Reporting is Activism – II
Published November 10, 2014
by Shamina de Gonzaga
To tell the truth, to shape and sell the “truth,” or to suppress it…investigative journalism questions.
At a screening of Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines: Haiti in a Time of Cholera, I asked correspondent and producer Sebastian Walker about the repercussion to his film. He responded that he hoped to draw attention, if not outrage, to the continued impact of cholera in Haiti. The Pan American Health Organization reports 8,546 deaths from the disease and 700,541 diagnosed cases between the outbreak in October 2010 and March of this year. The documentary examines the connection to UN peacekeepers who likely brought the disease into the country, and calls for a just response from the UN, which has systematically refused to engage with victims and their families. Walker’s pursuit of accountability meets my definition of activism.
However, former AP correspondent Jonathan Katz, who covered the cholera outbreak in Haiti early on, noted that investigative journalists don’t have to be advocates for causes: “I was working for the AP, which is adamant about its reporters not being advocates. Fortunately I didn’t have to be one. The evidence was right there. The general sense among most of my colleagues in the media was, ‘Why do you have to assign blame for an epidemic?’ It was far more convenient just to associate it with the horrible things that occur in a natural disaster and humanitarian catastrophe. But since I was based in Port-au-Prince, it was much clearer to me that the outbreak had nothing to do with the earthquake. That made finding the source of the infection a hugely important question, and an essential story.”
The conviction to report on a news story takes on a different dimension when your salary, not to mention your life, is on the line. Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News, who reports on the US-Mexico border, explained, “Being a reporter, I never sought out to be a ‘narco-reporter,’ that was never my interest, but you can’t ignore it.” He added, “One of the saddest stories I ever covered was the murder of the women of Juarez. And I’ve heard many mothers say: ‘If my daughter was blonde, blue eyed, we could have gotten a lot more attention, we could have gotten civil society involved.’“ The stories that do or don’t make the news are a reflection of the power structure that governs our societies. This is obvious where there are explicit or tacit government policies of media mergers and control, or where journalists face frequent intimidation and violence. But it is also the case in places that seem to be exempt from such tactics and in newsrooms that may be unaware of unintentional bias.
A commitment to tell a story despite pressures to the contrary is an act of courage. On the other hand, a conscious or unconscious cultivated indifference that dismisses certain stories functions as an insidious form of information suppression. Reflecting on the pervasive ignorance and stereotypes he has encountered about his community, Native American hip-hop artist Frank Waln surmised, “most people only know what they see in the media, and since the media doesn’t portray us, for the general public, we don’t exist.”