Bearing Witness, Journalism and Moral Responsibility

Tait, Sue
Media, Culture & Society

While the dimensions of what it means to "witness" are interrogated within recent scholarship on "media witnessing", what it means to "bear witness" is rarely explained. Bearing witness conceptually organizes what journalism does, and names a subject position for audiences other than voyeurism, but what it means requires clarification. I detail the plasticity of bearing witness within the discourses of media witnessing in order to demonstrate the resulting paucity of the explanatory labour the term is able to perform for studies of news media. Central to the lack of clarity within this literature is the conflation of eye-witnessing and bearing witness. I argue that a distinction must be made between these concepts in order to elucidate the ways practices of bearing witness exceed seeing. Following Zelizer, I argue that bearing witness refers to practices of assuming responsibility for contemporary events, and thus bearing witness extends beyond seeing through practices of enacting responsibility. I consider what practices of responsibility might mean for journalists and their audiences through an analysis of the structures of address and response within the columns Nicholas Kristof wrote about Darfur between 2004 and 2009.