The general public impression of journalists is as hard-nosed pursuers of the latest breaking and hopefully controversial news. They are often after a “scoop” no matter who the news may hurt or the consequences on society. However, journalists who cover international conflicts often referred to as “war correspondents” have a different take on the way they do reporting. The very nature of their reporting makes it both late breaking and controversial, so the “scoop” has a slightly different flavour from catching a celebrity wearing no makeup or the latest case of graft and corruption.
What are the special challenges that face journalists at the war front? What do they need to consider before reporting on the news? British reporter Martin Bell (1996) appears to have summed it up in one statement: “political correctness conflicts with good reporting.” This paper will consider how far this statement is true, and use the example of Bell’s own experiences in Bosnia to provide some insight into what war reporting is all about.
History of War Reporting
Aukofer and Lawrence (2001) provided a comprehensive historical analysis of the role of media in internal i.e. Civil War and international conflicts i.e. Vietnam War in the US. They claim that media and the military have been in conflict from the very beginning. It is said that George Washington believed the New York newspapers did not help the American side of the war effort against England at all during the American Revolution. An editor who ignored General Andrew Jackson’s orders that all news pass through him was imprisoned.
However it was during the War of 1812 that Orleans Gazette editor James M. Bradford wrote eyewitness accounts of military action and is considered to be the first American war correspondent. At this point, security was not a big issue because by the time the news reached home, the information was too old to be useful to the enemy. It was during the Mexican War that the first civilian newspapers published by soldier-printers came into being and were referred to as “camp newspapers.”
During the Civil War, security became an issue as the Northern and Southern military leaders endeavored to prevent the publication of news of the war effort that they deemed to be unflattering to either side. It was at this point in American history that The Associated Press came into being, which pooled the information gleaned from different member newspapers from their respective war correspondents, who kept an attentive ear to the pulse of the war by communicating with soldiers serving at the front. It was also from this war that the most notorious media hater in the military, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman. He believed that the publications of the Washington Star and The New York Times contributed to the defeat of the North in the Battle of Bull Run.
During the Spanish-American War, with improved technology in the printing and dissemination process, “yellow journalism” first appeared in New York newspapers, sensationalizing the war in attempts to outdo rivals. By World War I, it had come to a point that Congress enacted laws that muzzled the press with The Espionage Act of 1917 to prevent any potentially valuable information leaking to the enemy. However, while in World War II censorship still prevailed, military-media relations improved somewhat as the public united with patriotic fervour. During the Vietnam War, there was absolutely no censorship of the press, but they were blamed by the military as the cause of the only war in history lost by the US.
There were highs and lows in the relationship between the military and media, but most of the time the tension stemmed from the issue of security. Those in the military resented the danger it placed soldiers in active duty, and believed a journalist’s determination to seek and publish information undermined war efforts in the most disastrous way. This belief was strengthened by the behaviour of some war correspondents that exhibited irresponsible behaviour while in the field.
However, it was not only security that posed a challenge to journalists who, ideally, desired only to publish the truth as they saw it unfold for the benefit of civilians, although historically this is the most important concern. Responsible journalists saw the need for secrecy but many believed that control of the media sprang from “reasons of political convenience” such as avoiding exposure of political errors. (Young, 1991)
It has been observed that escalation can occur when the presence of the press is detected in an active zone. This is especially true for situations in which terrorism is a factor in the aggression because media feeds the need of terrorists for exposure. Without the media, terrorism would not have the same effect on a civilian population that has no idea of what could happen. It draws attention to their cause and provides the momentum for the specific agenda.
In the case of Vietnam, public pressure was brought upon the powers-that-be and forced them to withdraw from an unpopular war. The unremitting coverage of the conflict in Yugoslavia also helped to contain it when the opposing parties were given a platform to vent their views. The Gulf War is also one example of this de-escalation effect of media as coverage of both sides of the conflict encouraged viewers to view both sides as humans rather than as heroes or monsters.
Because the media is considered to be “neutral” territory and under public scrutiny, it serves as an effective channel for dialogue between leaders of nations as well as a platform for airing many international issues. It can also serve as a good way for terrorists and target governments to come to terms to what is needed to promote peace. However, it can also be used to rouse otherwise passive participants into action, as the case of the speeches of Saddam Hussein and the Arab constituents.
