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‘Journalism hasn’t changed, only speed and means of delivery have’

Anastasia Mankhaeva
Filed on March 13, 2011

DUBAI - “Journalism hasn’t changed,” stresses Kate Adie, former Chief News Correspondent of BBC News and author of four books, much sought-after public speaker and an Emirates Airline Festival of Literature favourite.

I sat down for an interview with the veteran journalist before she was due to give a lecture to the students and staff of Murdoch University International Study Centre — Dubai last week. What did change, however, is the speed of delivery, the means of delivery and a drastic shift in content, she says.

“It’s getting fluffier,” Adie says, citing an increase of showbiz and other news stories which could be deemed not too significant and not quite the potentially life-changing piece of news that journalists should be reporting on, in her opinion. She is quick to add that gossip and the like has always been there, but what is more evident now is how “the fluffy news is intruding into the serious area, being given more airtime”, Adie voices her opinion as a Western journalist with several decades of field experience in reporting from war zones such as Rwanda, Tiananmen Square protests in China, Libya and many others over the course of her 30-odd year career.

Discussing coverage of recent events in the Middle East and whether it is sufficient by different media outlets, Adie queries, “Coverage in which language, on what channel and for what audience?”

It’s hard to compare news agencies across the world, as “universal journalism is a complete myth”, says Adie. Perhaps with the slight exception of the big news agencies such as Associated Press and Reuters, “nearly everybody is broadcasting to their own audience”. Rightfully so, even those with a Twitter account or a blog have their own audience as well. However, Kate notes the exaggerated view of the power of social media. Instead, “what it has is (the) organising power amongst young people who use it”, she says.

She also points to a huge downside to pictures and videos taken by citizens in moments of political unrest, in particular, the rise in aggression against ordinary civilians because the typical citizen is armed with a rather unique kind of weapon — a camera phone.

Adie notes that Americans, and perhaps Westerners in general, have finally realised Al Jazeera is a good source of news, with Al Jazeera confident because it has Arabic-speaking presenters along with English language presenters to reach more audiences.

Western channels are usually a little slow in getting the news from the Middle Eastern countries, purely because of the language disadvantage. Networks such as CNN, BBC and many others, usually have to find a translator first, and with the speed of delivery of news ever increasing, Al Jazeera is delivering the news from the region much faster than their non-Arabic speaking counterparts are. Kate recalls her starting as a journalist. She noted journalism was not very fashionable or high status even then; thus the public opinion rises and falls year to year especially in Western countries. “Status of journalism varies greatly,” says Kate.

She attributes the increasing ‘fluffiness’ of news to that, but at the end of the day, she stresses journalism’s true purpose as outlined by William Howard Russell, an Irish reporter with The Times, in the 1800s and possibly one of the first modern war journalists: journalism’s duty is to tell everybody what is happening so people who are watching, reading and listening to the news can make educated decisions concerning their own lives. In short, to counter the negative view of journalism,journalists should aim to do useful journalism.

Kate muses the typical question a journalist should aim to ask himself/herself: “What can I tell them that they ought to know?” She cites Martha Gelhorn, an American war correspondent, as one of her later influences and inspirations in her journalistic career; but over the decades, Kate herself has managed to become a role model to many budding journalists andwomen all over the world.

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