Reporting War, Journalism in Wartime

February 1, 2005 • Ethics and Quality, Specialist Journalism • by

Message Nr.2, February, 2005

Published by Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer: Routledge 2004
«To whom are you true?» This is the key question asked by this book : it’s a radical question, which cuts to the core of the media business and the ethical problems faced by war reporters.

In times of war, there is a broad range of sometimes mutually contradictory truths, which all have a single, identical objective: to become part of media reality. The interests of the warring factions, the moral values of reporters as well as the different strategies of the media enterprises all play an important role in establishing different versions of the truth. In addition to analysing this explosive mixture of pressure and emotion, the book’s authors also try to show the great symbolism in war reporting. Due to its exceptional role in the media, war reporting reveals at the same time both journalism’s greatest strengths and its weaknesses. As the authors note in the preface, analysing the state of war reporting is crucial, and has been neglected for too long. According to Allan and Zelizer, examining the field where journalism faces its greatest challenges will reveal much about the media business as a whole.

It is important that we start looking at the way news from the frontline is made. Addressing the issue becomes even more pressing in light of the radical changes journalism has experienced over the last several years in terms of new technologies and formats, radically different corporate structures, new target audiences and, not least, new forms of warfare.

Reporting war is a significant book on an important issue. It has three major sections and features contributions by 23 European and American authors – both scholars and reporters. The first section focuses on key elements in war reporting in recent years; the second section explores conflicts in Africa, the Balkans, Kashmir and the Falkland War – wars all but forgotten by the public. At the heart of the third section, meanwhile, are the two Gulf Wars.

The big picture emerging from this remarkable mosaic made up of individual war reports provides little basis for optimism. Working conditions of war reporters have all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy. Instinctively trying to interpret what they experience, frontline reporters are faced with two forces bound to influence their work: propaganda pressure and manipulation on the one hand and the demanding and ruthless reality of the media business on the other.

The authors point out that the book seeks to highlight and critically examine the difficult challenges faced by war reporters in the 21st century. Allan and Zelizer provide a detailed account of a number of different missions. They start by revealing some of the business-related constraints faced by news providers. In a bid to attract ever larger audiences, broadcasters deliver biased or, as is the case with the US network FOX, outright partisan news. The authors then address the important issue of propaganda in its different forms and analyse both direct and subtle ways of trying to convince. But wait a second, first things first. It is about the strategic use of sources and finding the right words; being aware of and effectively exploiting the impact of images. It is about knowing the right people in order to “embed” your own journalists with the troops fighting on the frontline.

Locked in a constant inner conflict, war reporters find it increasingly difficult to go about their work. And the trend does not stop at the doors of corporate board rooms. Radio, TV and newspaper executives choose to report only on a select few conflicts, which they cover according to pre-established guidelines. Throughout the book, the authors remain highly sceptical that high quality war reporting, where top priority is given to the use of reliable sources and where journalists strive to put things into context without sacrificing accuracy and independence, is at all possible. Some contributions paint a particularly gloomy picture. Oliver Boyd Barrett highlights the Pentagon’s power to bend the facts. He thinks the capacity of America’s Department of Defence to misinform the public is far greater even than that described in Herman and Chomsky’s ominous “propaganda model” from 1988.

Piers Robinson debunks the myth that technological advances have increased journalistic independence. It is still military officials who call the tune with the media eventually having to follow the army’s lead. Based on the war in the Balkans, Philip Hammond argues that communication by British and American armed forces is intent on creating a new kind of war rhetoric, in which the communist enemy and the struggle for freedom have been replaced by international terrorism and the spirit of humanitarian intervention.

Howard Tumber, too, explores war reporting in terms of rhetoric. He examines the impact on language of “embedding” journalists with military fighting units. Whether they are aware of it or not, journalists reporting from the frontline tend to use “us” and “they”, thus allowing the public to identify more closely with the troops and bolstering support for military strategy. International, scientific and professional, this book by Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer paints a bleak and pessimistic picture of war reporting today, which, alas, may well simply reflect reality.

Message 2, 2005, p. 102

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