Although Dubai remains a bastion of stability and wealth amidst ruinous events nearby, conversations here resonate with conspiracy theories and grim prognostications about the ISIL war and other conflicts raging in the neighborhood. Several hundred thousands have died and millions are refugees, and the news media here, like news organizations elsewhere in the world, serve up daily fare of gore and frustration. Reporting is vivid, but nothing is clear.
I’ve been spending time here with students and others involved in developing the next generation of the region’s journalists. Everyone means well and is working hard, but I sense that these young people may slip into old patterns: deferring to government pronouncements, gently handling “official sources,” backing away from the graphic reality of combat. This is the news environment in which aspiring journalists are being trained, and many of those who teach them are unready to challenge the prevailing rules of the game.
The students’ technical skills are impressive. I’ve seen wonderful storytelling on numerous media platforms and I’ve had great conversations with young women and men who want to do good through their journalism. And yet they are walking down the same well-trod path that their professional colleagues followed when reporting the early stages of other recent wars. They are being trained how to report but not how to infuse that reporting with knowledge grounded in journalism’s past achievements and past missteps. When the topic is war, superficial journalism does great disservice to the public that wants and needs to know what is happening. A journalistic vacuum will be filled by self-serving information from the government.
Every journalism student who aspires to cover conflict and related facets of public affairs should be required to study war and war journalism. For the former, Thucydides is a good starting point, and for the latter they should look closely at the deeply flawed coverage by most of the U.S. news media during the 2002 run-up to the Iraq war. They should pay particular attention to the mea culpas offered by the likes of The Washington Post and the New York Times when they belatedly realized that they had betrayed their public trust by allowing themselves to be misled about the rationale for going to war.
Most of the students and academics with whom I’ve been talking are not Americans; they are mostly from countries in this region where fighting is taking place or where it threatens to spread. Wherever they’re from, most of them admire U.S. news organizations and the kind of media freedom that may remain beyond their own grasp. In the best journalism programs in this region, students are being trained to work within constraints and, in the words of one professor, to “tickle the red line” beyond which their governments will not allow them to proceed.
That is all to the good, but for the foreseeable future in this region the dominant story will be war and the threat of more war. As I write this in the United Arab Emirates, I am just a few hundred miles from both Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two giants whose proxies are dying nearby every day. This proximity makes the news media essential to the communities they serve, and makes the training of news providers exceptionally important.
Not even the best journalism can end a war, but even in autocratic states it can provide intellectual tools for individuals to refine their moral and practical perspectives on conflict and on possible paths toward a less violent future. That is important, because when today’s sheikhs and warlords have passed from the scene, the children of this conflict will determine whether there will be a “next war.”
Their actions will be shaped partly by what they know, and what they know will depend to considerable degree on what information journalists provide them. Few topics are more important than the arguments for and against war, and if journalists don’t report about this thoroughly, governments will happily offer their own version of “news.”
That will ensure that the next war will be followed by the next, and the next, and the next…. Journalism might help break this chain, and so journalism education, especially in this region, deserves to be taken seriously.