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Are journalistic practices in the reporting of conflict and war significantly different to routine reporting?
The reporting on wars and conflict is nowadays an important part of warfare. War Journalist, have the chance to come extremely close to combat and thus being able to give first hand information on a wars development and outcome. Wars are nowadays considered to not only having to be fought on the battlefield but also on television and thus in the living rooms of literally every household in the world, enabling the viewers and reader to closely follow these events. However, due to the severity of wars, war correspondence is often associated with problems such as “…allegiance, responsibility, truth, and balance…” (Allen and Zelizer, 2004: p.3) When a war correspondent witnesses near death experiences, it is often hard to stay neutral. This in turn could cause reports of war to become biased. War reporting often comes under crossfire of criticism, to the use of unbalanced government source or the ability of newspapers, television stations or any other media corporation to manipulate a journalists report. While routine reporting obviously often has the chance of being biased towards one side just as conflict and war reporting has, the circumstances under which these biases are formed are different. There is a major difference between how information is perceived when under the perils of war when compared to simply working from within a newsroom.
Routine reporting when compared to reporting on wars and conflicts is much more factual. In most cases, routine news stories are backed up by facts, based on official sources. These researches into an issue can range from having to be immediate or can take month to research, depending on the genre of the issue and its situation, and the importance of the story. Although with the tendency of today’s need for the media to be quick, in order to report on a topic before any other media company is able to report on the same topic, routine reporters have a bit more leeway on the schedules. War reporting on the other hand has to be even more instant. Reporters must give statements on a regular basis and unlike routine reporting, a major part of their reports is mainly based on what they have seen, heard and experience. They rely heavily on interviews with soldiers, generals that are stationed in the warzone, as well as having to try to get information from civilians and maybe even opposing forces. Routine reporting also does not entwine the audience in the way war reporting does. It gives a much more distant view, and thus many viewers only see an event passively and are not necessarily as interested and concerned about it as the audience of war reporting is.
War reporting can be very one sided. It is obvious, that for example an American reporter will usually mainly report on the status of the US military rather than that of its enemy. This can be caused due to patriotic views of the journalist, the country that his media institution is based in and the views of both of the government and the audience back home that is being reported to. It makes sense that the audience will usually be more interested in the situation of their own troops rather than those of the opposition. In covering a conflict, the media usually relies on sources from the military. Boyd-Barrett considers “this myopia might be attributed to the media reluctance to be seen as relying on ‘unreliable,’ ‘censored,’ or ‘unverified’ reports” (Boyd-Barrett, 2004)
A journalist that is amidst a military conflict is often profoundly affected by the extreme environment he is in. A journalist usually tries to abide by certain news values, so as to give an account of a situation as clearly and objectively as he can. However, these news values which might provide journalists well during peaceful times are hard to abide by when journalists are in a war stricken area. Their position of a journalist can be very outlandish. While being engulfed by the conflict, a journalist is still a bystander, a close yet distant observer. He interacts with soldiers and civilians, and yet has no physical part in any of the conflict’s outcomes. “Confronted with the often horrific realities of conflict, any belief that the journalist can remain distant, remote or unaffected by what is happening ‘tends to go out the window’ in a hurry.” (Allen and Zelizer, 2004: p.3) Another issue to be put into account is the patriotic and military views of a journalist with which he went into the warzone. Even if he enters a warzone with sceptical views of the war he is reporting on, sooner or later a reporter tends to associate himself with the side he arrived and is continuously travelling with, he becomes more familiar with them, and also develops the need to feel safe and thus stays with his group. Some individuals, when put under extreme conditions can develop as stated by Gralnick (2003, in Tumber, 2003), something similar to the ‘Stockholm syndrome’, where while both sides are at war, he clings to one side for his protection, and develops a sense of extreme loyalty to them. All these factors in turn have a profound effect on the journalist’s news story. Under these harsh circumstances, the ability of a journalist to stay neutral and keep an entirely unbiased opinion in his report is practically impossible. Obviously, similar situations, while most definitely not as harsh and drastic, can happen in routine journalism, but the chance of such an unbiased report being broadcasted is much more likely to be resolved, when compared to war correspondence. “It is much easier for producers and editors, situated miles away, to hold on to the central idea of objectivity, even as their colleagues in the field find the concept less easy to grasp.”(Tumber, 2004) The war correspondent does not only report, but as mentioned earlier is a ‘participating bystander’. Everyday journalists on the other hand usually do not develop such a strong bond with individuals they are reporting about, either due to their distance, or the fact that they only have short contact with these individuals. Despite the fact that they might develop a sense of sympathy towards a person, it usually is nowhere near as extreme as those sympathies that a war journalist can develop.
