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Reality is the way to go

Reality is the way to go 01

There are professions that a person chooses out of passion, out of vocation. Journalism is certainly one of them, especially if the path chosen is that of a war correspondent. Despite spending multiple years in war zones, Italian reporter Francesca Mannocchi doesn't like this definition at all. She prefers to define herself as a journalist who sets out to report on conflicts – and for her, those conflicts have included Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, along with the migrations of displaced people through Libya and Turkey.

Since February 2022, Mannocchi has been in Ukraine, trying to do what inspired her to do this job in the first place: bear witness to what is happening through facts and not opinions, and using the power of storytelling to communicate these events. With this in mind, she believes that the profession of journalism is not in crisis. On the contrary, in these troubled historical times, it is even more fundamental, because people increasingly need tools to understand what is real. They need someone to tell them the reality and give them an interpretation of the complexity based on credible sources.

“Many people have a romantic image of those who do my job,” says Mannocchi. “It happens that you have to sleep in the cold, eat chocolate bars for two days and cannot wash yourself. But every time I stop to think about some of the tiny difficulties we have to face, I remember the heartbreak of those who have been living through wars for years”.

When did you discover your passion for journalism?

I always wanted to tell stories. I think the love for storytelling was handed down to me by my grandmother, Rita. As a child, I often used to sleep at her house, and at night, before falling asleep, she would tell me stories of her childhood and adolescence. She was born in 1930 and many of them were related to the hardships of war. She would mix together the stories of Tom Thumb and Little Red Riding Hood. In my childhood memory, the details of each story were woven into a single fabric. She taught me the power of storytelling, the rest came by itself. I started by talking about Italy, trying to do so with the same passion and indignation towards injustice with which I describe wars today.

What are the difficulties of your job?

Sometimes you are exposed to danger, you don't know where you will sleep, if – and what – you will eat, where you will be tomorrow. All this creates a fascination with my profession, but it is only part of the truth. Yes, we are exposed to dangerous situations: this is the profession we have chosen, and we must be prepared for emergencies. You need bulletproof vests, helmets, and to know how to use a medical kit. You need to know how far you can go and when to stop.

How have the web and social media changed the nature of reporting from a war zone?

From a logistical standpoint, there's no doubt that the web has been and can be a useful tool. Just think of how wars were 30 years ago and how today you can see a map of the locations involved on your mobile phone. In recent years, wars have been strongly influenced by social media. For us journalists, it is a tool. I'm thinking, for example, about the war in Mosul: we used to read social media to be updated in real time on what was happening and where. What's essential, however, is to verify the information.

And on the negative side?

There are many. The spread of propaganda on the one hand and the rush to give “news” on the other. I'm putting the word news in inverted commas because social media in recent years has given editors and journalists the feeling, the illusion, that being in a place is a sufficient qualification to be able to tell a story. That a live-streamed video is enough for storytelling, that showing yourself in the middle of a war makes you a journalist. Well, it doesn't. Being in a war zone doesn't mean understanding where you are. Being in a hurry to report doesn't mean good storytelling. Social media should not be demonised, but it should be used with great knowledge.

Compared with your previous experiences, how would you judge the way communication has evolved for the conflict in Ukraine?

The communication on the field with respect to the war in Ukraine follows in the mould of the last conflicts on which I reported in previous years. What has changed is the social exposure: the narrative of soldiers and of the lives of civilians. But this, I think, is more related to Europe's level of interest than to the medium. We are close geographically; this war seems to concern us more than others have. It fills the pages in a way that has never happened recently; in the past we have tended to report on conflicts in bursts. 

What's peculiar is the pervasiveness of propaganda and disinformation which, certainly, in the case of this conflict, is reaching unprecedented peaks. Russian disinformation is a very powerful machine. What is striking is how much it has taken root in Italy. In no other western country is there as much room for false information as in Italy. In recent months there has been a great, terrible and dangerous confusion between freedom of expression and lies. “Hearing the other's reasons” has become synonymous with spreading information that has no basis. The claim that the Ukrainians banned the Russian language is false, yet it is repeated on Italian TV without contradiction. This makes the Ukrainian war different from all others, because it intoxicates it.

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The multiplication of truths is increasingly frequent. It seems that a fact, a picture, can always be questioned.

In this conflict I often see an absolute denial of the field of reality. People tend to doubt that there were deaths at the Mariupol theatre or victims in Bucha despite the fact that they were confirmed by months-long investigations. A photo remains true. It's debatable what everyone sees in that photo, even among journalists, but this has nothing to do with our job. Our professional ethics give us rules that we have to respect. 

Has the role of the reporter forfeited its authority in recent years?

Perhaps reporters are the sole journalists who still have credibility. When you are dealing with reality there's little room for lies. It's no coincidence that every war reporter tells the same things in a unified manner, regardless of political views and newspapers. The factual truth is – and will always remain – the same.

How do you think journalism will evolve?

I don't think journalism is dead, on the contrary I believe that in times of crisis journalism brings out its best resources. This is an extraordinary time for storytelling, newspapers are in crisis because they are full of opinions and poor in stories. The difference that journalism can make is telling the truth. We need more people around the world, more people able to interpret complexity. Readers are much more in need of complexity than we might think.

What makes a good reportage in your opinion?

The key ingredient is curiosity: you need to be willing to express an idea and then deconstruct it piece by piece, because reality always overcomes you. You must be very clear that you are not writing for yourself, but you must take the reader where they have never been and cannot be. You have to learn to read and interpret the world.

On a personal, human level, what has caused you the most difficulty during your travels?

Usually, I don't think about it. When I'm working, the issues are often practical: electricity to charge the cameras, where to eat or what to eat. I try not to think about it because my difficulties are often temporary compared to those around me who will experience them permanently. The main struggle is to find room within ourselves for the pain of others. We need to find it, not to leave it out, and try to write about it with great respect rather than great pity.

What is the meaning of storytelling?

That reality is the way to go is the greatest and most valuable teacher we can have. We must not be afraid of it and must face it without the fear of having to change our mind.