The Feasibility of Truth in War Reporting
‘We are gathering information, not for the military or for the government, but for the truth.’ — Barbara Jones
Truth is defined as the professional responsibility for journalists, but it is often blurred in the fog of war, as Phillip Knightley (2000) wrote in the First Casualty. Many journalists reporting the war are limited in what they can and are willing to report. However, truth is still the ultimate aspiration for frontline correspondents as Peter Arnett (1994), who has been a 40-year war correspondent, said, “truth was the greatest goal I could aspire to.(cited in Tumber and Webster., 2006, p.169)
So can war correspondents report truthfully? I will try to ascertain this topic in the following part of the essay.
Zero distance to the gunfire
The Ambiguity of Truth and Objectivity.
The legend correspondent James Cameron (1978) once claims that the ‘objectivity was of less importance than the truth’. (cited in Tumber and Webster., 2006, p.169)
Expectations to report warfare truthfully are couched in the language of objectivity. (Tumber and Webster., 2006)
Nonetheless, the definition of objectivity and truth is ambiguous and confused with ‘balance’ and ‘neutrality. For example, the truth might be the journalists’ aim, but that does not follow that the means are objective. Balance implies that journalists should give equal amount of coverage to both conflicting sides in one report, but this does not necessarily make the report objective. Similarly, neutrality may also be problematic when morality is considered as part of the function of journalism. (Tumber and Webster., 2006, p216,)
The ambiguity goes further when we examine the value of objectivity. (Thussu and Freedman, 2003) Objectivity can be treated in both theoretical and practical aspects. In theory, telling the truth often refers to the ways of separating of ‘facts’ from ‘analysis, treating news in a detached approach without value judgments. But in practice, the odds of reporting the whole truth is barely much, because of restrictions on time and space reporters can only rely on accredited source to cover story. Here the act of reporting is more of a ‘strategic ritual’ (Tuchman 1972), which means the journalists reporting that ‘A says this’ and ‘B says that’. This ritual at most achieves the claim to objectivity, but it does not guarantee objectivity. Instead they only allow an operational view of objectivity.(Tuchman, 1972)
Therefore in practices of reporting war, ambiguity and contradiction always exist. (Tumber and Prentoulis., 2003, p216) The criteria as to judging whether war reportage tells the truth should undergo reassessment. I will talk about this in later part of this article.
Stricter restrictions to coverage under war circumstances
As mentioned above, under war circumstances, the restrictions to tell the truth are aggravated compared to normal circumstances.
Firstly, war correspondents have to cope with the stressful condition in war zone.
On the one hand, they face the most demanding physical challenges such as disease, poor hygienic condition and even safety, journalists are often among the casualties of conflict. (Corera,2003) On the other hand, psychological conditions required are also severe, they need to overcome social isolation, stress, boredom and terror. There are some unfortunate cases where war correspondents’ life is seriously ruined by their experience in the war zone. Some have been suffering from severe psychological trauma and disorder.(Tumber, 2002)
working environment can be extremely stressful
Secondly, the connection between war correspondents and the news headquarters has led to a situation where news is increasingly driven from the centre. (Julian Manyon) Nowadays, thanks to the on-the-edge technology like satellite video-phone and the laptop correspondents can get contact with their news organization headquarters without approaching to the war zone to access resources.
As Yvonne Ridley described her experience during the Afghanistan conflict in 2001, ‘in the build-up of the war, TV reporters spend much of their time on the rooftops of the Marriott in Islamabad’ … (which is worth notice and quite funny, they stayed in the hotels in the neighbouring Pakistan instead of the frontline) ‘many of them never left the hotels… some TV reporters paid Northern Alliance soldiers 5 dollars a round to start firing off as the cameras rolled. They could broadcast their piece looking very combative.’ (Y. Ridley, 2003) The recall reveals that to fulfil the endless information demand for the 24/7 rolling news, the verification of the truth is undoubtedly ignored.
Thirdly, journalists and news organizations come under pressure from the external environment.
The main pressures come largely from the government as well as the military.
To justify the military action, the government desperately needs the public opinion in their side. That’s why they are most critical of the media for not toeing the line. (Corera, 2003) For instance, the then US president George W Bush asserted on announcing the Iraq invasion that ‘you are either for us or against us’ and that ‘this is a battle of good and evil’. Similarly, the British government blamed the UK newspapers for not supporting the country enough. These remarks put journalists in a dilemma where anyone who raises any criticism is considered as being unpatriotic and disloyal to their own country.
