Major Essay Example

3Journalism & War



The First Casualty of War Is Truth

Journalism is about knowing the world around, both in the immediate context and even far. People need to know other people in other places and what they go through. But the news is not just about ‘knowing’. It is also- in fact perhaps most importantly- about how people respond to it. This is how the news comes to bear so much impact on the people who receive it, but mostly on the people it tells of. Aday et al. (2005) note: “an independent press is critical to the functioning of a free society” (p.3). As such, journalism comes with great responsibility.

The title above implies two key perspectives. The first one has to do with the dangers that war poses on journalists and there reporting. In other words, journalists are there to report the truth to those who have stayed back home, so when they are killed in the line of duty, the truth is suppressed. The second perspective questions the credibility of war reporting, that which is fed to the people as the ‘truth on the ground’.

In times of war, many argue, an independent press is even more important because only then can the ‘truth’ be revealed. A free press should be able to do its job without interference. But more than this, it is paramount that no government deceives the people, sending its soldiers to die in distant lands for a false course. But these two elements have been threatened- case in point the Iraq war.

To begin with, war is mainly chaos. But it is organized chaos. That is the purpose of the ‘rules of war’. The rules of war clearly state that war is only between combatants. Non-combatants should be kept out of it; that is, not killed. But now it seems journalists are no longer non-combatants. In the middle of war, no one is spared now. In fact, may be journalists are as in danger as the front line soldiers. Hence Mordue’s (2004) reference of the Iraq war as ‘A war with no front frontline’.

By 2004, a Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) report indicated that of the 55 journalists that had died in about the previous one year, 25 had been killed in Iraq. The CPJ then declared Iraq “the most dangerous place in the world to work as a journalist” (CPJ, cited in Mordue 2004 p.1).

These deaths were mainly attributed to rebel forces and insurgents who were said to see western journalists as the evidence of western infiltration and domination. Wiping out the journalists was, therefore, part of the war against the west. All the locals who assisted the journalists in any way were seen as traitors and killed.

But other people have promoted more conspiratorial notions. For instance, in his 2003 article Aiming to stop the story, BBC International’s Nik Gowing noted that there were growing fears among journalists that some governments were sanctioning “active targeting of journalists in war zones… to shut down what [they are] there to do” (Mordue 2004, p.1).

But this is about journalists who die, the truth that goes every time the eyes whose professional) job is to witness it and report it back are eliminated. Now, though, more and more people are questioning the credibility of the journalists who are still there to report on the happenings on the war zone. In this respect, the question surrounds: what ‘embedding’ journalists with troops means; as well as the evolved agendas of media outlets and the pressures that journalists go through in trying to abide by those agendas.

According to Mordue (2004), the Vietnam War was the beginning of the US government’s war against the media. This is because it was the media that apparently set the American public against its own government; it declared loss too early and from then on it was only a matter of time. But of course the government- known so much for its first amendment- would not dare declare the media persona non-grata in its war endeavors. Besides, perhaps it suspected, it would set off a permanent war with the media. It would not permit that seeing what the media had done with the Vietnam War. This is how the government introduced the idea of ‘embedding’ journalists with troops. In this respect, media houses could have their correspondents sent on special missions alongside government troops. But the lingering question remained as to whether embedded reporters could be objective. While this seemed like a move towards more openness, many believe it was more of a move towards ‘containment’ (Mordue 2004; Tuosto 2008). This is a tactic very much in line with Sun Tsu’s famous line: ‘keep your close but your enemies closer’.

Tuosto (2008) notes that the use of embedded reporters ushered in a new era of media-military collaboration that allowed for a pro-war propaganda presented as an objective eye witness account of Iraq war efforts. It is only natural that a symbiotic relationship should arise. Besides, the journalist must protect the people whose jobs are to keep him/her alive, a ‘scratch my back I scratch yours’ partnership. Otherwise, Mordue (2004) quotes David McKnight (then media historian at the University of technology in Sydney): “you can be captured by your sources … the soldiers who [are supposed to] defend, feed and sleep beside you” (p.2). Besides, it is no coincidence that even as the government spoke of embedment of journalists and troops, it also picked up on covert operations. In other words, by embedment was a new censorship strategy.