As cruel as these situations seem to be on the mental state of a reporter, having to keep an objective view of events, whilst being completely surround by hardship, opposing sides with opposing views and strategies, he still has to be able to give a truthful account to the public, that relies on them to try and be as honest and unbiased as possible. Only recently, during the Iraqi conflict in 2003, journalists were ‘embedded’ into US and British military units. They literally became part of a unit. They went wherever that unit went, experienced what that military unit experienced. It could be considered that this was a strategy implemented by the United States, so as to be able to control what was presented to the public. “It may be that embedded reporters are, despite often diligent objectivity and undoubted courage, forced by current constraints to produce a kind of coverage which may, for some, make war appear more acceptable.” (BBC News Online, 2003) While this strategy of embedding, enabled journalists to be closer to the action, and being able to give more factual, and immediate reports, it could possibly have reduced their abilities to present reports with ‘both sides of the story’. “…what was missing during the conflict was a broader analysis, especially in relation to how Iraqi people saw and experienced the conflict.” (BBC News Online, 2003).
Reporting on wars and conflicts is not only done by the war journalists alone, but is very much under the control of the news agency these war journalists work for. Whilst a war journalist might be able to give a report as truthfully and unbiased as he possibly can, the news agency is able to influence the way the story is presented to the public. In this way, the news agency itself is able to ‘self-censor’ stories, by distorting them, picking and choosing which parts of a journalist’s report should be broadcasted or printed. Thus different news agencies are able to take sides, or make their reports seem more neutral. An example for this is the reports done by MSNBC and Fox News. Both of these news broadcasting stations tried to present the Iraqi war in a brighter light, supporting the war and their soldiers. “It followed an aggressively partisan approach, where newscasters referred to US and British troops as ‘we,’ ‘ours,’ ‘heroes’ and ‘liberators’ and actively deflected criticism of the invasion” (Allen and Zelizer, 2004: pg.9) On the other hand, with modern media and communication technologies which enable us to send and receive information straight away, the immediacy of news, and the race of being the first to present a story, has caused news stories to be shortened, incomplete, not in depth and in some cases possibly wrong. Furthermore, Hoskins believes that “in this way a drive for immediacy directly constrains the ability of journalists to perform their jobs effectively.” (Hoskins, 2004: p.46) These two factors show that there is a certain similarity between routine reporting and war and conflict reporting. All stories deemed newsworthy are part of the race over which news agency reports on an event first. In this case it does not matter if it is news about a war or conflict, celebrity or political scandal, the death of an important person, or the reporting on an earthquake or other natural disaster. Reporting news is in straightforward terms, a fight for viewers and readership between news agencies, thus in fact a means to making a monetary profit.
Furthermore, the capability of making news on conflicts and war live and in action gives it a sense of reality television, not only making it feel real and immediate and close, but gives an audience a certain thrill and thus could be considered to be entertainment as well as being news reporting on war. Frankly, news in general, is being ‘dumbed down’. Some might argue that this tendency to turn war, which in fact should be viewed as quiet a serious affair, into a sort of perverse entertainment is rather unethical. However, the idea of turning something that might sometimes seem far away and an affair of politicians, states and the military, and not necessarily a real concern to the standard citizen, into a gripping, interesting and entertaining coverage does not necessarily dumb down the audience itself, but causes them to follow and concern themselves with a war or conflict and thus stirring an interest in the event itself. Even if the means used to create this effect are not entirely moral. This essentially means that people actually become more involved, rather than simply seeing it as a distant incident. The media, especially television broadcasting, and the ability of showing live events as mentioned before had the tendency to be similar to exciting reality television which often ‘glued’ the audience to the television screens. This was further exploited by broadcasters because their reporters were able to use the potential of their surroundings, the close proximity to danger and the sometimes unknown near future of the conflict that could affect them at any moment. The on the scene reporters often seemed somewhat fearful, in a hurry and their words might be slightly jumbled. While these portrayals by the journalist might actually be or at least seem authentic, they cause viewers to find these reports more interesting than when the event is simply and dryly presented from within a newsroom, thousands of kilometres away from the actual event All these effects caused viewers to be able to accept what the reporter was experiencing as true because the reporter is in the middle of the conflict, reporting on what he is experiencing and seeing.
Another factor that comes both with war journalism and the fact that many media agencies are becoming largely global in their coverage, is the effect their reports can have on the outcome of a conflict or war. This is called the ‘CNN Effect’. The media in this case has an immense power. It has the ability of bringing specific news (or not) to the public, which often triggers the need for the government to take actions accordingly. “If a humanitarian emergency is not featured in the media, it does not become an emergency for political leaders and policy makers.” (Rosenblatt, 1996 in Carruthers, 2000: p. 198-199)
To conclude, war journalism, is highly subjective to various influences. A war journalist’s perception of his surroundings, his patriotic stance towards a certain country, his emotional connection with the soldiers and civilians, the chance of death or serious injury as well as his own perception of the war, all distort his ability to be completely objective in his reporting. Routine reports are not influenced in such a way because they are not present. Furthermore, the ability of news agencies to be able to take patriotic and pro-war stances towards their country, so as to both gain public support for the war and to gain viewers and readers for their own monetary benefits. News agencies capability, through various methods of putting pressure upon a government, political and or military group to take action or non-action can have a profound impact on the outcome of a conflict. And lastly, a government’s ability to confine journalists to only seeing a conflict or war from a single perspective can also have intense effects on the news reporting. Routine reporting on the other hand, takes a much more distant stance towards the subjects it reports on and hence is able to take up a much more neutral stance towards an event.
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