Issues in War-Time Journalism

Posted by Alec Hamilton

We have all seen the images from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and numerous other conflicts around the world.  Reporters from a variety of news agencies put their lives on the line in order to inform the public.  Dressed in flak jackets and helmets, these war reporters endeavor to deliver their broadcasts no matter the difficulties, whether it’s in the middle of a mortar barrage or under heavy small-arms fire.  War reporting has evolved over the past few decades, but never as drastically as it has in the last 10 years when reporters were embedded in combat units, enabling them to report directly from the battlefield.

Camera man videotapes vehicle checkpoint. Via U.S. Department of Defense

Despite these new developments and increased access to the conflicts, reporters still face challenges when reporting during times of war.  There is perpetual tension and conflict between the media and government over access to information, what can or cannot be published due to national security reasons, and the safety of the journalists themselves.  During the Iraq war, the American public was bombarded by on-the-scene reporting from the battlefield and they were able to witness first-hand the relentless push towards Baghdad in almost real-time. However, an article published in the Boston Globe by Jeffrey McMurray in April of 2010 painted a stark difference between what Americans saw on TV and what really happened behind the scenes.

In the article, titled “Reporters discuss dangers, ethics of war coverage”, McMurray discusses a conference at the University of Kentucky he attended where prominent journalists spoke about government censorship during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The journalists, including Tom Curley the President and CEO of the Associated Press, stated that the media coverage in Iraq and Afghanistan relied too heavily upon government-supplied information and not enough first-hand accounts.  Reports from the journalists in Afghanistan that the Taliban was resurging conflicted directly with government reports that the Taliban was all but beaten.

The speakers at the conference also emphasized that “war coverage by a free and independent media with reasonable access to the battlefield forces policy makers to deal with the reality of what is happening on the ground instead of what they want the public– or even Washington– to think . . . . . Nowhere is the truth more at risk—or more elusive—than in today’s wars.”

War reporting and the issues surrounding it bring into play blurred lines and murky ethical problems:

  • Where do journalists and governments draw the line between the public’s need to know and national security?
  • Where do media corporations draw the line when determining where to send war correspondents and what is an acceptable level of risk, despite the convictions of the journalist in question?
  • How do embedded journalists stay objective in their reporting when the units they are reporting on are responsible for the journalists’ safety and may have even saved their lives?
  • Do journalists belong on a battlefield where units have to devote resources to their protection and perhaps endanger the soldiers’ lives?
  • How much control should the government have over media coverage during a time of war?

How would you, as fellow journalists, answer these questions or handle being a war correspondent?

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7 responses to “Issues in War-Time Journalism

  1. Wow, these are certainly loaded questions. From my perspective as a student journalist in America, I cannot determine where the line is drawn. The editors of the journalists covering the war also do not have the contextual understanding of what it is like to be on the battlefield. I can see how it is hard to determine what is most important, when the editor does not have all the necessary information to make that decision.

    It is my personal opinion that journalists should not be on the battlefield. Why should we endanger the lives of more Americans just to show those at home that, yes, there is still conflict in the middle east. It seems frivolous to have reporters on the line, but the American people do have a right to know what is happening. The government needs to have some control over the media so gruesome imagery is not shown, etc. But, the government does not need to act as a censor for the media outlets.

  2. I could never be a war correspondent. This knowledge makes me appreciate the journalists that have the drive and passion to cross over into such uncertain and terrifying situations. Because embedded journalists must train with the unit they will be deployed with, I think you’re right in questioning the feelings of war correspondents toward their unit. I’m sure journalists form a bias for their unit eventually, but this should not stop them from reporting. The content of their reports is crucial to Americans at home, so war journalists must be critical of their own biases. Being a good journalist does not mean you have no biases; frankly, I believe holding no biases is impossible. Good reporters must recognize and acknowledge their biases when writing a story. They should focus on facts and the accounts of primary sources, looking at their topics from every possible perspective.

  3. First of all, I have to say that I agree with Katee: I could never be a war correspondent, and I have so much respect for those who brave that profession.

    I think we can all agree that the questions you’ve raised are in a sort of gray area. Who decides? I think writers and editors need to use discretion in their work. At the same time, though, the government cannot impede on our First Amendment rights; so it’s difficult to say where to draw the line—or if you really can. As tax-paying citizens (or soon-to-be), we deserve to know where our money is going; however, reporting on military secrets can end in disaster, so in some cases (as a citizen) I believe ignorance is bliss. But as a journalist, I want to know the whole story and share it with the public. This is such a tough policy to debate because I can understand both arguments.

  4. It’s really important to pose the question regarding whether reporters can cause further harm to soldiers: of course, if a reporter – a civilian – is in danger, a soldier might step into the line of fire to protect them. I’ve never considered this before, and it’s a difficult question to answer. How much coverage is too much coverage? Do we, back in the States, need to be seeing something at the risk of soldiers’ lives?

    As a journalist, I am pretty adamant on the whole “right to know” situation: because of the institutions in place in our society, we’ve come to expect (relatively) reliable and honest reporting. But, as a citizen of this country, it’s hard for me to ask a member of our military to protect a journalist who may be inexperienced, or defenseless, in the situation at hand.

    I don’t know who should answer these questions, or if they can be answered. Either way, I applaud foreign and war correspondents for what they do, and I sincerely appreciate the soldiers who keep them safe at the cost of their own safety.

  5. I agree with Olivia in that it’s our right to know what’s going on, but it’s important to know the cost as well. Should we ignore the safety of our journalists for the right to know what’s going on in war zones? I don’t think so, but then again, they, like those fighting, chose to be there for the sake of truth so maybe it isn’t such a bad thing. It’s hard to decide what’s okay and what’s not when it comes to wartime reporting. I think it’s up to editors and writers to use their own discretion.

  6. Being a war correspond must be absolutely terrifying. Those brave journalists, who should be commended with the highest honor, are modern day heroes. Their support and work is as important as any others. I have nothing but the utmost respect for war correspondents.

  7. The practice of “embedding” journalists with military units is a relatively new one. In Vietnam and WW2, for example, journalists simply showed up at the scene of the fighting. They didn’t go through any Pentagon bureaucracy to be approved to embed with a particular unit. But war has changed. When you’re fighting an insurgency, as we are in Afghanistan and Iraq, the rules of war meaningless.

    My husband was in Afghanistan in March and April, embedded with the Iowa National Guard. He got great stories about the Guardsmen. But he had virtually no contact with Afghans who were living day-to-day, every day for 10 years now, with the effects of this war.

    Here’s one example of a war photographer, Joao Silva, who had both legs blown off by a landmine and was saved by the Army medics he was with.

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