The world is a more peaceful place than it used to be. Objectively, the killings in wars in Syria and Iraq produce horrifying statistics, but globally the level of deaths due to conflict remains below that of previous decades. For instance, the Vietnam War alone claimed more than 2 million lives; in the 1980s the eight-year conflict between Iran and Iraq led to half a million fatalities; and the death toll from genocide and civil war in Africa, the Balkans and Sri Lanka in the 1990s topped a million.
Nevertheless, war on terrorism is still making headlines. Prime time news routinely features the carnage of violence and conflict from Syria, Iraq, the Kurdish regions of Turkey, or further afield from the simmering tensions in Ukraine, Myanmar and the troubled border regions of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Thanks to the communications revolution, the world has become more connected and people are closer to the frontlines than they have ever been, but they struggle to find unbiased and reliable information when the news agenda is crowded out by intolerance and war-mongering.
Everywhere, media wars are fought across the global information landscape and there is intense pressure on reporters and editors to take sides. Media-savvy terrorists stalk the social networks and battalions of government spin doctors are deployed across the internet.
Reporting conflict provides the greatest ethical challenge to journalists. It is not easy to maintain the highest professional standards and there are many shocking examples of media failure and even complicity in acts of violence and inhumanity as shown by the genocide in Rwanda, war in the Balkans and grotesque propaganda around the Ukraine conflict.
Nevertheless, journalists must do what they can to avoid hate speech and inflammatory coverage. But how is that done in the heat of battle? The Ethical Journalism Network, which aims to strengthen the capacity of media professionals to report in an accurate, fair and humane way, argues that in times of war people need more access to reliable information. Quality journalism is vital for people to:
Better understand the roots and reality of conflict;
Create an information space for dialogue;
Provide context and analysis that may open the door to reconciliation and peace.
Without accurate and sensitive reporting that provides insights into the mindsets of all those involved, people cannot make judgments and potentially influence the course of events by giving or withholding their support for the conflict.
But in times of war, all sides engaged in conflict do so without any sense of balance – no one says the other side probably believes their cause is just, or acknowledges the bravery of enemy soldiers. They abandon notions of fairness and objectivity and use propaganda and lies to demonize the enemy, its leadership and its people. Journalists have a responsibility to counter this threat.
Journalists who work in or near a conflict zone see at first-hand the brutal and inhumane consequences of making war. They rarely promote propaganda based upon skewed notions of romantic patriotism or tribal allegiance for long.
Often the media people who shout most loudly and most fearlessly are those who front programmes and pen articles from the safety and comfort of their offices.
In the ethnic and territorial wars fought in the former Yugoslavia, where government controlled channels like Radio Television Serbia became advocates for the war, and in the recent Ukraine-Russia conflict (Russia Today comes to mind), some media abandoned all pretence at objectivity and became cheerleaders for armed confrontation.
In this charged atmosphere governments strive to recruit everyone – including journalists – to a patriotic and flag-waving cause. It is an atmosphere often filled with hate and emotion.
But journalism must not be hijacked to provide stereotypes and propaganda. Ethical reporting must portray events and people in an informed context, avoiding the vivid contrasts that governments prefer in their own black and white visions of the conflict.
Reporting from the battlefield may present journalists with a personal conflict of interest. They may become confused when faced by the legitimate urge to defend their community and their culture.
But the role of a journalist is to provide their audience with fact-based information, to show humanity and to strive to tell the truths that need to be heard, even if they offend their own political leaders in the process.
The thoughtful and ethical journalist is a good citizen. They demonstrate their patriotism by doing their job professionally. They know that it is always in the interests of their country and community to strive to tell the truth.
It has always been like this, ever since the first recognizable war correspondents put on their boots to report an earlier war over Crimea in the mid-nineteenth century. But reporting war has never been easy. As former Sunday Times Editor Harold Evans points out, truth gets buried under the rabble-rousing and rubble of war. Only after the conflict, he says, is there time to sift the ashes for truth.
The First Casualty, which traces a history of media reporting of wars and conflicts, Phillip Knightly warns that it could be getting worse ‘The sad truth is that in the new millennium, government propaganda prepares its citizens for war so skillfully that it is quite likely that they do not want the truthful, objective and balanced reporting that good war correspondents once did their best to provide.’
Soon after he wrote these words, the Iraq war in 2003 proved his point, as the American and British communications control system successfully designed an embedding arrangement that gave the media ‘access’ to the action while ensuring that they remained closely supervised by the military.
The presence of 600 embedded journalists allowed the military to maximize the imagery and drama of battlefield conditions while providing minimal insight into the issues. Information was carefully filtered, massaged and drip-fed to journalists. There was a limit to fact and context, lies were part of the package, and setbacks were glossed over. The military carefully planned what range of topics could be discussed with reporters and spun information so that it had the appearance of reality as it appeared to come from troops on the ground.
The only alternative to this carefully orchestrated vision of the conflict provided by military spin doctors came from up to 2,000 independent or ‘unilateral’ journalists spread out over the territory of Iraq looking for stories that might provide insight into the reality of war. But some of them paid a heavy price.