Reporting Conflict – Advice for student journalists

The National Union of Students (NUS) brought together student journalists from all over the country back in March for a full day of training at Kings’ College Student Union. Speakers included Rob Bailey and Tim Luckhurst from the University of Kent and Aaquil Ahmed, commissioning editor for religion and head of religion and ethics at the BBC. The topic of discussion: conflict.


What was made clear from the beginning of the session was that conflict isn’t limited to war. Any situation or cause people are passionate about could fall into that category, and the same rules apply.

The day started off with a note that the main purpose of journalism is to do good. When covering conflict, journalists can either do spectacular good, or spectacular harm, and the endgame is determined by two aspects: accuracy and ethics.

Accuracy is a difficult aspect of conflict reporting, as all sides are predisposed to lying in order to further their own agenda. A good journalist should know that where passion is involved, anyone is capable of lying, and they shouldn’t assume the people involved are telling the truth. “Facts are the foundation of accuracy”, says Tim Luckhurst, and reporters must see through any propaganda or censorship and find the closest approximation of truth.

The key to accurate reporting is being meticulous in the collection of facts. The News of the World hacking scandal comes up as the perfect example to illustrate how the painstaking gathering of information can lead to a huge breakthrough. It was demonstrated over the course of a few years, and the reports avoided commentary or opinion.

Bailey tells us we can’t possibly know whether we have all the facts. “Work with the best you’ve got, but be aware of the limitations. Make a conscious effort not to distort facts.” His main tip for accurate reporting is “question everything”. He brings up Blair’s dossier which claimed Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes, and calls the media coverage of the story “probably the greatest failure of journalism”.

We must always ask what is the source of the intelligence. Is it reliable? Is the information plausible? In this case, the nature of the dossier made people believe it, and journalists failed to dig deeper and find out the real source: a taxi driver in Baghdad. We should ask how the interviewee came upon the information and we may find something interesting.

Another crucial aspect of conflict reporting is objectivity, which is hard to achieve. Journalists should not get engaged in conflict, but should seek distance in order to see the flaws in the cause.  George Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” is a perfect display of this remoteness: he’s critical and truthful even when his own militia is at fault.

Aaquil Ahmed believes the role of the media in relation to conflict is to tell stories which nobody else has told, and the key to success in the field is to learn from every experience. His top tip for aspiring conflict reporters is to leave prejudices, self-interest and opinions to the side. “I don’t bring my prejudice with me.”

Similarly, Bailey advises us to be skeptical and be very careful of how we depict ourselves. People want journalists to take sides, but we must always separate reporting from campaigning.
He suggests a practical exercise: “learn how to cover conflict by choosing an issue you personally know nothing about, aside from the fact that some people feel very strongly about it”.

Certain ideas come up again and again throughout the session. The most important job of a journalist covering a conflict zone is to write the first draft of history, to provide ground witness accounts. The media has to tell the world what is going on. Reporters must see, account, and account accurately.

But where does student journalism fit in all this? Can we aspire to such standards at all times? There is a consensus on the matter, and the answer is a loud yes from everyone present. We’re also told to be honest with ourselves: are we the best person to cover a certain story? Aren’t we, as student journalists, better off reporting conflict on our own campuses than trying to write about international issues? Staying local is what sets apart good student journalism. We should focus first and foremost on our area of expertise: the university campus.

The main principles:
– balance in presenting the different sides;
– accuracy and realism in reporting;
– presenting all main relevant points;
– separate facts from opinion, but treat opinion as relevant;
– minimise the influence of the reporter (attitude, opinion, or involvement);
– avoiding slant, rancour, or devious purposes.