War is dramatic, so it gets more coverage from the media than other, equally important issues, such as famine or poverty. Visual excitement sells more airtime and for the sake of ratings, such events as bombings and battles during the Gulf War get more coverage than are actually needed. In the case of Bosnia, there was what seemed a mass decision by the media to perpetrate a bad guy-good guy flavor to the conflict. This leads to a lopsided perspective of the war as well as de-emphasizes other, non-war related events, such as the flooding of Bangladesh. Such selective focus makes it ethically and socially irresponsible.
The knife also cuts both ways in terms of accuracy. Because much of wartime reporting has political and economic perspectives, the “truth” of the events as they happen is for the most part dependent on the agenda of the journalist or news agency on the scene. Depending on the source of the news, it may provide the necessary information needed to make a rational decision or it could distort the real picture to serve the needs of those who may have less-than-honorable motivations. Half-truths could also depict an incomplete picture of the real situation that could be more harmful than an outright lie, which is easier to pin down and disprove.
The Role of Journalists in International Crises Today
Because of the changing role of media in news reporting in military matters (wars), it has sometimes been a question whether the information they provide today can be trusted. Are they reporters of the truth, a promoters of various agenda or a sellers of newspapers (airtime)?
The role of war correspondents are to provide up-to-date, ideally live coverage of what is happening at a site of international upheaval and to provide a commentary of who is doing what to whom, where and how. The physical challenges of such an undertaking, however, is no longer what it used to be.The technology available to the media today has made it so much easier to capture and record what is happening from a distance that journalists no longer have to dodge bullets or seek protective cover while covering and hopefully recording the events as they unfold. Aside from coverage, transmission of information is also practically instant, so the public expects to get the news minute to minute. Most of the challenges that has beset early war correspondents no longer exist, except perhaps for one crucial ethical consideration: selective focus.
It is not a secret that many journalists have learned to overcome the military’s distrust of the media by subscribing to the particular biases of those in top positions. The trust and respect that had begun to build in World War II for journalists as they shared in the physical dangers of the battlefield has paved the way for a deeper understanding of the media of the horrors and tribulations soldiers face everyday. But journalists are not independent contractors. While they may preserve their aim to report the true situation, they must first pass through the military leaders first, and then their own civilian bosses. Oftentimes, especially of late, journalists have had to compromise to ensure the continued cooperation of the military as well as the sustained support of the media owners.
In the Vietnam War, journalists were allowed to report what they saw, without any censorship, with the result that the military and the US government were made to look less than admirable. The military looks upon this unrestrained revealing of the situation as “not playing by the rules” and consider it deleterious for soldier morale and further fomentation of distrust between media and the military. (Aukofer and Lawrence, 2001) Those who publish despite these considerations are considered dissidents and troublemakers, and find it very difficult to gain access to crucial events and information afterwards.
For journalists who succeed in piercing the armour of military leadership or have gained civilian leadership favour, such personal relationships increase the risk of compromising the reliability or objectivity of reports. Because the relationship is symbiotic, it may be very difficult, if not impossible for a journalist to report unflattering information about a military or civilian patron. They risk being cut out of the loop if they insist on the unvarnished truth. Concurrently, such relationships also tend to skew media exposure to that of a particular military or civilian agenda, as illustrated in the Bosnian War.
What then is the result? Nobody trusts the media much because they are alternately seen as biased in one way or the other. True, they still sell the news more or less successfully whether as a big media corporation or a fly-by-night website spouting their opinions on conspiracies and cover-ups but they are no longer considered as a whole as purveyors of the truth as it unfolds. Vindication may come in light of future events and developments, but by then it may not do much good except as a lesson learned. The value of journalism has been tainted by the political and economic considerations that are unfortunately essential to the continued coverage of events that are taking place. It is an institutional challenge that has no real of being overcome in today’s world of international coverage.
The case of the Bosnian War
The relatively recent events that took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early to mid-1990s in the shaky political atmosphere of former Yugoslavian region is a good example of how the media can sway public opinion to take one side of the story and ignore the other in the interest of a political agenda. The conflict between the Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats as well as the siege of Sarajevo are today stuff made of legends but the picture is somewhat skewed. Many different international news agencies tell of the atrocities perpetrated by the Serbian military against the Croats, and the television images that flashed all over the world was that of Bosnia and Croatian refugees fleeing their villages. Yet there was very little coverage of what was happening to the Serb civilians.
