The Role of Media in International Conflict
By Christopher Young
This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff
Citation: Christopher Young, "The Role of Media in International Conflict," Canadian Institute for Peace and Security, Working Paper no. 38, (1991).
Young draws on discussions held during a two-day seminar in Ottawa, Canada to explore some of the issues that the media face in covering military conflicts, and to examine media roles in international conflict.
There is an ongoing tension between journalists' desires to report on conflicts and military actions, and military concerns about security. Generally journalists accept the need for some secrecy regarding military maneuvers. However many journalists have observed that "secrecy and controls on reporters are often imposed for reasons of political convenience, for example to avoid blame for military or political errors that deserve exposure."[p. 3]
In order to maintain military security and prevent a massive influx of reporters into the war zone, reporters were confined to pools during the Gulf War. Representative journalists were included in the press pool, and their reports were made available to the rest of the media. Many journalists were dissatisfied with this system, since it greatly restricted most reporters' access to events, and since the military limited what even the pool reporters could cover. Retired General Sidle, who continues to work as a consultant to the Defense Department, argues that in dealing with the press, security and troop safety must be the military's first concern. Rather than pools, Sidle favors field press censorship, which he argues provides the maximum freedom for the press, while still maintaining troop safety. Sidle cautions however that if the media won't limit the number of reporters it send into a battle zone, the military will have to intervene and impose limits.
The media can contribute to conflict escalation, either directly or indirectly. Experienced war reporters observe that sometimes the very presence of cameras will prompt the sides to start shooting.[p. 52] Terrorists often rely on the media. Terrorist attacks may be calculated to draw media attention, and so draw attention to their cause. In the absence of media coverage, many types of terrorism would be useless.
Video media in particular tend to focus on dramatic and violent events. It was observed that "more than ever in terms of news, war is better than peace, violence is better than non- violence."[p. 54] This tendency to focus on violence and conflict, and to further sensationalize violent events can distort the public's perceptions of the situation.
Many seminar participants felt that the American press, in particular, failed to adequately investigate the Gulf War, or to report on the causes of the war. Instead the media "became the mouthpiece for the government, it gave up its privilege of free criticism, reinforced the us- versus-them syndrome."[p. 28] Many participants expressed grave concern that the public seemed quite willing to accept such a "tame" press. Milton Viorst of the New Yorker argued that, as a result of this "Congress didn't obtain, and the American people didn't obtain the information needed to challenge the president on the subject of a war which I believe could have been avoided."[p. 11]
The media can also contribute to conflict de-escalation. Many people believe that the media coverage of the conflict played a key role in turning U.S. public opinion against the war in Vietnam. Lack of popular support eventually forced the U.S. to withdraw from that conflict. One seminar participant suggested that the constant live coverage in the early stages of the Yugoslavian conflict helped to contain that conflict by allowing the parties to publicly vent their emotions and positions. Another participant observes that the Gulf War "is the first war in the history of humanity where a representative of the other belligerent appeared almost nightly in the homes of the world. Can you imagine interviews with Ho Chi Min in American living- rooms at the height of the Vietnam war?"[p. 64] The media can offer better communication with and better information regarding the adversary. By allowing each side to see the other relatively directly, by bringing the opponent into our living-rooms, the media can help to prevent the demonization of the other side.
Former hostage and journalist Roger Auque argued that the media should cover hostage- takings. The safety of the hostages depends in part on their being remembered by their own governments and by the broader community. Auque also observed that "Americans have a kind of naive belief in not negotiating with terrorists, but they benefit as much as anyone else."[p. 26] The media often serves as a needed channel of communication between the terrorists and the target government. However, another journalist observed that media sensationalism can escalate a hostage situation. When a U.S. television station described the Iranian hostage situation as "America held hostage," their exaggeration simply puffed up the already inflated self-image of the hostage-takers.
Press as go-between
The media can also serve as a channel of communication between leaders, and between leaders and their constituencies. Ted Turner of CNN recalled that when Philippine President Marcos wanted to appeal to key U.S. legislators he would ask CNN to broadcast his speech. CNN would alert the appropriate legislators and then solicit their comments after the broadcast. Turner said "when we were doing a follow-up story we would find them quoting each other based on what they had seen on CNN."[p. 45] Many analysts argue that Saddam Hussein's Gulf Crisis speeches and appearances were directed primarily toward developing a stronger Arab constituency.
Media response to conflict is shaped, and some say distorted, by a number of factors. Many journalists observed that in the age of video, if there is no picture, there is no story. Situations which cannot be captured on film, or to which photographer cannot get access, tend to be under-reported. Visually dramatic, acute events (such as battles or bombings) receive more coverage, while longer-term, wide-spread situations (such as famine or poverty) get less. A number of participants observed that while the Gulf War got extensive coverage, the deaths of over 140,000 Bangladeshis due to spring flooding went virtually unreported.
This emphasis on the visual also leads to "escalation by anchor man." In the age of satellite video the relevant live backdrop comes to represent journalistic authenticity and credibility. "If I am standing here live, and there is a minaret behind me, then I am a journalist and you should believe me."[p. 17] This leads to competition among the various media outlets to get their "man on the scene," even when the "scene" has no real relevance to the story. Referring to the blue domes which were a favorite backdrop for televised Gulf War reports, one participant noted that "everybody thought it was part of a mosque, but you know the blue domes are over the pool [of the Dhahran Hotel]."[p. 62] Another factor which shaped coverage of stories is the cultivated preference of both the media and the public for good-guy, bad-guy stories. The Iran-Iraq War resulted in over a million deaths and was of major political importance but received relatively little media coverage in the West. Both parties were out of favor with the American public, and so there was no clear "good- guy" in that conflict. In contrast the Soviet-backed Afghani civil war received much more coverage at least until the Soviets withdrew from the conflict.
Search for truth
Finally, the traditional role of the media as reporters of the truth can play an important role in international conflicts. As noted above, a key function of the media is to give the public the information necessary to make good decisions. The media can seek to confirm official accounts, reveal official deceit, and correct errors of omission. When officials claim that there was an oil spill eighteen times as large as the Exxon Valdez spill spreading off the coast of Kuwait, one reporter hired a helicopter to look for the spill. She found no evidence of a spill of that magnitude, and revealed that the official claims were greatly exaggerated.
Veteran journalist Ann Medina stressed the importance of being a first-hand witness. Official sources, even when they agree, may simply be wrong. She recounted a time where Canadian and British embassy officials and the Ugandan government all assured the press that the government still held a key town against rebel forces. However, when she was finally able to get there in person she found rebel forces in complete control.