From the Vietnam War, high-ranked military figures claimed that uncontrolled media caused the US failure. From the 1982 Falklands War on, the military has adopted a host of strategies – They cultivated long-term contacts in the media, and allow privilege to favoured reporters, or even threat journalist who get hold of negative information – to ensure that reporting about their activities is appropriate and acceptable. Journalists have been carefully handled in aspects of ‘minders’ allocated, and well-trained military spokespeople to answer questions. (Tumber and Webster., 2006)
Another origin of the pressure journalists faced is the public. Whether the objective reporting is desirable has been under considerable debate recently. Gordon Corera (2003) from BBC’s Today program said they came under a lot of flak for criticizing government policy particularly when they questioned the war on terror, such as whether the bombing is working in Afghanistan or whether the British troops should be there.
In addition, there is also peer pressure within the media as to the way of conveying alternative perspectives. The British media environment is so combative that organizations get backlash from rivals on how they cover the war. The Sun has once accused BBC’s Washington correspondents of ‘pro-Taliban’ as he questioned Donald Rumsfeld about the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. (Corera,2003)
Above shows that to journalists face much pressure when trying to tell the truth.
Another factor detrimental to the truth is the inescapable reliance on the limited, unreliable sources in warfare.
- A lack of understanding of the specific situation in the frontline is problematic for war correspondents. They are sent to an area they know little about, and have to spend short periods of time inside the chaotic, violent area to file detailed information. Therefore, they have to rely on local fixers to provide background information, access to the interviewees and to interpret. That means correspondents cannot produce coverage by their own judgement
2.The most illustrated example should be that the reliance of embeds on troops, restricted them to a particular time and place.
The embeds are restricted in war zones
The phenomena of embeds is part and parcel of the military’s measures of perception management. The embedded correspondents get information far from the frontline, at locations chosen by the army, and from the handouts issued by PR people hired by the forces. One vivid example of the extent to which journalists were constrained is the case of Falkland Islands conflict. The media had to rely on military transport to get to the battlefield, use military technologies to send messages back to news headquarters. (Morrison and Tumber, 1988)
Frontline correspondents know that the limitations of being an embed. Dan Edge once asserted that all an embed can cover is the mechanics of how a modern war is fought … but that’s a miniscule percentage of what war reporting needs to be about.’ David Zucchino, once an embed in Baghdad, echoed this by complaining that they don’t’ have access to the decision-making process in the political and military circle.
The embeds’ inevitable reliance on the limited sources means their perspective is not in itself the whole truth. Most reportage offered by the embeds in Iraq in 2003 was supportive of the military enterprise, and did little to inform the public of further analyse as to the cause and effect of the war. They relied on the central news organisation collating different reports and putting together the jigsaw to produce a complete picture, which could hardly guarantee objectivity as well.
- What’s more, situation in combat zone is so complicated that it’s hard to present conflicting perspectives. For instance, as to a specific event, one side claims that it was a massacre and the other side may argue that it was a legitimate anti-terrorism action. Journalist can not substantiate whether or not it was a massacre unless they have enough time to do a lot of research and interview. This is impossible for correspondent reporting for daily journalism
2.Another main obstacle in covering the truth is all sources are not trusty. People do not tell you the truth. Combatants understand the power of the media, and even ordinary people they know that journalists will report what they say to the outside world, consequently they would exaggerate and lie. As Dan Edge put it: ‘There are fewer and fewer corners of the world where one’s sources and interviewees are not hypersensitive to the power or lack of power of the media. And that informs everything they say.’ (cited in Tumber and Webster., 2006, p.169)In short period of time correspondents are not able to substantiate their words and get through to the true event.
At other times, sources bypass journalists, going directly to news media, especially to propagate their view. Nothing more vividly illustrates this than the production of hostage videos through 2004 in Iraq that were put out on sympathetic websites.
To what extent can journalists tackle these restrictions?
Can Journalists tackle all the restriction?
In conditions of war and conflict, there is always the ‘fog of war’, the confusion of clarity, the restriction to information flow make it hard to report precisely. However, but I suppose the wider information environment the media enjoys today would to some extent tackle the obstacles.
