Proximity to a Conflict and Neutrality

Jannie Botes

Assistant Professor, Program on Negotiations and Conflict Management, University of Baltimore

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

There are very few studies of how the media covers conflicts. They are very much written up by journalists in terms of what was the unethical thing to do etcetera and that's important in itself. However one of the things that we never really find a way to do is to look at the impact of all of that, which is hard to do from a research point of view but there are few case studies looking at approaches to conflict and media. The area in which more is occurring at the moment is with war, because that's more interesting. For instance, I've really tried to follow the current Gulf War in terms of what is said about the role of the media, and it's interesting that many of the things that occurred in the first Gulf War got repeated in the Second Gulf War and also got repeated out of 9-11.

Q: In terms of reporting?

A: In terms of the issues that came out of the role of the media, both good and bad. I will give you one of them. In the first Gulf War, CBS' Dan Rather was criticized for, remember correctly, his saying "We" do this and "We" do that, and then people said, who's this "We?" Are journalists taking the side of the government and then they went to the US government. Which interestingly shows you the whole underlying debate of where are the media supposed to be situated when it comes to a conflict? It's relatively easy to answer that question when you deal with local conflict and with domestic examples but the moment we go over seas, it was no accident that the BBC was much more neutral in it's coverage of the Gulf Wars then was Washington and American journalism, because they were more outside of it. 

Journalists get forced to a degree to go to where the public mood is. The public mood in the current gulf war was after 9-11, if you will, patriotic. The tough questions and the difficult things that journalists under other circumstances might have pointed out which might have put them in a much more neutral position or a much more critical position, did not occur for those reasons. When you came to 9-11, I'll give you another example, what was interesting was that within 24 hours, it was a huge emotional shock. What you also saw there was that journalists are humans and the conflict impacted them in a very emotional, psychological level. They were impacted very quickly because some of them assisted people who were in horrible situations after 9-11. Some of them saw terrible things and were personally affected by that. And that by the way is an area that we hardly ever study, is how journalists all over the world who cover horrendous conflict who get affected by that, how they leave the profession because of that and how it impacts them professionally in their reporting. It's not written about a lot but they wore flags after 9-11. And after about 48 hours, corporate networks said, remove the flags and it was apart of the same phenomenon of Dan Rather not being able to say "we," because journalists are supposed to be neutrals for lack of a better term.

Q: Objective.

A: Right, in the middle. No opinion, reporting other people's views, etcetera, etcetera. So if you wear those flags, how can you be objective reporters if you are so associating yourself with a country for the moment? It's natural and understandable that they wanted to do that but that's why it was taken away.

Q: Perhaps that's more honest, right, because how could you not want to do that? After them being so affected personally, if you were.

A: Right, but the problem with that is you get so sucked in and you become, to use a term that was used in the 2nd Gulf War, you become so embedded, with all the nuances of that word, that you can not be playing your objective and again the word neutral is a bit of trouble for us in the field, but it's also trouble for journalists.

Q: I heard the other day, I think it was on the Diane Reeves Show the other day, someone talking about how the French were terrible at covering the conflict in Algeria and the British were terrible at covering the Balkan Islands.

A: I heard the same interview.

Q: So that's where you're sort of going with that one?

A: Here's the theory about that. The closer you are to the conflict as a reporter, the harder it is to be neutral. I saw that also following a parallel again of third party intervention because as someone who did some free lance reporting for Radio South Africa from here it was much easier for me to say the tough straight stuff about things that were happening in America then it was for the American reporters to do so, same with the BBC. I mean everyone agreed, if you wanted the scoop the straight scoop on 9-11, you had to listen to the BBC, because they were not that affected. They were also able to say things because nobody was going to accuse them and this was one of the other big things that has become a huge theme in conflict reporting over the last couple of years, especially after Gulf War I is that patriotism enters the picture. You're not a patriot if you don't report things a certain way. That's where the whole idea of patriotism and journalism is going to have a huge debate. Where people like me would argue that you are actually the real patriot if you do your job as a professional journalist, which is to be a professional cynic. Therefore, professionally, you need to ask all of the difficult question

and never accept anything as gospel until you are able to see that it's gospel and see that it's so.