The conflict was technically a struggle for control over the members of a former Communist federation that had been multiethnic from the beginning. The disadvantage of the numerically superior Bosnia is the acquisition of the fewer Serbs of most of the firepower of the former Yugoslavian army as well as most of the necessary training. In other words, they were better organized and had more guns. Naturally, those who opposed them faced the service end of a weapon.
It was in internal conflict although technically an international incident because it was between different countries, but it was all confined to the Yugoslavian countries so it had very little actual in effect in terms of the economies or policies of other nations not involved in the conflict. What captured the attention of the whole world however was the alleged genocide and ethnic cleansing that struck more than one journalist as reminiscent of the atrocities in Hitler’s Germany. The association was all that was needed to spur the finding of the “Hitler” in Bosnia, whether as an individual or a group of people i.e. Serbian leaders.
However, the parallelism is not as simple as journalists would have the public believe. True, the Bosnian War was an exercise in human rights violations. It led to the killing of hundreds and thousands of soldiers and civilians from both sides. But to liken it to the persecution of the Jews, the “final solution” to an ethnic problem, would probably be inaccurate.
There have been claims from Serbs that they too have been victims of the conflict, but most of the international coverage failed to investigate such claims with the zeal that they pursued the atrocities suffered by the Bosniaks and Croatians.
Perhaps because of the fear for personal safety in the intense fighting that would break out in civilian areas, journalists have been found to be negligent in ascertaining the authenticity of the information they received, which in turn they reported to their press rooms. Such was the emotional appeal of the events that were unfolding that media big business became blatantly partisan, exerting pressure on outside governments to take a military hand in the issue.
More careful study of the headlines of the day revealed that there were many inaccuracies, such as the August 17, 1992, Time cover photo which featured a painfully emaciated man who was identified in the piece as a Muslim held at a Serbian concentration camp but who later turned out to be a Serb imprisoned for looting and whose physical condition was due to tuberculosis. There was the case of a child who died as a result of a sniper attack on Sarajevo bus was actually a Serbian child, rather than a Muslim as claimed by reporters. Another August 1993 photo in The New York Times was captioned as a Croat mother grieving for her son in a Serbian attack, but the incident was actually an outbreak of fighting between Muslims and Croats, which resulted in the death of 34 Bosnian Croats. (Brock, 1996)
There was an obvious lack of objectivity in the media’s dealings with the public, extending even to publishing results of polls that were designed to produced results which would further push the agenda of media moguls, which was to intensify the conflict with armed intervention by the US and its European allies. The polls failed to address the public’s opinion on the way the Bosnian government was conducting itself in the conflict. The anti-Serbian bias in the reporting was becoming more marked as journalists rushed to join popular opinion, and used selective focus to bring their point across, ignoring information that ran counter to their “stories.”
Even journalists who endeavored to report the truth were forced by editors to change their stories if they failed to jive with the trend of other news stories, or their stories were changed for them. This lack of professionalism and ethics deeply troubled officials of the United Nations. Stories that did not uphold the “Serbs as villains” role failed to make it out of the newsroom. After months of unremitting bombardment of this view, the public became convinced of the truth of the stories and was skeptical of news to the contrary, that Serbs were also suffering in the conflict. The public relations machinery of the Croatian media had successfully used propaganda to excite the outrage of European leaders to manipulate the situation.
Wartime reporting has passed through the whole gamut of a developing profession, but had achieved a standard of reporting by World War II that had earned its practitioners the reluctant acknowledgement of those in the military and government. However, because of the politics and economics involved in war, journalists are forced to contend with the ultimate dilemma: die if you do, die if you don’t. Media corporations and political manipulations has so compromised the integrity of reporting in international conflicts that the role of the media to reveal the truth has become an object of suspicion.
War correspondents are subject to many special challenges, but technological developments have eliminated many of the problems of the past. However, the ethical challenges of news reporting remain the same, which is to maintain objectivity and avoid selective focus. This is most clearly illustrated in the case of the Bosnian War. As journalists, honest reporting is not always all that matters. Without the backing of an ethical newsroom, war correspondents can choose to comply with the reigning agenda or choose another profession.
- Aukofer, F. & Lawrence, W. (2001) America’s team; the odd couple—a report on the relationship between the media and the military. The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center. Web.
- Bell, M. (1996) Journalist – a witness of hatred. EuroDialog. Web.
- Brock, P. (1996) Dateline Yugoslavia: the partisan press. Foreign Policy Number 93, Winter 1993-94 p.152-172.
- Young, C. (1991) The role of media in international conflict. University of Leeds. Web.