More than this, journalists work under editors. They must therefore be careful with their political views and how they “measure up to those of their editors” (Tuosto 2008, p.23). But regardless of what they sent home, the editors found ways to present the stories the way they wanted them to be told. Marjorie Miller, The Los Angeles Times editor said the reports by the embedded reporters were only valuable as mosaic pieces. But, she goes further, “they could only see as far as they could see and it was up to Tracy and Tyler to begin the process of putting some of those little pieces of the puzzle into perspective” (quoted in Tuosto 2008, p.23). The implication here is that the embeds were not the true picture, that it required those back home, those far from the war zone to make it ‘right’. But if the embeds directly from the war zone were not the true picture, it leaves one other option, secondary observers (which in a nutshell were secondary sources).

Another important issue regards the media’s shifting reporting agenda. Journalism today is not necessarily about finding the truth. It has become more of capitalist enterprise that has a market and consumer to sell to. In other words, it is not so much about telling the truth as it is about ‘selling the truth’. The latter implies only speaking that which will pique the interest of the audience and keep them glued to their screens. As Tuosto (2008) notes, reporters alter rhetoric and content based on the targeted audience’s needs. This is what explains the redundant images of Africa and attacks in the Middle East. American media’s images from Africa, pictures of thin and big-belly children with flies all over their faces, is perhaps- if not entirely- a justification for the US’s foreign policy in the continent, a policy that has undoubtedly helped the US’s hegemony in the whole of Africa. Equally, the pictures of bombings and stories of the ‘bad’ plight of women in the Middle East is consistent with the US’s sermon on a no-democratic Middle East and, therefore, the need to be there selling democracy (Ignatieff 1999; Philo 2001). Quraisihi (2001) cites various incidents in which the western media propagates the stereotype on the Islamic religion and Muslims. But these pictures have become so common that many citizens of western countries who have never been to Africa or the Middle East find anything else ‘not true’, so the media must always find ways to stick to the known ‘truth’.

Because pleasing the audience now seems to have preceded the need for actual truth, media houses will do anything to present themselves as the ones with the scoop, the breaking news, the stories that other media houses do not have yet. This is the birth of real-time news, which is based on the premise that what happened two or so hours ago is not accurate unless there is a new detail to add. War correspondents are therefore under pressure to produce ‘real time’ news. In other words, when the editor says the reporter needs to deliver updates every thirty minutes, that is what has to be done whether there is a development to report or not. The consequence is that reporters will try ‘have’ something to report back. That means, the goal is more to have ‘something new’ to report and less on ‘what’ to report. The content of news declines because attention is on what will keep the audience waiting rather what will provide a clear picture (Mordue 2004; Aday et al. 2005; Tuosto 2008)).

Aday et al. (2005) examine how different media houses from different countries covered the Iraq war differently; that is, how they constructed that which is ‘objective’- where ‘objectivity’ here has to do with the preference for certain news over other types of news and how they are framed. For example, the finding suggest, American media houses shied away from stories of casualties (American, British or others). Instead, they largely focused on presenting a bloodless picture of the war. On the contrary, other media houses took a largely neutral tone.

It is understandable why this should be so. American media had a direct stake in the war. Besides, it was the US that initiated the war. Now it was the job of the media to try to play the down the repercussions of war that a good portion of the American media had disputed. To show pictures of dead American soldiers would have been to give the dissenting domestic public more ammunition. Other media houses, on the contrary, were not under such pressures.

In conclusion, indeed war is just a continuation of politics. It is about winning sides. Unfortunately, the media is increasingly becoming the bearer of the victory trophy, and in that role, the truth has become a casualty.


Aday, S, Livingston, S & Hebert, M 2005, ‘Embedding the truth: a cross-cultural analysis

of objectivity and television coverage of the Iraq war.’ The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, vol.10, no.3: pp.3-21

Ignatieff, M 1999, The warrior’ honor: ethnic war and the modern conscience. London: Vintage

Mordue, M 2004, A war with no front line, The Sydney Morning Herald, May 22-23

Philo, G 2001, The unseen world: how the media portrays the poor, UNESCO Courier, Nov.

Quraisihi, B. 2001, ‘Islam in the Western media’, The Multicultural Skyscraper News, 1(3), 12

Tuosto, K 2008, ‘The ‘grunt truth’ of embedded journalism: the new

media/military relationship.’ Stanford Journal of International Relations, vol.10, no.1: pp.20-31