Journalists play a crucial role in informing the public and political leaders about international issues, BBC reporter Suzanne Kianpour said at the Rev. James P.M. Walsh, S.J. Symposium on Tuesday night in the Leavey Program Room.
The event was the first in a series of discussions hosted by Georgetown University’s Speech and Expression Committee relating to free speech. The symposium is named in honor of Fr. James Walsh, S.J., a Jesuit priest and theology professor at Georgetown who helped draft Georgetown’s official Speech and Expression Policy and who passed away in 2015.
Kianpour, a Fall 2018 fellow for the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service, has written for the BBC since 2011, specifically covering the Middle East. She interviewed Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, reported on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and currently heads the BBC’s coverage of Russian interference in the 2016 election and Robert Mueller’s investigation of it, according to the GU Politics website. Fluent in Farsi and Spanish, Kianpour also reported on the Iran nuclear deal as well as the detente with Cuba.
Kianpour covered the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s mass killing of Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking minority in Iraq, while she was in Iraq.
Former President Barack Obama and his advisers relied on Kianpour and her team’s reporting on the massacre, which offered information that neither the public nor the administration had access to elsewhere, as they developed a strategy to address ISIS, Kianpour said.
“When ISIS was murdering Yazidis on Mount Sinjar, we were on the ground, reporting these stories,” Kianpour said. “Years later, a U.S. official who was in the Situation Room with President Obama when he was considering airstrikes on ISIS told me that he was watching our reports. That really shows the role that journalists have in informing the public on international events.”
Journalists provide critical information to political leaders, according to Kianpour. Reporters’ real-world experiences give them insight that policymakers often lack, she said.
“Coming back from abroad and seeing how little informed U.S. officials were about the places where I had just lived and worked got me thinking about how important it is for reporters to have that kind of experience,” Kianpour said. “I wish more lawmakers would spend a significant amount of time in places that they make policy about.”
Because of the importance of journalism, Kianpour said, writers have a responsibility to report accurately and avoid bias, which she described as one of the most demanding parts of her job.
“I try to make sure not to editorialize in my live shots or my scripts, which is hard,” Kianpour said. “It’s a difficult thing to do, to really make sure that I’m not putting any sort of opinion in a piece of information, but at the same time, I don’t want to do a disservice by watering something down.”
Free speech is key to both journalism and reporting and to a free society in general, Kianpour said.
“There are places in the world where free speech is not something that is afforded the way it is here,” Kianpour said. “Free speech and freedom of the press and the First Amendment is a cornerstone of our society in America. It’s one of the reasons why so many people in the world that I’ve come across love America.”