Reporting from conflict zones

Today’s globalized society is one characterized by a near neutralization of time and space. Modern means of travel and instantaneous forms of communication are transforming the way that people across the world relate to one another.

In the midst of this, media outlets and the reporters and journalists that serve them are fighting to meet the expectations of an audience that is learning to demand first hand information delivered directly from the source – wherever that source may be located.

The topic of a globalized media and the issues surrounding it was the focus of a recent panel discussion hosted by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and presented in partnership with the Canadian International Council (CIC).

The event, entitled “Media Panel: Canadians reporting from Conflict Zones”, featured two of the most prominent names in the field: Graeme Smith, a foreign correspondent for the Globe and Mail, and Scott Taylor, the editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps. Rick MacInnis-Rae, host of Dispatches on CBC Radio One, moderated the discussion.

John Roe, editor of the Record’s editorial page, introduced the panellists and set the tone for the evening. Roe began by noting just how quickly the media world is changing.
Moreover, Roe explained how foreign correspondence, which often features the elite of the journalistic community, is becoming an ever-more critical aspect of a healthy and well-functioning news media.

Roe went on to pose several questions to the panellists, inquiring, “What are the obstacles and concerns facing foreign correspondents? Why are foreign correspondents important? Why should Canadians care about what is happening abroad? Does news need a domestic angle to be well received?”

The discussion that followed was both informative and illuminating. MacInnis-Rae was invaluable in his efforts to elicit important insights from the expert panellists, who he described as premier war correspondents with admirable penchants for finding themselves stuck among the enemies as well as the friendlies.

Graeme described the purpose of his work as “covering the collision between two different universes that don’t understand each other. Sometimes that means sitting cross-legged with men with long grey beards drinking cup after cup of green tea and sometimes that means waiting until dusk falls, listening to troops, who have nothing else to do, as they talk about girlfriends and ex-girlfriends, into the night.”

Taylor shared similar sentiments, explaining that his role with Esprit de Corps often involves playing the role of a middle man. Troops bring information to Taylor, who he must use his discretion when putting this information forth in the media.

Such an arrangement often involves toeing a delicate line between either revealing something that could put troops in harm’s way or failing to report on an issue and thus missing the opportunity to utilize public pressure as a way of hastening necessary reforms.

The two panellists discussed some of the basic frustrations of their work abroad, such as the pressure to push out copy and the common “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality of many of their superiors.

Technological advancements have also complicated the media game, as the truth becomes increasingly easy to manipulate through anonymous and filter-free Internet posts.
Nonetheless, the ultimate challenge of the job remains the outright danger associated with reporting from conflict zones. In 2004, Taylor himself became the subject of news headlines. He was held hostage for three days, during which time he was abused and threatened with execution.
Taylor’s only comment on the experience was simply, “I learned just how painful it is to be tortured.”

On the issue of Afghanistan, both panellists offered somewhat bleak predictions in regards to an ideal ending scenario. Interestingly, both men agreed that introducing democracy is not a practical goal.

Instead, Graeme emphasized a harm reduction strategy. Such a strategy would focus on minimizing fatalities, curbing the opiate drug trade, cutting down on air travel in the country and investing in education, especially the procurement of teachers.

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