Tuesday, January 01, 2013

The Myth Of Objective Journalism

Two weeks before Palestine defeats Israel and US opposition by receiving an upgrade to UN member state observer status, we’re speaking to Joe Sacco over the phone from his home town of Portland, Oregon. It’s during Israel’s Operation Pillar Of Defence and a day after the air attack which kills Hamas military leader in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari. Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is sabre-rattling over the threat of an Israeli ground attack following retaliatory rocket fire from Gaza.
“I grew up thinking all Palestinians were terrorists,” says Sacco of his US high school and college education. “That wasn’t from studying the issue closely, that was from just absorbing what I read in newspapers. Newspapers were reporting a lot of facts,” he says, enunciating for effect in the absence of being able to make hand quotes. “You can report objective facts – the hijacking of an airplane, attacks on a bus, killing hostages – but often what objective facts don’t provide is a context of other crimes.”
“You can report objective facts selectively and without context and give someone an impression,” continues Sacco, “as I was given by so-called objective journalism: that Palestinians are pure and simple terrorists. It took self-education. I was never going to come up with another viewpoint by reading the American press.”
Unlike press or TV news, Sacco is part of his stories. He deliberately makes his stories subjective by appearing in them and documenting the influence or cause that his presence – or even impact – might have on the story. But to Sacco, this is not far removed from traditional ‘embedded’ journalists reporting from war zones. “The journalist is always ‘in the shot’ in real life,” he argues. “People are always responding to a very specific individual. Obviously there’s a lot more going on that you’re getting [from mainstream news sources]. At the very least I want to let the reader in on that.
“The problem with modern journalists is that they truly believe they are objective. They believe that they’re in the service of some platonic idealism of journalism. I would rather try to be as honest as possible and source information as accurately as possible but admit that by meeting and befriending people, they respond to you. I want all of that to go into my story; I want to be upfront about it."
“What objectivity has come to mean as far as its journalistic definition is that there are two sides to a story, you just present both sides of the story then let the reader decide. There’s neverjust two sides. To me, a journalist is someone who you have to put a bit of faith in. If you know what a journalist’s world view is – by this point most people who know my work will have an appreciation of my world view – then you understand the filter that you are reading the thing through. You’re reading it through a very individual filter and you can judge better.”
For example, he pictured a child being harassed by Israeli soldiers from above, giving the reader the feeling of oppression from the child’s point of view. To which some people objected. “It’s a very subjective choice but when I’m drawing something like that I’m thinking about the child – I’m not thinking about the poor soldiers being neutral. The child is being harassed by soldiers: it’s wrong. You’d think it was wrong if you saw it on the street.
“Despite what I’ve said about being subjective, you realise these are very powerful tools and you’re careful about how you use it. I could make things look a lot worse too, but I think about how I’m going to present it. You don’t want things to look spectacular, you don’t want violence to somehow look beautiful. There are a lot of ways to think about what’s in your hands. There is an inherent danger with subjectivity: there’s a great responsibility with something on which you have a view and how you are going to present it.”
“If you look at the World War I photographs in London’s Imperial War Museum, in 99 per cent of cases, it’s the German dead,” he says. “The pictures by themselves are grotesque but it’s no worse than what you might see on a battlefield. They wanted to show what being a soldier was like, but of course they didn’t want to harm the war effort. So that’s already a subjective decision.”
Producing Footnotes In Gaza particularly was itself an exercise in trauma and depression. “As hard as those stories were to hear in person, it was easier to hear those stories than it was to draw those stories,” he says darkly. “Because when you’re hearing the stories and you’re trained as a journalist, you’re trying to corral the person telling the story to stay on track. Usually there are 13 other stories around them and it takes so much concentration to get the story that you’re behaving almost coldly. It’s like you’re a doctor extracting an organ. All you’re interested in is removing that organ and sewing up the patient with as little harm done as possible. You’re very clinical about it; almost like a technician. There’s a coldness. It’s kind of a good thing because you’re distanced.
“When you’re drawing it’s hard to be distanced. In fact you have to inhabit what you’re drawing – the person you’re shooting and the person falling to the ground. You have to feel how their hands would be placed and so on. You find yourself almost doing this reflexively with your own body, to find out how you would draw those muscles. Is it depressing? If you see enough of the world it’s depressing. Drawing it is like taking a concentrated dose of it.”
“People know I’m sympathetic to the Palestinian people,” says Sacco. “So you can dismiss it as ‘he’s always an apologist for this, that, or the other’. But often the Palestinians are saying things that are awful and things are happening that aren’t going to make them look good – but you have to report it honestly.
“I definitely believe you should present another side, but as someone who you want the reader to trust, I have enough faith in myself as someone who is discerning to say, ‘yes, I’m presenting this side of the story, but I was there; I saw what was happening and it’s bullshit – that side of the story was bullshit. If I was on the ground and met people and saw things with my own eyes, I’m not going to wash that out by feeding people the opposite just for the sake of so-called objectivity. I’m much more interested in truth. I think you can find truth even through a subjective point of view. But if you see things that don’t fit your world view you still have to report those things.”

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