Journalism is about being faithful to the facts.

By Steve Raymer

As I write, the national and international photography contests are being judged once again. And if the winners over the past few years are any guide, first-place awards will go to stories about more bloodletting between Israel and its neighbors, more wounded veterans, more drug dependency in Afghanistan, and more women being abused at home or abroad, along with spot news photographs of Baghdad car bombings, firefights between U.S. troops and Islamic militants, and that ever familiar image of someone dying of AIDS.

No, I’m not a weary photographer or callous professor, just a journalist who is increasingly concerned about how we “frame” stories that deal with some of the world’s most vital life-and-death issues. Since the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, media scholars have been taking a closer look at how we journalists use a central organizing idea, called a “frame” in academic-speak, to make sense of everything from terrorism and to ethnic cleansing. And the picture they paint is disturbing.

All too often, we frame stories about Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Darfur, and the so-called war on terrorism in terms of empathy and suffering. That is, we often take a compassionate or intimate look at combatants, innocents caught in the crossfire, or beleaguered aid workers – a micro view of the news that we assume, often erroneously, will illuminate a larger, more newsworthy issue.

And this includes pictures that win contests. In fact, in simplifying, prioritizing, and organizing a story, which is what framing is all about, the iconic image that looks into someone’s eyes – preferably someone in agony – has become a key piece of journalistic shorthand.

The problem, according to researchers, is that we frame up events in terms of compassion and suffering because we often don’t know much about the story or we don’t want to appear to be taking sides by trying to explain the dark side of the news. Too often, say scholars, telling a story in terms of one person, one neighborhood, or one village is an evasion of our responsibility to make tough judgments about the facts we discover firsthand, which is what journalism is all about.

“We are in a suffering sweepstakes,” says Jeffrey Dvorkin, distinguished professor journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto and former vice president for news of National Public Radio in Washington, DC. “But no one is going to win this sweepstakes. These personal stories are easy to do, there’s plenty of emotion, and it’s easy to keep a focus.”

More than a half dozen new scholarly books suggest this “close-up, concerned photographer” view of the world often does a disservice to our audience, which frequently wants clarity, context, and sometimes a sense of justice – who is morally right or wrong, guilty or innocent. Once more, researchers say far too many of our readers now suffer from something called “compassion fatigue” – a loss of sympathy for the suffering of others – after years of seeing a convulsed world populated by victims of crime, cancer, cocaine, and, of course, terrorism.

Media scholars like Dvorkin say the way we report everything from wars and acts of terrorism to major cultural changes closer to home often fails to illustrate a larger problem that is truly newsworthy. What, for examples, drives young men into the arms of Taliban extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or how are Americans who practice Islam treated by the local police in Smalltown U.S.A.? These are questions that can only be explained with longer, more contextualized narratives – words and images working together to answer questions about “why,” “how,” and “what does this mean?”

“The public needs a fuller picture,” says Dvorkin, a former CBC news field producer and NPR ombudsman. “We need to find new ways to add context and explanation to these stories that tear the hearts out of our chests.”

Two recent news stories come to mind: the massacre of 164 persons in Mumbai, India, in November by gunmen linked to a Pakistani extremist group and, more recently, the Israeli military thrust into Gaza, a punishing assault that killed some 1,300 Palestinians, more than half of them women and children, along with some Hamas militants. In both instances, journalists often framed the story in terms of terrorism, a term that is supposed to help readers and viewers understand or interpret many post-9/11 conflicts.

The problem, of course, is that one person’s terrorist can be another person’s freedom fighter, and it’s not for us to judge. Some news organizations, like the British Broadcasting Corporation and Reuters news agency, flat out ban the use of the word “terrorist” in stories, captions, and Internet Web pages. BBC guidelines say that the “careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgments” undermines its credibility with a global audience, adding that “the word terrorist itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding.”

Reporting the Mumbai massacre, The New York Times struggled with how to describe in text, multimedia packages, and headlines the masked gunmen who used automatic weapons and hand grenades to mow down civilians and police at two luxury seaside hotels, a train station, a café, a hospital, and a Jewish cultural center. As Public Editor Clark Hoyt wrote in The Times, “They were ‘militants,’ ‘gunmen,’ ‘attackers’ and ‘assailants.’ Their actions … were described as ‘coordinated terrorist attacks.’ But the men themselves were not called terrorists.”

Why? Because, as the editors of a notable book called Framing Terrorism: The News media, the Government and the Public suggest, calling someone a terrorist often is a trap – a phony way of bundling key ideas, stock phrases, and pictures that “reinforce certain common ways of interpreting developments … without knowing much, if anything, about the particular people, groups, issues, or places involved." If someone is a terrorist, he or she is, indeed, an enemy of all civilized people, says the Times’ Hoyt.

“Language has been weaponized,” says Dvorkin in Toronto. “If all Palestinians are, for example, terrorists, then it’s easy to dismiss their actual situation. Whatever Israel does is justified.”

Of course, we can twist ourselves into a pretzel to avoid the appearance of taking sides. I tell students that there is a grave danger in being so scrupulously neutral that you fail to tell the story, giving, in effect, a free pass to people who murder in the name of politics or ideology, or who destroy the environment in the name of profit. The key is not to adopt the language of one side or another, whether it is Washington’s “War on Terrorism” or causes closer to home like AIDS and homelessness. Instead, we need to be committed to explaining issues, trends, and ideas in ways, or frames, that are truthful to the facts we discover.

Mindful that a 1991 study that showed television viewers are more likely to find society or government responsible for problems and solutions if the frame was a “theme” rather than an individually focused “episode,” it is time we rethink our storytelling techniques. After all, journalism is about being faithful to the facts and to our readers and viewers, not winning photography contests.

Steve Raymer, a National Geographic magazine staff photographer for more than two decades, teaches photojournalism, media ethics, and international newsgathering at Indiana University in Bloomington. He is the author and photographer of Images of a Journey: India in Diaspora.