Ukraine war: Is impartiality always key to quality journalism?

As Western media’s coverage of this European war demonstrated, terms like ‘invasion’, ‘unprovoked aggression’ and ‘resistance’ can and should be used in conflict reporting when they describe what is actually happening.

Members of the media interviewing a man in military fatigues.
Members of the media interviewing a British volunteer preparing to enter Ukraine from Poland to fight alongside Ukrainians against the Russian army at the Medyka border crossing on March 3, 2022 at Medyka, Poland. [Sean Gallup/Getty Images]

Since the very first Russian troops made their way into Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, the Anglo-American coverage of Europe’s latest war has been full of emotion and patriotic sentiment. Western correspondents on the ground in Ukraine and in newsrooms across Europe and America not only demonstrated high levels of empathy for Ukrainian civilians suffering from Russia’s unprovoked aggression, but also significant sympathy for those taking up arms to protect their country against the invader.

Watching British and American journalists cover this brutal conflict not with the blind objectivity that became the point of pride of Western journalism in modern times, but instead using terminology that conveys the humanity and grave reality of the situation on the ground accurately, has been eye-opening, to say the least.

For the first few days of the invasion, screens and papers were dominated by stories underlining the bravery and steadfastness everyday Ukrainians demonstrated in the face of an all-out invasion. Gradually the term “resistance” started to be routinely used to describe Ukrainian troops and volunteers who took up arms to defend their homeland. Western channels and websites broadcast President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s calls for all Ukrainians – at home and abroad – to come and join the fight, and pleas for military assistance from friendly nations, without censor or critical commentary. In news reports, Russia’s so-called “special operation” has repeatedly – and accurately – been described as an “invasion”,  “assault” and “unprovoked aggression”. The Russian military has been condemned for “deliberately targeting civilians” and “shelling residential areas”. No weight at all was given to Russia’s baseless claims that “civilians were being used as shields”.

As a journalist who covered conflict, I support the use of these terms and terminologies in the coverage of the war in Ukraine. I have long argued for journalists using language that accurately conveys the truth of a situation evolving before their eyes – language that is not restricted by a desire to be “objective”, “balanced” and “unbiased” even in the face of imperial aggression, unprovoked military assault, invasion or war crimes.

But while I fully support the use of such accurate language and terminology in the coverage of Russia’s invasion, I’m still shocked and frustrated. For when I was covering Israel’s “assaults” on Lebanon in the 1990s for Western media, I was never allowed to describe what was happening in the country this accurately. When I was reporting for BBC Arabic during Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, for example, I was told never to refer to the Israeli military as the “occupying force” for the sake of impartiality. I was asked never to talk of “resistance” in what was then occupied South Lebanon, and to always describe any such action in occupied territories as “military operations against Israeli forces” – again to remain impartial and loyal to the BBC’s sacred editorial guidelines.

And for all these years, it was not just us journalists from the Global South who were scolded for being “emotive”, “partial”, or “not balanced” in our coverage of conflicts either. Whenever they tried to tell things as they are, our white, European and American colleagues too have faced accusations of bias and lack of objectivity.

In 2014, for example, veteran British journalist Jon Snow faced a barrage of criticism and even condemnation for publishing a video on the Channel 4 news website calling for Israel to end its brutal assault on Gaza and stop the indiscriminate shelling of the Strip which resulted in the deaths of many innocent children. Snow’s video went viral on social media almost instantly, and many members of the public congratulated him for accurately reporting on the consequences of Israel’s actions. It was mostly other journalists, pundits and analysts who criticised him for allegedly breaking British journalism’s much-valued impartiality rule.

As we watch the rolling coverage of the Ukraine war on British, American and other Western channels, and see journalists show empathy, emotion and humanity as they report on atrocities unravelling before their eyes, we should start questioning what objectivity, neutrality and impartiality really mean in journalism.

I ask my students to do just that every year – I try to encourage them to widen their understanding of notions that seem to be set in stone in the Anglo-American journalism culture. But as Western media has convinced the world that adhering to these “rules” is the only way to produce quality journalism, not only my students but also many seasoned professional journalists often struggle to see the problems with their commitment to what they define as “impartiality”.

However, I now hope that witnessing how differently Western media organisations that take pride in their “impartiality” cover a conflict in their own neighbourhood will encourage journalists to question their views on what constitutes “quality journalism”.

Western journalists can no longer claim the higher moral ground – they can no longer claim that they are somewhat better, more professional, than journalists from the Global South, journalists from war-torn, occupied countries (and I was once one of them) because of their “impartiality”, “neutrality” and “objectivity”.

Every single Western journalist who contributed to the coverage of the Ukraine war and used terms like “resistance”, “invasion” and “aggression” needs to stop and think why it was not acceptable for us Lebanese journalists to use those same terms when we were covering Israel’s assaults on civilians in our country in 1993, 1996, and 2006.

They need to stop and question why my sympathy for the victims of war in Lebanon, my efforts to reflect their pain and explain their struggles were seen as a sign of bias and unprofessionalism, but similar coverage of Ukraine today is being saluted as exemplary and humane – and to be clear, it is exemplary and humane.

When I wrote about us Lebanese journalists being “contextually objective” in our coverage of the Israeli assaults against Lebanon in the past, I was told “there is no such thing as contextually objective”. But now Anglo-American journalists are being “contextually objective” in their coverage of Ukraine – they are retaining their own sentiments, values and beliefs and their own audiences’ sentiments, beliefs and values in mind when reporting.

For too long, Western journalists and audiences alike viewed objectivity and impartiality as absolute concepts that can never and should never be shaped by context.

Indeed, I still remember, when my first book was published in 2011, an interview producer from a prominent British broadcaster called to ask if I would like to come on a household name show to talk about my work.

I spent most of the phone call explaining how I tried to answer an important question in my book: What does it mean to be objective as a journalist while covering atrocities committed by a foreign occupier in your homeland? She expressed her disagreement with the idea of questioning objectivity under any condition. And that was it. My book was never featured on that show.

Today, I hope that interview producer and many others in British and wider Western media who think like her will look at the coverage of Ukraine and stop to reconsider their convictions about the main pillars of journalism.

With all this, my aim is not to dismiss the exemplary work some Western journalists did in covering the unfolding tragedy in Ukraine. Excluding the racist, orientalist and degrading sentiments expressed by some journalists in reference to refugees, most of our colleagues did an admirable job in accurately conveying to their audiences what is currently happening in Ukraine.

I am writing this merely to call upon Western journalists to reconsider their long-claimed upper moral grip on what constitutes professional, quality journalism – objective, non-partisan, impartial coverage – now that they are reporting on atrocities and human suffering somewhere close to home.

It is time we see absolute objectivity, impartiality and neutrality is not always a prerequisite to quality journalism. In fact, when dealing with atrocities and human suffering they can be an obstacle in front of good, accurate, meaningful coverage. It is time to rethink the meaning and importance of impartiality when covering human tragedy imposed by a destructive force – be it a friend or a foe.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.