Letter from El Salvador

War Stories
November 17, 1995

I do not believe in journalistic objectivity. For me, objectivity cannot exist, because we are human beings, with feelings, thoughts and the capacity to analyse. We are not simply transcribers of what one or the other says. We have a right and a duty to analyse what is said." These are the words of Louisa, a Salvadoran journalist quoted by anthropologist Mark Pedelty in his ethnographic study of the international press corps in El Salvador during the 1980s.

Pedelty throws light on large areas of critical theory by taking just the right example to illuminate broader questions. In a narrative account he throws light on questions such as the role of the American-dominated media in reporting and misreporting stories from the less developed world, the distortions imposed by the competitive relationships between staff correspondents, local freelances and editors and the necessary but unsatisfactory superficiality of the mass media's foreign news reporting.

Pedelty spent over a year observing members of this particular media tribe. He lived and worked with them and accepted the inevitable mockery that any outsider, entering such a group, must endure. But his reward has been to obtain a degree of intimacy with his subjects which has provided him, and us, with frightening insights into the mind of the international press corps in conflict situations. He quotes Joe, a freelance photographer, thus: "If no one is killing each other I ain't happy. I would get bored and quit. Any journalist that says they don't want to see things get worse is full of ****." It might sound like a self-parody but in the context of the story that Pedelty tells it becomes an almost matter-of-fact recognition of the reality simmering just below the surface.

Pedelty paints a vivid picture of the conflicting pressures of competition and pack-mentality which dominate the lives of foreign correspondents - pressures which are reinforced by incidents he recounts, such as the television correspondent who received an angry call from his foreign desk after failing to duplicate a colleague's false report. On being told the report was a lie, his news editor shouted, "I don't care. You were scooped!"

One of the most striking aspects of Pedelty's study is the way that he portrays the Salvadoran press corps. He sees it as being just as deeply stratified as both the society it is reporting on and the wider world that it is supposedly servicing. At the top of the pile is the A team - staff correspondents from the major US and world media who are sometimes based in the country but more often than not are parachuted in to report on the story when it is "back in the news". The B team consists of freelances who are "stringers" (that is, on some form of contract) to outside news organisations. And finally there are the Salvadorans, who clearly know most about the conflict and yet who live on the scraps thrown by the A or B teams or work for cooperative news agencies or leftwing publications that have fewer resources or credibility than the A and B team employers.

What resonates most powerfully throughout is Pedelty's outrage at the falsehoods and misinformation that is purveyed - in "good faith" - by journalists who regard themselves as "objective" and who work for news media that describe themselves as having no political agenda. He writes: "Objective journalists deny their subjectivities, rather than acknowledge and explain them. They evade contradiction, rather than letting the reader in on the inevitable doubts and difficulties encountered in any act of discovery." This book contains plenty of "doubts and difficulties" and that is why it is superb.

Ivor Gaber is professor of broadcast journalism, Goldsmiths College, London.

War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents

Author - Mark Pedelty
ISBN - 0 415 91123 0 and 91124 0
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £35.00 and £12.99
Pages - 254

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