When the blogs don't work

New-media journalism is proving less accurate and more emotional than traditional reporting

By Alex Brummer, July 15, 2010

It used to be that journalists told it as it was and did their best not to be emotionally involved in stories. The late Richard Dimbleby famously reported on the horrors of a liberated Auschwitz using stark language but without shedding a tear.

But when Yasir Arafat died in November 2004, BBC correspondent Barbara Plett was lachrymose on From Our Own Correspondent. It may be no accident that not long afterwards she was given a different beat.

Blogging and twittering test the professionalism and independence of reporting to the limit. Meeting the standard set by the Guardian founder-editor CP Scott's famous line, "comment is free, but facts are sacred", becomes ever more challenging.

The death of 75-year-old Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah brought this into sharp focus. In the moments after Fadallah's death, CNN's senior Middle East affairs editor Octavia Nasr tweeted: "Sad to hear of the death of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah... one of Hizbollah's giants I respect a lot...".

Nasr's tweet unleashed a storm. The CNN Middle East editor seemed to have been blissfully unaware of the Hizbollah spiritual leader's track record. His name was associated with the 1983 suicide attack against US marine headquarters in Lebanon which killed 241 Americans. He praised the murder of eight Israeli religious students at Mercaz Ha-Rav Yeshiva in Jerusalem in March 2008.

Reuters reported that when Fadlallah was asked by a nurse what he wanted during his final days in hospital he replied: "For the Zionist entity to cease to exist."

CNN's Nasr realised her mistake and apologised for her tweet, noting that the episode "provides a good lesson on why 140 characters should not be used to comment on controversial or sensitive issues, especially those dealing with the Middle East".

It was not enough to save Nasr's job and she left CNN within days.

As the BBC noted in a dispatch from Washington, Nasr was not the only person to find themselves in hot water over the Fadallah's death. An American official was quoted as being "dismayed and surprised" by a blog from the UK ambassador to Lebanon, Frances Guy. Guy wrote that after a visit with Fadlallah, "you would leave his presence feeling a better person".

Guy partly retracted, arguing she had "no truck with terrorism wherever it is committed".

Unlike the US government, which has proscribed dealing with Hizbollah, the Foreign Office has allowed Guy to meet with "political representatives" of the Syrian-Iranian backed group in a move which the BBC reports has "incensed Washington".

The BBC website did not entirely cover itself in glory. It referred to Fadlallah, high up in its stories, as the spiritual leader of the militant movement Hizbollah. It made only faintest of nods towards it being a proscribed terrorist organisation.

The contrast between the slightly barmy tweet and blog postings and the well-researched newspaper reports on Fadlallah could not have been greater.

The Guardian's obituary traced the Ayatollah's career from birth, and noted that in the early years of Hizbollah, following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Fadlallah was considered to be the founder-leader of Hizbollah. It recorded that he is considered responsible for the bombings of multinational forces in 1983. The obit focused on his frequent hostile statements on Israel, including a 1985 interview in which he said Israel "cannot be viewed as a state with a right to security".

A dispatch from the Daily Telegraph provided the most substantive background on Fadlallah's history of terror. It noted that he had been responsible for taking dozens of hostages as prisoners, including the well-known captives Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan. It also reported that he had issued fatwas that made it permissible for suicide bombers to attack America or Israel.

Blogs, Twitter and 24/7 broadcasting have their place. But, when a broader, more accurate picture is demanded, the written media, despite lapses, seems to have the edge.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 11:21am, July 15 2010