The Journalism of Attachment (JOA) is a phrase coined in 1997 by BBC reporter Martin Bell after the horrors he saw in Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict. Bell would like journalism to shift from the traditional neutral observer style (which he calls “bystander journalism”), towards a more caring, interventionist journalism that makes distinctions between “good and evil, right and wrong, the victim and the oppressor.” Advocates for this type of reporting firmly believe that it is up to the journalist to try to influence the world for the better.
All of this is noble and well-meaning, but may in reality be wishful thinking and all-too idealistic. True, JOA rightly implies that objectivity is inadequate as a concept in the field of journalism, a viewpoint that is backed up by scholars such as Geneva Overholser. As both a way of thinking and a method for journalism practice, however, JOA has multiple issues of its own.
Martin Bell discovered the power of television during his time reporting in Sarajevo. He wanted it to be used to show the horror of conflict, and thus to try and bring people and politicians to action in helping innocent victims of war. A nice thought, but I think a bit naïve. Despite a reporter’s good intentions, television images can be easily misinterpreted by audiences, leading to wrong actions.
Another thing Bell doesn’t consider is that if audiences are constantly exposed to shocking images of conflicts and disasters across the globe, they likely become desensitised to such images. I completely agree with Karen Sanders when she says that modern TV audiences have become passive consumers of tragedy, briefly glimpsing into the struggles of people in far away parts of the globe, before then watching a football game 20 minutes later.
It is extremely difficult for a reporter — often coming from a country and a culture a world away from the place where they are reporting — to accurately gauge the context of the situation. It also cannot be denied that industry pressures, such as time constraints and the need to make a compelling story, will impair the decisions of reporters and lead them toward rash and incorrect decisions.
Even if a reporter believes s/he is coping with these pressures without it affecting the work, there are non-industry pressures that also must be considered. The pressure from governments, for example, is almost inescapable. If the government of the journalist’s own country is involved in the conflict, the main goal for the reporter can easily become to assist their country in achieving those goals, rather than simply telling the truth of the story.
Lawrence Cwerner (Leeds, Great Britain)