Lingering gunsmoke

July 23, 2004 • Specialist Journalism • by

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, July 23, 2004

War-coverage criticism has blind spots
Does media journalism help to correct the failings in war coverage? A new study of German newspapers is skeptical.

Coverage of the war in Iraq has been coming under fire from all sides in the past few months. Subject to criticism is not only its lack of balance, but also its tendency to focus on entertaining and to stage war incidents as media spectacles. Critical voices include members from within the media’s own ranks. Meike Vögele, communication researcher at the University of Bamberg, Germany, has now analyzed how the German media have approached their own coverage of the war and probed into whether media journalism – that is, reporting on the media by the media – can improve war coverage.*

The good news first: according to the study, the German quality press has gained credibility with the public since it began disclosing the difficult reporting conditions. The author analyzed articles from national dailies (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Welt, Frankfurter Rundschau and Tageszeitung), the weekly paper Die Zeit, and the newsmagazines Spiegel and Focus. Overall, she observed increased awareness of the issues involved. The reports consistently discussed the consequences of the reporting conditions, and drew readers’ attention to the trivializing language and the one-sided military perspective, as well as to the emotionally charged pictures of many war reports.

Willingness of the press to criticize its own reporting is, however, rather less evident. 90 percent of the articles criticize the TV coverage of the conflict and not the press’s war reporting: in other words, writing about others is preferred to turning the spotlight on themselves. The New York Times recently proved that this is not inevitably the case: taking a long, hard look at its own war coverage in its daily “Corrections” section, the paper boldly published a long list of articles containing faulty information written during the prelude to the war in Iraq.

There is another example of a blind spot in the review process: the print media, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in particular, repeatedly accused TV stations of one-sided coverage in favor of the “victim” Iraq. According to Vögele, however, the Frankfurt paper is guilty of the same offence, giving clear preference to Arab news sources over American ones. Obviously, she concludes, German media journalists considered Al-Jazeera a welcome counterbalance to the perceived predominance of the American viewpoint.

Just a third of the articles analyzed conceded that “objective” reporting was not possible under the circumstances, while almost half the articles denounced war reporters for partisanship. Many media journalists attributed this to new forms of war reporting, such as the “embedding” of war reporters in battle troops, with the risk that the reporters tend to identify with the soldiers. Moreover, since war reporters report on their own experiences, the reports often end up being about the journalists more than anything else. Instead of neutral observers, the “embedded” reporters in particular focus on themselves, usually cast in a heroic light. The boom of war journals from journalists confirms this trend.

According to Meike Vögele, what is missing in how the media has tackled the flaws in its war coverage is an analysis of fundamental economic aspects. As she points out, only seven percent of the articles analyzed discussed growing economic pressures, stiffer competition, and the increasing commercialization of the media. All of this, she contends, led to 24-hour-a-day live coverage which became increasingly lax about checking the facts and filtering out the nonessentials. The main problem in war coverage, as Vögele sees it, is not propaganda or censorship, but the pressure of competition and the “rush to be first”, leaving no time for investigation.

The communication researcher’s assessment of media journalism’s potential for correcting faulty war coverage is rather sobering. The media, she summarizes, may admit that their work is flawed, but give no remedies. Instead, they warn their audiences that their war reports should be taken with a pinch of salt, and seem to consider this a carte blanche to keep on reporting as before.

* Meike Vögele: Kritischer Medienjournalismus als Chance für eine bessere Kriegsberichterstattung? In: Zeitschrift für Kommunikationsökologie (ZfK), Ausgabe 1/2004, 6. Jg., S. 67-70.

(Translation: Fabia Zöllner)

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