But there’s a new wrinkle, and this one is more troubling. Journalists are tweeting from war zones and protests in real time. That’s a recipe for disaster. Not because what they tweet will not be the truth, but because the recounting of what you see and hear is far different from tweeting what happened to you as it happens, and your gut feelings about it.

So CNN likely was right to reassign a reporter who tweeted that Israelis who harassed her while she was observing their cheers when missiles were lobbed at Gaza were “scum.” That’s not reporting, that’s what you tell your mother and spouse in private emails. And although she later apologized and said her term only applied to the people harassing her, the damage had been done. Tweets can be verbal shrapnel, and they can easily leave holes in reporter’s reputation for objectivity.

If anyone wants to know how you cover conflicts in which you are immersed and possibly injured, I refer you to former Washington Post reporter Paul Taylor. Taylor, who is profiled in my book, reported from South Africa in times of great violence and riots, before the country’s transition from apartheid to a multi-racial democracy. He managed to be shot in a black township, to be beaten up by an angry white mob, and to be kidnapped by Angolan rebels.

And yet not once, in all that coverage, did Taylor lose his professional demeanor, or his interest in seeing the world from the point of view of others. For example, in a story for the Post, He described the Angolan soldier, Mateus, as “an obliging eager-to-please true believer.” That’s quite remarkable since Mateus was one of the gunmen who had riddled his car with bullets and then took him captive.

If I were an editor or head of network news, I’d issue an order to all reporters in conflict zones: Don’t tweet. Great reporting happened before twitter was invented, and the first draft of history doesn’t have to appear the minute after it happens.

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