“So what is going on there exactly?,” a friend in New York asked of the civil war in Yemen.
I pause. “Well, I think, it depends on your point of view. I can tell you what I think is going on. But others might disagree.”
Is a “view from nowhere” really possible? Are human beings ever actually capable of seeing the same thing through different eyes? Can journalists shed their biases and perceptions, the intangible elements that make their selves, their consciousnesses, and produce a truly objective account of reality, of objective ‘truth’? Is it possible, in other words, to be completely objective?
These questions are fundamental to any conversation on the role of the media, local and international, in reporting on, and creating narratives of, war. And they are questions I have given a great deal of thought to as of late.
I’ve been working as a journalist for the past nine years. For seven of those, I’ve covered Yemen, both remotely and from the ground. I’ve written short news stories on the country for a generalist audience, while also working on fifty-page think tank reports, scrutinized by academics and experts. This means I have engaged in a fairly robust program of cognitive dissonance, trying to wring nuance out of events while breaking them down into Lego-simple building blocks – and all while knowing that Yemeni friends and colleagues will be reading and looking for signs of bias.
What these experiences have taught me is that the “view from nowhere” is, by and large, impossible in an absolute sense, although it is nonetheless an incredibly worthy goal. Unfortunately, many media organizations so deeply value the “the view from nowhere” that they drive for a form of ‘objectivity,’ which can better be read as ‘politically inoffensive’ reporting that is anything but ‘objective.’
In the current media ecosystem, many journalists find themselves pressured to use an increasingly authoritative voice, to form ever more linear narratives and make stronger statements of ‘fact’ despite the limited information at their disposal, while focusing on what their readers want, rather than what the author feels to be the most salient details.
These trends are most obvious in the daily reporting people are likely to read in a newspaper or see on television, rather than the longer, more in-depth writing or broadcast documentaries that a much smaller number of readers and listeners/viewers are likely to come across. They are particularly problematic for foreign reporting.
Objectivity? It’s All Subjective
“[T]wo people gazing at the night sky may both be looking at the same collection of stars… [but] one will see the image of a plough, and the other will make out a dipper. The ‘stars’ in a literary text are fixed; the lines that join them are variable,” Wolfgang Iser, the godfather of a theoretical literary discipline, known as reader-response criticism, wrote some years ago.
Iser’s argument, which I fist came across while writing my undergraduate dissertation (on James Joyce, if you must know) is that two different people, presented with a single text – a novel, a poem, a newspaper article – will imprint their own personal worldview onto it. The text is rewritten as it is read, making it impossible to experience the words in exactly the way the author intended.
The philosopher Thomas Nagel also discusses the “view from nowhere.” In his work, he explores “how to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that world and his viewpoint included” – how to step outside of oneself while remaining aware of one’s personal biases. According to Jay Rosen, a media theorist at New York University who consults for Pierre Omidiyar’s media startup, First Look Media, Nagel believes that “human beings are, in fact, capable of stepping back from their position to gain an enlarged understanding… We try to ‘transcend our particular viewpoint and develop an expanded consciousness that takes in the world more fully.’”
But, Rosen argues, there are limits to this approach: “We can’t transcend all our starting points… We can’t actually take the ‘view from nowhere,’ but this doesn’t mean that objectivity is a lie or an illusion. Our ability to step back and the fact that there are limits to it – both are real. And realism demands that we acknowledge both.”
So we can try to step outside of ourselves, but we shouldn’t pretend that this equates to total objectivity. We will never have access to perfect information. Objectivity is a utopian ideal, one we can and should strive for, first by acknowledging the limits of our own understanding and second by admitting we will never achieve it. While it is basically impossible to escape the binding constraints of individual consciousness, it is, nevertheless, possible to expand that consciousness – and recognize the existence and validity of other worldviews.
“Fair and Balanced” (Quotation Marks My Own)
So is this what journalists do? Not really.
In their domestic reporting, Rosen argues, many Western – particularly American – media organizations demand a form of “objectivity” that is quite different from a self-conscious, Nagelian worldview:
“In pro journalism, American style, the View from Nowhere is a bid for trust that advertises the viewlessness of the news producer. Frequently it places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position ‘impartial.’ … American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance.”
This form of journalism is aimed squarely at presenting news so that it does not offend different political actors or the wider status quo. This is achieved by presenting all sides of an argument, as if they had equal weight. And it means journalists must often weaken positions that might offend or lead to accusations of bias, while strengthening arguments that are weak or problematic, to create the impression of ‘balance.’
Worried that they will not be seen as “objective”, many media organizations choose not to display the full factual panorama. This distracts from “the serious work of journalism–digging, reporting, verification, mastering a beat” as Rosen puts it.
Writing International News for Local Readers
This form of “objectivity” becomes particularly problematic when writing on international affairs for a Western audience. Foreign correspondents are often forced to be “fair and balanced,” while speaking in an authoritative voice, often in a few hundred words. “You say there is a coup going on,” I was once told during the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in 2014, by an editor, who shall remain nameless, “but our readers will probably not be interested until we definitely know there has actually been a successful coup.”
