The sound of clicking cameras was the underlying soundtrack for all the heartwarming, tear-jerking, smile-inducing videos of Syrian refugees arriving in Canada this past weekend. While the camera lens remained focused for the most part on Justin Trudeau’s friendly greetings and coat-giving proceedings, the row of broadcasting equipment looming over the newly arrived Syrian-Canadians in the wide-angle shots was undeniable.
In one video, the Prime Minister is helping twin sisters find matching purple winter jackets. One twin stands to the side as the other twin is fitted. She looks around at the cameras with what seems like an uncomfortable and uneasy look of confusion. I stopped watching after that.
It’s an example that once again poses that repeatedly asked question: how do journalists fulfill their obligation to report and satisfy the public interest without being unnecessarily intrusive? Journalism demands that we report the news in the best way that tells the story. Syrian refugees arriving safe and reuniting with their families is a key element of this story, so it must be illustrated in the ways our multimedia universe demands. This involves zooming in to capture that little Syrian girl, in whom we capture war, peace, struggle and survival.
To what extent, however, should this practice extend? In another video, a father and son reunite after 10 years apart. The father’s audible crying is heartbreaking, but those tears can be uncomfortable to watch, especially when the camera zooms in and forces us to become unwanted observers into a very intimate moment (despite the access to media the refugees would have agreed to).
Journalism is in an age where the news is shown more than it’s told, where the visual is king of storytelling. Yet in this practice we have yet to find a balance between reportage and intrusion. In the interest of round-the-clock broadcast and social media news, the microphone and lens are the keys to great stories. This is at the risk of zooming in to personal moments in public issues, like the little Syrian girl, whose face the Canadian psyche isn’t going to forget.
Canadian journalists are to be commended on their coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis these past couple of months, but with a few stipulations. Let’s talk about how much of what we see is “public” news, a word that continues to plague the pursuit of journalism. Seeing Syrian refugees arrive safely has been a series of good news pieces, but can the same heartwarming, tear-jerking, smile-inducing stories be told without zooming in? Is it okay for journalists to watch from afar, to allow for a private moment to take place before sharing, with consent, a personal story with public implications?
These have been questions without answers, and will probably continue to be, because journalism is dictated by the tyranny of the visual and the scarcity of time. Until we find a balance between these two forces, we will continue to grapple with the problem between reporting and intruding.