Following the publication of our features on Russia last month, I received an email from Liza Faktor, the editor of the www.photographer.ru website, and a faculty member of InterFoto, the annual conference for Russian photojournalism held in Moscow earlier this month. Concerned about some of the broader questions poised during the conference, she related a comment made by Russian photojournalist Oleg Klimov, discussing the Kosovo crisis: "With this war something crashed in the very core of the planet, the East and the West got all mixed up. What we saw in print and on TV was the hi-tech information war with man lost in it. And that is probably how wars will look from now on."
Indeed, something has crashed. Photojournalists were barred from covering the battlefronts during the Gulf War. Contrast the access photographers had in Vietnam. During that war, they could hop aboard any military helicopter, and be dropped into the middle of a firefight. In the Kosovo crisis, depending which side you were on, there were dramatic differences in how reality was captured visually--in both cases, "Truth was the First Casualty."
To make matters worse, the moral sense of mission shared by the world's media has somehow gone missing. News organizations have become complacent as their freedom of coverage is curtailed by governments. Budgets for staffing international bureaus, by major news companies, have been virtually eliminated. The idea of an important news magazine funding a photojournalist to cover a foreign story is now prohibitive, even though these costs represent only a tiny portion of their budget.
What's happened? Has there been some major change in how editorial judgments are made?
In my opinion, you can trace these trends to a singular event--the fall of the Berlin Wall. Up until that time, news organizations, as did governments, based their world coverage on a simple assumption, that the Big Story overshadowing all else was The Cold War. Since World War II, all scenarios flowed from the theory that the East and the West were destined to be locked in a life and death struggle. Most world events, and their implications, were viewed in this context. As long as there was this one prevailing constant, editors--like government officials--knew where they stood. Judgments could be made on this basis.
It was Berlin, 1989, and within a few short months, news coverage would be forever changed. In the early stages of the demonstrations, news organizations scrambled to cover the story. However, the pace of events overwhelmed everyone. An event that would be regarded as the seminal story of a lifetime took place faster than a soccer playoff. Before the commentators could write their columns, it was over...all over.
The news media staggered away from the field, demoralized, in confusion. If that was the Big Story, and it happened before they could schedule it for "sweeps week" then what was left?
I think this letdown has permeated the industry ever since. It has drained the excitement and sense of power that used to be the essential part of news gathering. Demoralized, editors have allowed the publishers to take over the running of their editorial operations. Trying to find something that will excite themselves (let alone their readers) news editors have turned to Hollywood, which has increasingly become the core of their coverage.
Adding to the confusion is the pace of news gathering, thanks to ever advancing technology. Before the late 1980s, covering major stories, especially in foreign lands, required commitments of time--time to report, time to write, time to consider the broader implications of the story. Projects took weeks, if not months, with exposure to the subject. In today's environment, cell phones, satellites, and 24-hour-a-day broadcasting has shrunk the cycle. In this environment, a snappy lead, a quick sound bite, and a single digital image pumped out as often as possible are the standard.
As television and publishing become increasingly
irrelevant to the public, we have new contenders on the horizon. The World
Wide Web is empowering a fresh crop of journalists who are determined to
infuse the sense of excitement and mission into the online community. And
so, with luck and broadband, we may soon see a New World News Order.
THIS EDITORIAL IS COPYRIGHTED BY DIRCK
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