Should Journalists be Bystanders or Moral Combatants in Relation to the theme of Conflict?

Encountering Conflict was part of the old VCE English context curriculum prior to 2017.  Students can use these ideas related to conflict as a theme not a context in their essays.

This information is for general information only and is NOT part of the new VCE curriculum from 2017 onwards.

In the VCE English Exam from 2010, the essay prompt was:

‘It is difficult to remain a bystander in any situation of conflict’.

How to Tackle the Prompt?

Purpose of the piece: To explore the degree of difficulty associated with particular types of ‘bystander’ when confronted with defined ‘conflicts’. In an expository piece, you are essentially exploring the connection between ideas.

Examine the prompt:

  1. What is a bystander?
  2. An impartial observer
  3. An accomplice
  4. A reluctant or eager participant

What situations of conflict are there?

  1. Internal/conscience/external
  2. Interpersonal
  3. Mental/physical
  4. Familial/generational/domestic/class/cultural/racial
  5. National/local community/international
  6. Is it difficult?
  7. The nature of the difficulty
  8. The degree of difficulty
  9. The consequences, how individuals/society respond and react

Some ideas about conflict:

What are the lasting consequences of conflict for individuals, families and communities? Conflicts rarely end once the war is over, or the fight has been won. There are winners and losers in every conflict, who remain affected long after the conflict is over. The consequences may range from trauma, physical and emotional pain to more positive outcomes such as change, opportunity and growth. One thing is certain; people are changed by experiences of conflict.

Some ideas about being a bystander:

We are all bystanders. In the process of our development as individuals we have the chance to both observe and participate in the mass of challenges that confront us daily. This will inevitably force us to question and evaluate our own morals in the context of our upbringing and culture. Our responses will also challenge our own sense of pride and dignity and force us to question ourselves. There are times when we will face forces beyond our control but the test of our character will be in how we respond.

The passive nature of some character’s observation could suggest they approve of what is taking place. At the very least it suggests the bystander does not have the moral courage to intervene or is simply scared to break what is an accepted schoolyard practice. This incident is a microcosm of those who watch others being persecuted in society without taking action.

Expository Essay Response Plan


First:                      Outline what the terms are (place any re-definitions you have here.) Add a Hook that brings the readers into your essay showing you understand the bigger picture behind the context and the text.

Second:                State your contention clearly.

Third:                    Outline your arguments briefly and carefully remembering your points will be used as topic sentences in your body paragraphs.

Body paragraphs

Support your argument. The support comes from the examples you wish to use, be that from the text, big ideas beyond the text, history, the world view, relevant current news, a famous person, your own opinion all relevant to the issue. In an Expository Essay you cannot use your own life or friends experiences, as this is more reflective. What do you want to say about the topic & the text studied? You must use TEEL to build your paragraphs:

  1. Topic sentence: In your topic sentence state your argument. The argument must exist alongside the text even though you spend the majority of the paragraph discussing a particular text or example.
  2. Evidence: State the example you’re looking at.
  3. Explanation: Explain how the example shows your argument, giving more evidence as you do so. Include quotes from the text where relevant.
  4. Linking sentence: Link your argument to your contention and use connective words to link logically onto the next paragraph.


Identify the discoveries and insights you have made. These should be clearly evident in your explanation. Use these insights to conclusively state what it is to be a bystander, the specific nature of the difficulties faced and how comparable these outcomes are to the various types of conflicts you have explored. Conclude with your text studied so that your readers are clear on how it is difficult to remain a bystander in any situation of conflict for the characters of the text you are studying.

Using the text Everyman in this Village is a Liar by Megan Stack we ask this question:

Are journalists bystanders or moral combatants when reporting on conflicts?

Consider these 2 questions in your expository or imaginative hybrid essay:

  1. Should journalists ditch the pretence of neutrality and express an emotional “attachment” to the good guys in any given conflict?
  2. If journalists allow themselves to become moral combatants, crusaders against “evil” rather than mere reporters of fact, is there a danger that they will be treated as combatants?

Megan Stack as a reporter of conflict

At first the 25-year-old Stack is avid and “naïve”, as any young reporter maybe, to be thrown unprepared into a war zone:

“I was a reporter,” she recalls, “who didn’t really know how to write about combat, covering America from outside its borders as it crashed zealously into war and occupation… It would be my generation’s fate, it seemed, to be altered by September 11. I got excited and felt that I was living through important times and went rushing in, and years later came away older, different, with damage that couldn’t be anticipated beforehand and can’t be counted after.”

And later, the awareness that to be there, on the spot, brings cachet among peers and the profession: “It was something we strove for, competed for fiercely, a privilege. And when we were done with it we simply went away again.”

In emphasising attachment over neutrality and emotionalism over objectivity, the new breed of attached reporters become more like an activist, an international campaigner, rather than a dispassionate recorder of fact and truth.

They become moral players in, rather than simply observers of, foreign wars. Other people in the media criticise the “bystander journalism” of the past – what was once known as being objective – and praise those new journalists who have self-consciously made themselves into “players” in conflict zones.

Inevitably Stack’s book ends as it has begun, with the line, “You can survive and not survive, both at the same time”. The emotional damage is palpable. There is no “redemption” – a favoured American urge to resolve a narrative – no explicable “clarity of vision” of this Middle Eastern excursion. Maybe, she implies, it will never come.

Journalists as Passive Bystanders to Stakeholders

When reporting a story as a foreign journalist, at what point do journalists transform from being a passive bystander to a stakeholder in the story being covered? The tension between these two identities raises questions that journalists have searched their souls about for generations: When does the reporter put down a notebook to try to change the outcome of a tense situation? Or is it enough simply to describe what others are doing? When should a photographer drop the camera and intervene? When is snapping the picture a way of intervening, rather than just a form of recording? Does the risk of an emotional wound bear on whether the journalist should act or stand by?

The idealistic journalists, with a moral conscience, may put aside the camera or notebook when there’s a reasonable chance their actions will help others or prevent harm. In the process, they can recognize the symptoms of stress and emotional injury in themselves and others, and they can better convey the emotional dimension of their stories.

People who are not willing to be bystanders in conflict

In Every Man in this Village is a Liar Atwar Bahjat a female Iraqi reporter is an example of a journalist who was not prepared to be a bystander but a moral combatant. It is individuals like Atwar Bahjat who act defiantly, and yet non-violently, in a regime that tries to repress them that must be recognised for their nobility. The horrific and suppressive nature of conflict has the ability to suspend individuals in fear and immobilize any chance of societal progression. It is this paralysis that oppressors in a conflict rely on to ensure that they can maintain the way of life that they demand.

Megan Stack’s memoir documents the ongoing religious conflict in Iraq, a country “united in fear”. She exposes the degradation of women and the divide between Iraqi Sunnis and Iraqi Shiites. Western readers are overwhelmed by the violent and bloody history of Iraq and are confronted with the peculiar perception that it is an accepted part of life. However, Stack challenges this perception and shows that just as in any conflict, there are insurgents that are essential to leading the way for societal advancement.

Atwar Bahjat, a female, Iraqi reporter, is symbolic of a united Iraq; undivided by religious differences. Regardless the restraints put on her as a woman in a patriarchal society, Bahjat used her access to the media as a means to stimulate discussion of an alternate future for Iraq. Although Bahjat’s death may be perceived as a failed attempt for change, her presence in Iraq was essential to stimulate discussion and demonstrate the courage required to peacefully challenge the status-quo.