Editor’s note: Acclaimed journalist Christiane Amanpour has been named the winner of the Zenger Award for Press Freedom by the University of Arizona School of Journalism. Amanpour is CNN’s chief international correspondent and host of Amanpour & Co. on PBS.
Amanpour is known for her on-the-ground coverage of violence and human rights abuses around the world, including in Bosnia, Syria and Iraq.
Opinion Editor Sarah Garrecht Gassen recently spoke with Amanpour about journalism, journalism education and press freedom. The following is an excerpt of their conversation:
Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Your motto, I guess you could call it, is “Truthful, not neutral.” Could you explain that a bit to a lay audience and what you mean by it and how that in how viewers might see that in your journalism?
Christiane Amanpour: Well, I think that perhaps viewers, and maybe a lot of journalists, confuse the idea of objectivity with neutrality and therefore so much journalism, as you can see today particularly on broadcast mediums, is very much ‘He said or she said on the one hand, and on the other hand’ — without actually recognizing where the actual truth and the overwhelming preponderance of evidence lies.
You know, it doesn’t apply to every single issue, but certain very important issues you actually have to be truthful and not neutral because if you draw a false equivalence, whether on fact or morality, then you’re not telling the truth and in terrible instances, you could be accomplice to the continuing atrocity.
For instance, I learned this when I first started to work in Bosnia and what I was seeing during the wars that lasted the entire 1990s. There was one side, which happened to be the Serb side, powered by the dictator of Serbia, who were white Christians, ethnically cleansing a part of Europe of white Muslims.
They wanted to create a pure white Serbian state for themselves. And this is classic genocide. It’s killing and transporting a people based on their ethnicity and their religion, and I had to recognize that and made many people uncomfortable.
They said, “Oh, but you know, she’s taking sides.” I wasn’t. I was telling the absolute truth: that there were victims and there were aggressors and people had to recognize it.
It actually did demand some action on behalf of our governments and our democratic world, which did come, but it came very late.
So now fast forward to issues like the climate crisis that we’re in right now. It is a real crisis that has been, to an extent, exacerbated and all the solutions have been slow down by a false narrative that has been perpetrated, obviously by lobbyists in the fossil fuel and other industries, but also because journalists have not recognized that they had to be truthful about this and not neutral.
Instead of trying to say, “There’s the science that shows us clearly that we human beings are contributing to carbon emissions’” journalists were trying to equate that with the tiny minority of climate change deniers and people who refuse to accept the science — and they were a tiny minority compared to the overwhelming evidence that was scientifically proved as fact.
So, I think that those two examples show you that in extreme cases when a journalist is not truthful and does not recognize what is staring them in the face then that journalist can be an accomplice to a very negative impact on our world and on our lives.
SGG: How do you get that into the bedrock of journalists coming up, and into journalism education? How do we get that into the ethos of the field of journalism?
I believe there is such a thing as objectivity. What I’m saying is you can’t conflate objectivity with neutrality. Objectivity means reporting on all angles and getting all sorts of views, but it doesn’t mean to say that you draw the same conclusions or equal conclusion.
So I think that journalists from the very start have to be taught to recognize the truth. They have to be taught to seek the evidence. For instance, when they’re doing investigations into corruption or investigations into whatever it might be, journalists pursue the truth.
Americans like to pride ourselves on the First Amendment and the free press. How is the perception of that changed overseas in the past couple years?
I think the idea of the truth-tellers being silenced, or the waters being muddied by the use of the words “fake news,” is a big problem because it just serves to confuse readers, viewers, online users and the like about where to search for the truth.
Then the other big issue is the proliferation of all sorts of lies and conspiracy theories by social media. And, as you know, that’s not human interference, but it’s government interference, it’s automated bot interference. It’s a real sort of weaponization of information.
So I think those are the big issues that we confront. And, of course, the rest of the world takes a big amount of its cues from the United States. The United States remains the single sole superpower in the world and it’s important in every way.
And so when the president of the United States starts attacking the credibility of a free, fair and independent press then that gives other leaders and bad actors around the world sort of de facto permission to do the same with much greater consequences, because in other parts of the world journalists’ lives are in danger — their safety, their health, their survival. This is a very, very dangerous trend and we need to combat it the best way we can.
What advice do you have for students who want to go beyond the United States and report on the world? How do you break into that?
The field has changed — the field constantly changes — but in the end journalism is journalism and reporting is reporting.
You can’t actually report on a place thousands and thousands of miles away. You can have opinions, you can you know be an armchair warrior if you like, but you can’t really report. So, for journalists, you have the correct instinct, which is to get up and go to the places where news is happening.
I support them and I know it’s dangerous and in places like Russia they have been incredibly careful. But there are plenty of people who go to Russia to report, there are plenty of every kind of news organizations. So I think that it’s not impossible, but you do have to be careful. You have to be aware of the dangers.
I think it’s one of the main reasons why there weren’t that many journalists covering the terrible war in Syria, and it’s probably one of the big reasons that the war in Syria did not have the same impact on the U.S. government, on European governments that forced an intervention, like the war in Bosnia.
I think that you have to understand the value of on-the-ground reporting while also making sensible and smart decisions about safety.
You ask the questions, the difficult questions, and you don’t let the subject not answer or try to go around the question, you always bring them back to your original question.
Well, it definitely takes practice and it takes a willingness to confront and to continue and to insist on your question being answered or at least to ask enough times for people to realize that the subject is not going to answer it. Then the audience can see that the interviewee is simply avoiding giving an answer, and should draw their own conclusions from that fact.
I think that it comes with practice, it comes with experience. It comes with credibility. I hope I’ve built up a body of work that comes from an authentic place. I’ve spent my whole career in the field really putting my life and my health and my safety on the line to get to the truth and I bring that back now into the studio to talk to world leaders or those responsible in some way for the public good.
My job now is to question them and it doesn’t always need to be confrontational, but when it needs to be I mustn’t shy away from it, because I believe the people who come to my program to find the truth wants somebody like me, or anybody who’s in this position, to not let those in positions of power and responsibility get away with ducking the questions and that’s what keeps me going. That’s why I do it.
Is there anything else that you’d like to say that we haven’t covered?
I always say I just wish that there were many more women in this business, and I don’t just mean in front of the camera or as reporters. As leaders of networks and newspapers and all sorts of news organizations.
I believe that our work and our health and our democracy will be much, much, much healthier if there was much more parity between men and women — not just the worker bees but in the executive suite. It would make a huge difference to the health of our society.