First of all, frontline journalists are not willing to descend to act as proxy for authorities. They tend to ‘telling it like it is’, uphold notions of ‘objectivity’ and can harass most advanced technology to report unaffectedly with ease and immediacy.
Furthermore, journalists come from diverse education, cultural backgrounds that they don’t simply buy the slogans such as “support our boys”, they have their own judging criteria with regard to war.
Moreover, although war correspondents may be severely constrained by virtue of specific limitations in the frontline, news organisations can get access to information from various origins and outlets. The final news product is probably the combination of more than one single journalist’s report.
In fact, during wartime, some ‘undesirable reports’ still emerged despite the strict censorship on all reports to ensure that they are ‘on message’. In the Iraq invasion, Al Jazeera firstly showed video footage of the Northern Alliance soldiers and circulated quickly. Similarly, scenes of civilian casualties and hospital staff trying the save the injured was captured by some journalists and was available by the audience.
Therefore, despite the control and prevention of the military and authorities, there are still ways that undesirable stories can somehow reach the audiences. (Tumber and Webster., 2006)
Reassessment of Truth in War reporting
Journalists play a critical role in the public understanding of war. It’s vital for for those who do their work as foreign or war correspondents, to tell domestic audience how other people think, how other cultures think. (Corera.2003)
It is difficult, though, because of in warfare opinions from both sides are so polarised that one granted point of view from one side might be considered as extremely unacceptable from the other. So, it’s also difficult to tell whether journalists report truthfully on virtue of the ambiguity of the definition.
I think the reassessment of truth with reference to wartime reportage could be something as follows:
Especially during war time, whether the journalist can explain to the public and opinion formers back at home, about the outside world and explain to them the way different people and cultures think, and eventually create the public’s understandings.
I think in war coverage, it is still possible, although difficult, that war correspondents report truthfully.
Admittedly, the war correspondents confront a variety of limitations and stressful conditions. However, what’s more dangerous is when the media finds itself swept up in patriotism and find it hard to raise any dissenting opinions. (Corera.2003)
Faced with the military authorities’ limit to the content of reporting, some embeds are just pander to the authority, providing merely complied stories. But better reporters have more laudable goals, not only to get the story and get it straight, but rather to ‘feel that your’re getting at the truth.’ (Orla Guerin, cited in Tumber and Webster., 2006, p.169)) Philip Knightley and other war journalists did what they could to resist to manipulation of news in warfare. The most revered journalists reporting warfare are those who are always seeking the ‘truth’. (Corera.2003)
What’s more, it’s hard for the military and politicians to manage the news contents. The Al Jazeera report in the 2003 Iraq War can be a well-illustrated example. The British forces claimed that there was an uprising against Saddam Hussein from Shi’ites in Basra. But the news was rejected by Al Jazeera correspondents inside the town. (Tumber and Webster, 2006) the information remained accessible to anyone who loo on the Al Jazeera websites.
So thanks to the Internet and other characteristic of today’s media environment, the authorities can not control what viewers can see despite the desire to restrict war reportage.
To sum up, I suppose that it’s not the case that journalist cannot tell the whole truth because of the constraints on them It’s not impossible to convey the truth but only the best journalists can achieve it, with fascinating professional passion, social responsibility and unimaginable hard work.
List of References
- Thussu, D, K. and Freedman,D.,(2003). War and the media. Sage publications Ltd.
- 2. Tumber,H. and Webster,F.,(2006) Journalists under fire: information war and journalistic practices. Sage publications Ltd.
- Knightley, P., (2003) In war, truth is the first casualty: the war correspondent as hero, propagandist and myth-maker from the Crimea to Iraq. 3rd ed. Carlton Publishing Group.
- Allen, T. and Seaton, J.,(1999), the media of conflict: war reporting and representations of ethnic violence. Zed Books
- Tumber, H. and Prentoulis,M.,(2003), Journalists under fire: Subcultures, objectivity and emotional literacy. In: Thussu, D, K. and Freedman,D.,(2003). War and the media. Sage publications Ltd, pp.216-229.
- Corera.G., (2003), The need for context: the complexity of foreign reporting. In: Thussu, D, K. and Freedman, D., (2003). War and the media. Sage publications Ltd, pp. 253-257
- Ridley,Y., (2003), In the fog of war…. In: Thussu, D, K. and Freedman,D.,(2003). War and the media. Sage publications Ltd, pp.248-252
Read Full Post »