Editors are mindful that readers will have their own preconceived notions, and that something that clashes too much with those ideas may not be well received. Unsurprisingly, this tends to suck the nuance out of reporting. Journalists currently working in Yemen for British or American newspapers are, for example, pushed toward a more simplified narrative of a regional proxy war: X group, backed by A country, versus Y group, backed by B country. The working theory is that this approach will not too badly confuse or offend readers, or be seen as partisan by political leaders at home. For a relative minnow of a country, like Yemen, to make it into newsprint, it is also helpful if the pitch feeds into a wider regional story that involves Western powers (the United States in particular).
Once this “objective” line has been identified by one media outlet, it often leads to groupthink and clusters of stories published on the same subject, as reporting on Yemen’s civil war demonstrates.
Since the conflict began, it has been common to see the Houthis described as “Iran backed” or “pro-Iran” – a huge oversimplification, as I have noted in my work for Chatham House. Similarly, groups fighting the Houthis have been described as “pro-government,” “government backed,” “Saudi-backed,” and “backed by the coalition” despite the far more complex reality that underpins anti-Houthi forces on the ground. The longer the war goes on, the harder it becomes to challenge this narrative of two “sides” supported by their respective regional powers.
Trying to break out of this straightjacket can be frustrating. In June 2015, I gave an interview to a major international television news network about the war in Yemen. “Government forces” in Aden, the presenter said, were beating back the “Iranian proxies.” Well, I said, these aren’t government forces, they are local separatist militias. And the “Iranian proxies” are in fact the Houthis, who may be backed by Iran, but the principal force behind their rise is former Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.
“Well,” the presenter said, clearly unhappy with my answer, “I’m not sure what we just heard there but I think we better move on.” My connection to the feed cut, and move on he did.
“What Country Are You Writing About?”
The corollary of “I’m not sure what we just heard” is “What country are you writing about?” Journalists are sarcastically asked this question, by friends and acquaintances who are from the places they report from. For these individuals, “objective” reporting for a Western or foreign audience often leaves a sour taste in their mouths. Why has this been reported on – a suicide bombing, a skirmish on the streets – when other, much more important things go unremarked upon (the economy, starvation, the lack of electricity and water)? Why does Al Qaeda command such a premium over other groups that use political violence to achieve their aims? Why is this guy an extremist and that one a rebel or insurgent?
What makes this conversation particularly difficult is that, believe it or not, no two people in any one country or region share the exact same point of view. In Yemen, for example, people have differing perceptions and narratives of the war and its wider political context. For northern highlanders, the core issue is the Saudi-led bombing campaign, an internationally-backed act of aggression that has caused deep suffering. For southerners, the war is yet another “northern” plot to dominate the South. People in the southwestern city of Taiz see the war as an advance by northwestern Zaydi tribal culture, an attempt to crush Shafei and other Sunni groups, as well local civil society organizations. (These statements are, of course, by necessity, oversimplifications in and of themselves).
So while journalists can describe an event – group X clashed with group Y in location A today – the language they use can be incredibly loaded for someone from the place they are describing.
In this context, a truly objective piece of writing would be one that encompasses all points of view and calmly, dispassionately, evaluates their validity – acknowledging that each claim is rooted in reality but perhaps fails to account for wider factors – while attempting to build a coherent picture of the situation as a whole.
The only piece of writing I have produced since the war began that seems to satisfy most (though not all) Yemenis was a forty-nine-page report for Chatham House that carefully analyzed the perspectives, agendas and attitudes of the different groups involved in the civil war. To put it bluntly, I can’t do that in 400 words.
A View from Somewhere Confusing
A favorite piece of my own writing (typical egotistical journalist, I know), from the Houthi coup of 2014, is the article “In Yemen, ‘No One Is In Charge,” published by Al Jazeera English. Here’s the passage that I think best sums up what being in Yemen was like in that moment:
“For the past two weeks, talk in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa has been of the ‘situation’. People have left the city, traders in markets complain, because of the ‘situation’; men who would normally go unarmed carry semi-automatic rifles in the street because of the ‘situation’; taxi drivers try to push prices up because of the ‘situation’. Yet nobody can fully vocalize what the ‘situation’ is – perhaps because it is as much an expression of what is missing as it is of what is present.”
I tried to capture the confusion, the sense of disorientation, the unpredictability and volatility of the situation. Of course, this is the kind of writing a reporter is only allowed to do every once in a while. For most readers, there is a need for clarity and only so much interest in “a view from somewhere confusing.”
For Rosen, the best a journalist can do is advocate for “a view from somewhere,” to produce reporting that takes a specific line, with a specific viewpoint, and alerts the reader to the fact that the writer is doing so. He does not believe that such journalism – best exemplified by the kind of work done by First Look Media’s flagship publication, The Intercept – can be the sole basis of news coverage, but that it should play a greater role in a more heterogeneous media ecosystem.
Perhaps, there is a way these two viewpoints, “nowhere” and somewhere,” can meet. If traditional print and broadcast media would better unpack the thinking of their reporters, who are often experts on the topics they write and broadcast on, and allow them to produce regular pieces that reflects the complexities of the places they work in, maybe we can achieve a better balance.
But, to be honest, I am not sure what I think right now. I am a little bit confused.