The final part of the discussion with award winning journalist Paula Slier whose reporting from the Middle East was banned by the SABC. For the background to this interview click onto Zikalala Must Go.
In this piece Slier talks about objective journalism and the error in judging her reporting from the prism of her religion.
IAS: Many Jews in South Africa however have criticised you for taking a tougher than necessary stance on Israel. How do you measure the objectivity of your reporting?
Paula Slier: I don’t believe there is truly such a thing as objective journalism per se, but I think it is an ideal to which all journalists should aspire. It certainly is something I take seriously and try to impart through all my stories. I am fully aware of the fact that all of us have our own prejudices – what worries me is that we might be prejudiced in ways that we are not even conscious of. Each time I report on a story, I am very careful to check my facts and step back and ask if this bit of reporting reflects the truth of what’s going on as best I can see, and report, it.
The parameters for me in terms of whether or not I am telling a story truthfully are the parameters I set myself. These include whether I have honestly reflected the opinions of those people I interviewed, whether what is said is factually correct, and, as far as is possible, whether or not I’ve sought opinions or facts to present a contrary view.
Context is always important. The difficulty comes in, especially with television news, when you often have only a minute-and-a-half to tell a story. I think when assessing whether or not a report is objective, it is important sometimes to not only look at that report in isolation, but to judge it alongside several other reports which were presented with it.
For example, I once did a story on a South African Israeli woman who was injured in a suicide bombing. I was taken to task for only showing one side of the story (i.e. being sympathetic to Israel), but that story was about that particular woman’s experiences (I incidentally did include a sentence at the end of the report about how many Palestinians had been injured in Israeli incursions).
The next day I did a story about a South African woman who had come to help the Palestinian population of a particular village. They were protesting against the security wall/barrier/fence – whatever you want to call it. Here I was criticized for being sympathetic to the Palestinian side. But what viewers forget is that each story is about something different. Each story here was about a particular South African woman’s experiences – and in the latter case I did include the Israeli government’s argument for building the structure in the first place.
I have been criticized by both Jews and Muslims in South Africa for my reporting on the Middle East. I’m not sure this is the best gauge that I am getting the story right, but I do think it lends some weight to the fact that because I’m not satisfying either side, I must be somewhere in the middle.
At one stage my news editor at the SABC was receiving what actually amounted to hate mail by some in the Jewish community. The Media Review network at one time also considered taking me to the Broadcast Complaints Commission. People also forget that all my stories are checked by the editors on duty – sometimes this involves two or more people.
I am insulted when some Jews claim that I am “pro-Palestinian” as a way of ensuring I am accepted as an objective journalist – their reasoning is that I have to go “overboard” i.e. take an anti-Israel position to overcompensate for my religious affiliation.
The contention is that all Jews automatically support the policies of the State of Israel, which is simply untrue. In the same way I am insulted by Muslims who automatically assume that because I am Jewish, I unquestioningly support the actions of the Israeli government. My faith is secondary to my reporting.
What kind of journalist would I be if I allowed my Jewishness to influence my reporting? Instead it’s a sad reflection on people who hold these views because it shows that for them, their faith is overriding and clouds any kind of objectivity they can bring to a piece of journalism.
I think the viewer too has a responsibility in gauging his/her own prejudices. What I wish for is that each of us will try to approach every story with an openness and readiness to engage with what is being said. More than anything what I’ve learnt is that both sides have truth, pain and suffering. It is this reality that I try to reflect.
IAS: Is it possible for a “white Jewish girl” to report objectively on the Middle East?
Paula Slier: Of course it is perfectly possible for a “white Jewish girl” to report objectively on the Middle East. Religious affiliation should never be a criteria to determine whether someone is objective or not - whether reporting on the Israeli-Arab conflict or another story. Each of us is born into a particular faith and has a specific skin colour – to suggest that these things be taken into consideration when judging the standard of a piece of journalism is ludicrous. Let me remind you that journalism is about getting to the truth of a situation and telling the story – these are its criteria, nothing more, nothing less.