Covering conflict in the digital age: The importance of human empathy

Tiko Tsomaia is an Assistant Professor at the Georgian Institute for Public Affairs. This article is part of the Caucasus Dialogue series on ‘Tolerance and conflict’. You can read other articles in this series here.


What I love about journalism, and what is of great importance, is reporting true stories that can change society. Yes, journalism matters, but is everything that we call journalism actually journalism? How can we differentiate between accountability journalism and propaganda and advertisements?

It is hard to know what is good and what is bad. We live in fast-changing times. Rapid technological development and modernisation are changing our basic understanding of life. My five-year-old daughter recently asked me whether my mother had a mother. “Of course”, I answered. “Everyone has a mother.” At that moment, however, I realised that my statement might be wrong someday. There is a possibility that, in the future, an artificial womb will be developed and humans will be born without mothers.

How has technology revolutionised journalism? Because of the development of mobile phones, cameras, the internet and social networks, everybody can tell a story, but what remains important is whether these stories are true and whether they can benefit society. At the same time, the role of the journalist as a truth-teller and commentator becomes more complex due to the huge amount of information now available.

A study conducted at Karlstad University in Sweden and published in the journal Journalism Practice asked a small sample of undergraduates to compare computer-generated articles with stories written by reporters. On average, the students found the computer-generated content more credible. Kristian Hammond, co-founder and chief technology officer of the artificial intelligence company Narrative Science, stated in an interview with the technology magazine Wired that he anticipates that within 15 years, 80 to 90 percent of stories will be algorithmically generated.

Young people globally are changing their information gathering habits and spending more time on digital platforms. Technology is changing learning as well: more online courses and distance learning options are being offered. For example, more than 2,000 people registered when the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas at the University of Texas offered its first open online course on ‘introduction to infographics and data visualisation’. A second course offered a month later attracted 5,000 people.

What does this mean for the future of journalism? And how can a computer be expected to grapple adequately with reporting conflict? Do we need to revisit the fundamentals of journalism?

Professionalism and myths in covering conflict

“Even the best journalists sometimes find that their national pride and emotional connection to their own countries or regions can obscure their obligation to report fairly and accurately.” Margie Freaney, Founder, Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management (CSJMM)

According to eminent journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, the primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information that they need to be free and self-governing.[1] Journalism that does not aim for these objectives undermines democratic culture. For example, when a government controls the news – something not unknown in Georgia and in part due to the conflicts – the media often becomes one of the frontlines in the information war.

Journalists serve as the moral agents of societies. They act as watchdogs, as well as active collectors and disseminators of information.[2] Moreover, their job entails certain obligations and their goal – to seek truth and to communicate it to the world – can be a difficult one. As stated by Donald Shriver,[3] it can be challenging for journalists to make the right decisions in the right situations due to both internal and external factors.

Decision-making about media coverage does not depend solely on motivational factors;[4] there are many internal and external factors that can influence decision-making. Nonetheless, journalists cannot rely only on internal moral reasoning. Ethical principles are based on something more than common sense. They are based on principles that are rooted in professional duties and an understanding of the potential consequences of journalists’ actions.

In the early 1990s, journalists at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism training centre, began using three guiding principles as the foundation of the ‘doing ethics’ process. These principles and the ‘doing ethics’ process were at the heart of the Doing Ethics in Journalism handbook authored by Jay Black, Bob Steele and Ralph Barney for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). In the mid-1990s, SPJ used these principles along with a fourth principle as the cornerstone of a revised Code of Ethics, which outlined that journalists should: a) seek the truth and report it as fully as possible; b) act independently; c) minimise harm; and d) be accountable.

In 2011, I conducted research into whether these four principles were applied by journalists when covering the conflicts in Georgia. The purpose of the study was to understand how journalists would act when faced with certain ethical dilemmas when covering conflict. It also sought to examine what expectations the readership would have of journalists in such situations. The research methodology consisted of developing five hypothetical scenarios, each involving an ethical dilemma for a journalist, adapted from real case studies from the Caucasus region. These scenarios were posed to both journalists (news creators) and readers (news consumers), who were asked to identify from a number of possible responses to the ethical dilemma which decision a journalist should (in theory) and probably would (in reality) make, and asked to explain their choice.

There is insufficient room in this article to outline the research results in detail, but the findings were mixed. On the one hand, we found that the majority of respondents identified journalistic ethics and Western professional standards as the most crucial attributes for covering conflicts in a fair manner. Of these principles, telling the facts and verification of information were identified as the most important principles. However, the majority of respondents acknowledged that coverage of conflict in Georgia often failed to live up to these standards and could be misleading, inaccurate and extremely partisan. One of the main reasons for this was self-censorship, necessitated by self-preservation, as most journalists could be sacked from their jobs by going against the editorial line, which more often than not prioritised national interests over professional responsibility. At the same time, while some journalists identified fear of losing their job as one reason for self-censorship, other journalists believed that at times of national crisis, they would not wish to highlight vulnerabilities on ‘their’ side of the conflict which might help the ‘enemy’. Thus, some journalists would voluntarily subjugate professional standards to their personal convictions and justify their approach in terms of national interests.

