Credit: Gustavo Rangel on Pexels

There has been no shortage of news stories coming out of Afghanistan over the past month, as the Taliban has gained control of all key cities in the country including the capital Kabul, almost 20 years after being driven out by a US-led military coalition.

From the carnage of bombings to the terror of door-to-door manhunts, this situation has seen many lives impacted and uprooted. Now the US has withdrawn the last of its troops, there will be many more voices from the ground which will desperately need media attention.

It reminds us that the default approach to covering events in the global south is for Western mainstream media outlets to ‘parachute in’ foreign correspondents (typically from the global north without always having prior experience or knowledge of the country) into the field. They then do their best to piece together information, talk to the locals and document stories as they break.

This can be effective for breaking news and keeping readers in the loop. But the problem with this approach is that important editorial decisions are made from afar and often through the lens of Western values. It also means that the coverage is in service of a foreign audience, and white and Western characters or institutions are often the protagonists.

Is there a different way for news outlets to cover humanitarian crises?

Decolonising humanitarian journalism

The New Humanitarian (TNH) is a non-profit newsroom best known for its reporting on conflicts, disasters and crises. It has an international, distributed team of around 25, with seven in Switzerland. It then works with freelance journalists in around 60 countries, both local and international reporters who have experience and deep networks of sources in each country.

In collaboration with their regional editors, freelancers shape coverage with a ground-up understanding of what is happening, representing the views of local communities rather than a parachute view from the capitals of the world.

But even with this specialised news operation, the team is rethinking how it should be covering events in the global south.

In a podcast with Journalism.co.uk, before the events in Afghanistan unfolded, the CEO Heba Aly spoke about decolonising humanitarian journalism.

Courtesy of Heba Aly (above), CEO of The New Humanitarian

"How do we make sure the stories we chose are not based on what we think is sexy and interesting but what matters to the communities we cover?" asks Aly.

"What kind of language are we using? To what extent are we victimising or empowering when we say things like 'Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere' and repeating these stereotypes without explaining why it’s the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and the colonial and extractive history that led it to be there."

There are many of these questions, and Aly stresses that neither she nor TNH has all the answers. But what decolonisation means in practice is to be more inclusive and empowering of the communities covered and to better represent the issues that matter to them.

In more concrete terms, this means allowing communities to shape narratives in the reporting, making sure stories are of service to them, recognising the agency of these communities to improve their own lives, taking a fact-based stance on issues that lead to suffering, and expanding the definition of quality journalism. To a larger extent, this means loosening the grip on Western news values.

Out with outdated news values

In journalism school, you hear a lot about objectivity and impartiality. In the West, for example, it is pretty much verboten to let your source see the story before you hit publish without very good reason. Is such a tight grip on the story the best way forward?

"The idea that journalists know best and we’re the ones who are detached from everything, can give an objective view of the situation, and anyone who has a stake in the story can’t come anywhere near it, is a model of the past," she says.

"I don’t [think] that communities need to be involved in every stage of the editing process but they certainly need to be informing our decisions about what we cover and don’t cover.”

The more transparent you can be with editorial decisions, the more you are decolonising your newsroom. But it is not just about transparency, it is about who has the power to shape the outcome.

With that in mind, TNH is thinking more closely about how to scale up town hall models in local media on a global level, to get more input from the communities it covers and have a stake in its work. This is because its primary audience is international policymakers and practitioners in humanitarian response.

Aly says that newsrooms should be informing, not obscuring, readers. The notion of objectivity is a privilege of journalists who can afford to be detached from issues of marginalisation because they do not face them.

But it is not in the interests of journalism to pretend to be objective.

When supported by the facts, showing outrage at events that call for it is fine. But the bottom line is being able to call a situation precisely what it is.

"Being willing to draw conclusions from the facts is part of how journalists can help people make sense of the world.

"We aren’t doing our readers a service by hiding behind a veil of objectivity and we need to be ready, as part of this movement towards decolonising our journalism, to call out injustice when we see it."

She praised the Guardian and The New York Times for their coverage of climate change and former US President Donald Trump, respectively, for embracing this approach. The Guardian's move from 'climate change' to 'climate crisis' is, in her view, more accurate when it comes to the facts. She says that not treating climate change as a crisis allows certain powerful people, countries and companies to maintain their power and not have to do anything to change their behaviours. This way of calling out the unfair power dynamics that lead to suffering is how it relates to decolonisation.

To take a different example, in Palestine, editors could think more carefully about whether using words like "conflict" is really a fair description. She has heard that Palestinian residents complain about media coverage that hides colonialism behind Israel's actions. Doing more to explain the history and power dynamics that have led to this situation in the first place, instead of simply describing the result as though people in Gaza just happen to be poor, could be a path forward.

New formats to consider

Podcasts have emerged as a way for TNH to have a more nuanced conversation than what they manage to fit in an article, regardless of who has written it. Especially for non-native English speakers, it allows them to express themselves more authentically than having their words re-written to meet international standards.

She envisions a future podcast that provides a platform to people who want to tell their communities’ stories with freer rein and helps them do so.

The publication also puts out a 'Ten humanitarian crises and trends to watch' at the start of the year, that identifies important issues and commits to covering them. This also serves as an act of accountability, meaning they can reflect back on their progress in regular meetings.

What about Afghanistan?

We checked back in with TNH to see how their thinking on decolonising the media has shaped their coverage of Afghanistan in recent weeks. Executive editor Josephine Schmidt shared these takeaways via email, noting that the publication is one of many reporting from Afghanistan and all are grappling with new questions on how best to report every day.

Acknowledge the security risks for local journalists and sources

It is increasingly challenging to even get information from sources on the ground in Afghanistan or to work with Afghan journalists there because of uncertainty and fear around the fast-changing situation with the Taliban. Those talking about the difficulties of delivering aid under the Taliban rule may face repercussions.

Respect the judgment of local journalists and sources regarding using names and IDs

We respect the judgment of individuals on whether to use or withhold their names and how to identify them if they are presented as unnamed sources. This may require us to grant more anonymity than we are ordinarily comfortable with, but it is a fast-changing situation and one that those on the ground know best, not us. Same thing with decisions to fully identify sources or writers, for example in this piece.

Understanding the blind spots in major media coverage

We look beyond key urban areas, especially when covering humanitarian needs and response. Kabul is not indicative of the whole of Afghanistan; the drama at the airport plays well to international audiences but does it fully illustrate or even begin to illustrate the new realities for vulnerable communities around the country, many of whom cannot or would not even dream of leaving? 

Emphasise the precision of language

We weigh the use of words that may mean different things depending on one's perspective, especially when those words summarise outcomes or serve as conclusions. These can be as simple as 'win' and 'lose' and 'fail.'

Be honest and admit what you do not know

Here is a paragraph from our mid-August Q&A with two Afghan NGO leaders that does not state that women's ability to work and go to school are now categorically gone. What it communicates is that we do not know what the future will hold — we offer the facts, not a crystal ball.

"It’s unclear how this will change under today’s Taliban. There have been conflicting signs. A Taliban spokesman this week promised respect for women's rights. But in the cities of Herat and Kandahar, which the Taliban seized last week, women were reportedly turned away from universities or banking jobs."

Do not miss our next digital journalism conference Newsrewired, with four days of panels and workshops from 19 October 2021. Check out the full agenda and tickets

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