Neutrality is a myth in journalism. Each one of us comes to this job with a set of values shaped over the years by our upbringing, culture, life experiences, and the biases and prejudices that come with them. Hard as one tries to be “neutral,” we cover events with our respective lenses.
The lenses used by CNN and BBC in covering the Iraq conflict may be similar to each other, but they are vastly different from the lens used by Al Jazeera and other Arab-based broadcasters. Which of these are neutral? Can we seriously say one is more neutral than the other?
BBC’s Alan Johnston, a respected figure in Indonesia for helping to run workshops for journalists in this country, has his biases when he covers the Middle East conflict. He has done a tremendously good job in reporting from a conflict zone under the most difficult circumstances. He is not neutral, however, and I don’t think he would proclaim to be.
But out of the pack who report on the Middle East conflict, he has probably been the most fair. By getting deep into the Palestinian area, he has been able to report on the war as seen through the eyes of the Palestinians, and to bring out stories that other reporters miss because they have not bothered to go as far he does (and to take the same risks). BBC has another reporter covering the conflict from the Israeli side.
That’s fairness. It can be done, and it is the obligation of the journalist, and the media, to try to be as fair as possible. Fairness is therefore the closest thing a journalist or the media she works for can offer, next to neutrality.
And fairness, or acting as fairly as possible, is all the more important in covering wars and conflicts. If the media have to rally around the flag in times of war, let that be the flag of truth and fairness.
And trust me, going by the experience in Indonesia, if you are perceived as being fair, both sides may not like what you do, but they will (or should) respect you for the position you have taken. And they should know that if they try to harass you, they will be the bigger loser.