These findings demonstrate how challenging it can be to apply ethical journalistic standards when covering one’s own conflict – both because the risks are higher and because it is harder for journalists to be truly independent and impartial.

Building tolerance and empathy

“CSJMM’s goal was always to stress to journalists in our programme the need to report professionally, no matter what their personal feelings or political beliefs. The school understands that journalism is different than other kinds of communication. Journalism requires verification. Journalism is far more than reporting what someone says accurately. The journalist strives to verify that what a person says is accurate.” Karl Idsvoog, Invited lecturer at CSJMM, Associate Professor, Kent State University

The Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management (CSJMM) was the first Western-style journalism school in the region. It was established in Tbilisi with the financial support of the US State Department and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). I graduated from the first class and currently teach at the school.

One of the key objectives of CSJMM since its foundation in 2001 has been to promote understanding and tolerance among journalists in countries and territories that have a history of conflict in the Caucasus. In its second year, the school started admitting Armenians and Azeris, who now study and work alongside each other. According to the school’s first academic director, Margie Freaney: “This was truly revolutionary and a unique opportunity to instil in journalists the skill of how to be dispassionate, non-partisan and truthful in their reporting on often volatile issues.” Over the years, the programme has had students from all Caucasus conflict areas – Abkhazia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nagorny Karabakh and Ossetia.

The impact of this multi-cultural environment is best related by the students themselves. One graduate, now a freelance reporter in Azerbaijan, recalled her application interview in a story she wrote for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR):

“My interview was going well until Professor Tsomaia asked me whether I would mind studying alongside an Armenian. ‘And this Armenian is from Nagorny Karabakh’, she added. I knew that objecting might cost me the scholarship, but I could not help myself. ‘You have an Armenian student from Nagorny Karabakh?’ I said. ‘Don’t expect me to be tolerant! That’s Azerbaijani land. It should be Azerbaijanis at your school’.”[5]

The same graduate also recalled her first day in class:

“I sat next to a girl with hazel eyes who smiled all the time. Charmed by her friendliness and taking her for a Georgian, I chatted to her. It was only in class that I discovered she was the Armenian student from Nagorny Karabakh.”[6]

The two students subsequently became good friends.

Another graduate – an ethnic Armenian citizen of Georgia who now works for the Georgian bureau of a well-known regional news agency and specialises in reporting on the conflicts – recently shared her experience with CSJMM students. She explained that “being other” is a strength when reporting about complex ethnic issues because it helps her to be professional and fair. Deeply concerned about people who live in the Gali region of Abkhazia, she says: “I cannot be in a vacuum – I have to report what is going on in my country.”

Another graduate, from Gali, has now returned and is finding it hard to find a job. She recounted her experience at the school:

“I am proud of being a J-school student. Here I learned the meaning of freedom of speech. I was treated warmly. Nobody discriminated against each other. Nobody intimidated you. I had the opportunity to get to know Georgians, while before I did not have a very high opinion of them. CSJMM remains my home. I recall you with deep affection, but unfortunately I am not able to practise my journalism skills to the full in Gali. In Gali, we live with our memories from the past.”

Former CSJMM academic director, Dave Bloss, attributes this unifying effect to the fact that all students are working in a professional newsroom setting, where the emphasis is on fact-based, objective journalism practised by everyone at the school, regardless of their native country.


Returning to our original question – what does the forward march of technology mean for journalism ethics – Skip Isaacs, another CSJMM teacher and reporter of 40 years going back to the Vietnam War, says that CSJMM addresses an extremely important need at a time when journalism is changing fast. The profession may be moving away from obsolete methods, technologies and business practices, but the basic principles of journalism are not obsolete. The principles of respect for facts, independence, monitoring power and loyalty to the audience are even more important in an era when journalists have to find a way to reach the public through huge clouds of unverified information.

“Year after year, in every new class, I meet a new group of young people who somehow decided that they wanted to spend their lives telling people the truth. I don't find it very easy to be optimistic in these times, but my students make me feel a little bit more hopeful.” Skip Isaacs, CSJMM teacher and reporter

[1] B. Kovach and T. Rosenstiel (2007). The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Three Rivers Press.

[2] M. Deuze (2005). ‘What is journalism?’, Journalism, Vol. 6, No. 4, November 2005.

[3] D.W. Shriver, Jr (1998). ‘Meaning from the muddle: journalists, ethicists and theologians have much to teach each other’, Media Studies Journal, Freedom Forum Media Studies Center.

[4] B. Brehmer and K.R. Hammond (1977). ‘Cognitive factors in interpersonal conflict’, in D. Druckman (ed.) Negotiations: Social-Psychological Perspectives. Beverly Hills, California: Sage. pp. 79–103.

[6] Ibid.