Untold stories

Cost-cutting has pulled journalists away from the action, Murrow panelists say

Time and money are among the stumbling blocks preventing journalists from doing a more thorough job of informing the public about conflicts around the world, according to panelists who spoke at the second annual Edward R. Murrow Forum on issues in journalism.

Former network anchor Dan Rather asks if journalism has strayed from the legacy of Edward R. Murrow. © JOANIE TOBIN

The forum, held April 9 in ASEAN Auditorium on the Medford/Somerville campus, addressed the challenges faced by reporters and broadcasters trying to cover news and events in an era of 24-hour news programs but limited resources.

Dan Rather, the former anchor of the CBS Evening News, moderated the program in which the participants agreed that because news organizations have cut back on their coverage, the public is unaware of the kinds of stories that can only be reported by journalists who live in and know a region.

“We are connected by common humanity and a web of economic interdependence,” Rather said in his opening remarks. “It is absolutely essential that citizens have accurate and impartial information about conflicts in which our military is involved and even those in which it is not. Our citizens must know what is really happening … because these wars are being waged in our name.”

The event was sponsored by the Communications and Media Studies Program, the Fletcher School’s Edward R. Murrow Center of Public Diplomacy and the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Joining Rather were Kimberly Abbott, a media adviser for the International Crisis Group; Dave Marash, a Washington-based anchor for Al Jazeera English; Charles Sennott, a reporter at the Boston Globe; and Cmdr. Joseph “Cappy” Surrette, a public affairs officer with the U.S. European Command Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers Europe Liaison office.

The program began with a dramatic audio clip of Murrow broadcasting from London during a World War II air raid in London. Rather said that technology and how to best use it, as well as questions of access, censorship, objectivity and maintaining a global perspective, were challenges “that Murrow and his boys faced to some degree in their day. Have we taken Murrow’s legacy to heart, and have we built upon it? Have we taken steps backwards? Or does the truth lie somewhere in between?”

The ground truth
The consensus was that news organizations are not making the necessary financial commitments to ensure that reporters are on the scene when news breaks.

Sennott said that newspapers, including his own, are eliminating foreign bureaus, with the result being that correspondents no longer live in the places they cover. “Murrow could describe the double-decker buses because he lived [in London]. As the ferment developed, he could feel it, and you can only feel it when you live there … when the ground truth is partly your truth … That’s why Murrow had that voice to think about the people he was living with.”

Sennott said it saddened him that the Globe had recently eliminated its foreign bureaus. He said he was about to leave for an assignment in Afghanistan and that he was only able to make the trip because he was traveling not only for the Globe, but for the Carnegie Foundation, for which he would be doing an analysis of the Taliban, and the BBC and Public Radio International, for which he would be filing a series of reports.

Abbott said that when she proposes story ideas to news organizations, she tries to make those stories multi-purpose, meaning they can air on TV, appear on the Web and be used by other organizations. “Having someone on the ground to tell the story once the cameras are gone … just because the bombs have stopped doesn’t mean the conflict won’t start up again. If you aren’t telling stories in full context and giving a full picture, people rush to a military solution rather than a diplomatic solution. It’s happening over and over.”

Rather asked panelists what they thought of the idea of reporters being embedded with the military, a practice that was prevalent at the start of the war in Iraq. At the start of Iraqi Freedom, Surette noted, there were 700 people “embeds,” and for the most part, the system worked. He said that the practice resulted in reporters having a better sense of what the military does and what the challenges were.

All the panelists agreed that many stories are not being told and, said Abbot, there’s “plenty of room for good storytelling” in an environment that provides around-the-clock news programs.

The human touch
Stories about the human condition touch everyone, Marash said, and help make places vivid and real to viewers and to readers. He described, for example, a story about how difficult it is to get a decent burial in Haiti, where many are killed every day, but family members cannot afford a funeral. Even when a casket is put into the ground, it is later dug up by thieves and resold.

“You can’t read a story like that and not feel the human connection,” he said. “A reporter found a story that touches our universal needs and senses, what is humanity, what is dignity, what is responsibility and what are the real conditions of life in Haiti today. That’s really what our job is—to bring you reality in a way that you’re going to remember, and that you are going to draw some added value of knowledge or information from the story. The world is teeming with great stories begging for someone to tell them.”

Marjorie Howard is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu. This story ran in the Tufts Journal in May 2007.