Journalism has the power to uncover and spread truth, but it can also create false narratives, according to Boston College journalism professor Charles Sennott.
“[Journalism] can be part of the problem, but when it’s done right, I really believe in its power to inform and enlighten,” Sennott said.
The AHANA+ Leadership Council and the FACES Council—BC’s anti-racism organization—hosted Sennott for a lecture on Monday night to discuss the impact of media during conflicts in the Middle East.
Sennott said the way television depicts war can mislead audiences by only showing clips of violence and not the every-day reality of people living in conflict-ridden areas.
“Watching on television, CNN, you see snippets of air strikes,” Sennott said. “[War] is not like that. It’s traffic, it’s long lines, it’s people suffering, it’s hospitals that are overcrowded, it’s a disaster, it’s families just horrified by loved ones who are caught up in all this.”
Sennott said the reluctance of journalists to look beyond existing narratives about the Middle East reflects a failure in historic media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“We weren’t being very sophisticated, I think, sometimes, in the way we covered it,” Sennott said. “The idea is not to fall into narratives that are set, [but] to try your best to see the reality.”
Sennott also said that the rise in news coverage of the Israel-Hamas war by professional outlets and everyday people is revolutionary for storytelling and a reminder of the need for accuracy in media.
“This is an amazing moment for storytelling, for history, for how it will be told,” Sennott said. “It comes with some peril as well, which is, suddenly, we are bombarded with images, and we don’t know how to validate them. We don’t know what’s true and what isn’t.”
Sennott highlighted the work of Bisan Owda, a Palestinian filmmaker who is currently documenting her experiences in Gaza, as an example of the importance of including authentic voices in coverage.
“We need authentic voices … I think Bisan is in this tradition of oral history in real time, and that is the best journalism there is,” Sennott said. “It comes from one point of view, which she is the first to admit, and it is wildly informative and enlightening.”
Sennott also criticized the lack of Arab voices in newsrooms, expressing a need for more reporters that represent the Arab viewpoints.
“Another question to ask—since this is about the Middle East—is, ‘Do we have reporters who represent enough of the points of view of the Arab point of view in newsrooms?’” Sennott said. “The answer again is, ‘Absolutely not.’”
According to Sennott, journalism is about creating frameworks that ultimately showcase the truth.
“How we define these things really matters,” Sennott said. “If [journalists] are doing their jobs right, they create framings and frameworks and work really hard to get at truths in this world so that people can be well informed.”
Sennott said that the journalistic practice of truth-seeking is inherently optimistic.
“[Journalists are] seen as cynical,” Sennott said. “But actually to do this work, to risk your life to go over there, you’re actually having faith that people will learn and take it forward.”