A thesaurus of war journalism

A thesaurus of war journalism

A thesaurus of war journalism

During the project, Mediacenter Sarajevo searched more than 100,000 evidentiary materials from the ICTY court file database.

Photo: The First Draft of History: Journalists - Witnesses Before the Hague Tribunal

The book The first draft of history: Journalists - witnesses before the Hague Tribunal was born out of the need to understand and convey the experience of journalists who testified before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Below is one of the chapters from the book, written by Anida Sokol.

Objectivity, impartiality and neutrality, laid down as some of the basic postulates of journalism, have long been the subject of debate among journalists and in scientific literature. In periods of crises and wars, the application of these standards becomes challenging and the need arises to (re)examine their meanings and shed light on the role of journalists in war. During conflicts, in the maelstrom of propaganda, lack of credible sources, and in a context in which “truth is the first casualty”, it becomes difficult to adhere to the highest ethical standards of journalism. Following the strict principles of the profession, being objective and taking two or more sides to a story, using standards of balance and/or neutrality, while at the same time witnessing atrocious war crimes and civilian suffering, are an enormous challenge and moral dilemma.
The wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s were a call to many journalists and journalism theorists to reconsider the role of war journalism and the basic postulates of the profession.17 These were wars which, unlike previous wars, the media could not explain through the one-sided and often propaganda frameworks of the Cold War; the public sought explanations, which were initially often served as a consequence - to use the concepts of Maria Todorova - of irrational and old ethnic tensions in the Balkans. It was also a period when the power of television reporting and the impact of horrific images of war destruction and civilian suffering on the public and on foreign governments were further understood, which made journalists realize once again that they were not just silent observers but also bore a great responsibility.
Media organizations debated ethical dilemmas and sometimes circumvented their own editorial guidelines and published, for example, horrific images of the suffering of civilians and children with the aim of shining a light on what was happening, but also with the aim of calling for military intervention - which “objective” journalism, in order not to be understood as activist, until then had not allowed.
That this war brought new paradigms in journalism is also shown by the radical change in the approach of the BBC’s eminent war reporter Martin Bell, who until then had strictly adhered to the postulates of the English BBC school of journalism. In an article entitled The Journalism of Attachment, which was published in 1998, he said that it was a tradition of “distance and detachment”, which he had considered objective and necessary until the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While reporting from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bell rejected the BBC’s previous approach of “bystander journalism” and began to apply an approach he called a “journalism of attachment”. For him, it was a journalism that “cares as well as knows, that is aware of its responsibilities, that will not stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, the victim and the oppressor”. Bystander journalism, as Bell wrote, was about the circumstances of a war, military formations, tactics, strategies and weapons, and less about the people who had led the country to war, who were waging it, and the people who were suffering because of it.

The concept of a journalism of attachment has encountered many objections, especially because its critics believed that it simplified the complex circumstances of war, divided its participants into good and bad and the world into black and white, and even led to the total demonization of citizens whose leaders were guilty of war. This concept, nevertheless, shook the previous understanding of the role of journalists in conflict and brought a new perspective on journalism, but also reminded us that journalism could not be only, as Bell described it, a “mechanical enterprise” or - to clarify Bell’s concept - mechanical or professional reporting devoid of any feelings, empathy or moral responsibility. Journalism, Bell claims, is a “moral enterprise”, it operates on “morally dangerous ground”, and journalists, guided by the highest ethical principles, must distinguish between good and evil.

Ethnical principles of journalism
Various codes of journalism around the world lay down the basic postulates of journalism as a profession and of professional and ethical journalism.
The 1954 Declaration of Principles on the Conduct of Journalists, the most accepted document on journalism ethics to date, which was updated in 1986 and 2019, states that the first duty of the journalist is respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth. Codes of Journalism in various countries and professional, mostly Anglo-Saxon, literature further elaborate some of the basic postulates of journalism, laying out the duties of journalists to work in the public interest, publish accurate, objective, impartial and timely information, and present the opinions and positions of all parties to a dispute. These postulates are clear and based on common sense, but in certain circumstances they become complex and difficult to implement, which brings journalists to ethical dilemmas in which they resort to truth and the public interest as the guiding principles that transcend all others.
Impartiality, objectivity, accuracy and neutrality are concepts that are found in most codes, media analyses and discussions, but they lack universal definitions and differ depending on the period, school of journalism, and even the practitioners - journalists on the ground - themselves.
Objectivity - the most commonly used concept - arose from the scientific search for truth and the understanding that the truth could change depending on the position of the observer, that is, depending on which side of the war the journalist was reporting from. It often comes or is used in conjunction with concepts such as impartiality, neutrality, accuracy, fairness, truthfulness, commitment to truth, balance. In order for a journalist to present a conflict in an “objective” and balanced way, they must report from both sides and show the whole picture.
The American journalist Walter Cronkite defined objectivity as “the reporting of reality, of facts, as nearly as they can be obtained without the injection of prejudice and personal opinion”. Media theorist Brian McNair lays out three basic characteristics of objective journalism:
  • separating fact from opinion;
  • balanced reporting on a debate; and
  • use of credible and relevant sources.
In wars, these three characteristics of journalism become unattainable, because:
  • the facts or, rather, war disinformation and propaganda, are often a reflection of the opinion of one warring faction and serve as propaganda;
  • balanced reporting on a conflict in which one side is the aggressor and the other the victim is morally unacceptable;
  • credible or official sources are the governments and political elites that are waging the war.
Balanced reporting on a conflict poses the biggest dilemmas. Aidan White, a British journalist who founded the Ethical Journalism Network, believes that the concept of objective journalism is outdated and advocates an approach that is more just and humane. According to the Ethical Journalism Network, journalists are not required to present every side to a story, but their pieces must have balance and context. According to these principles, objectivity is not always possible and is not even desirable in the face of brutality or inhumanity, as, for example, in cases of atrocious war crimes. As the core principles of ethical journalism, the network advocates:
  • truth and accuracy,
  • independence,
  • fairness and impartiality,
  • humanity, and
  • accountability.

Journalists cannot always guarantee “truth”, but they can give the facts and strive for accuracy. They must be humane, which is often forgotten, because humanity is in the tradition of journalism, a profession that in its core is on the side of the weak. Like watchdogs that bark to warn the household that danger is approaching, journalists should side with citizens, not with governments. In wars and conflicts, they should side with victims, citizens and civilians, not with aggressors, attackers and war criminals. “Siding” goes against some of the basic ethical principles of journalism, but it is a moral duty and obligation. Basically, pointing the finger at criminals is a part of objectivity, because it requires journalists to call things by their real name.

Objectivity and the journalism of attachment
War reporter Jeremy Bowen, who remained faithful to the BBC school of journalism, rejected objectivity, as a misnomer, because, as he said in his interview with Mediacentar, “everybody looks at the world through a certain prism, and that prism is shaped by your experiences, by your education, by what your parents said to you.” The postulate advocated by the BBC school of journalism, as Bowen says, is the principle of impartiality, which he explained by the practice of journalists having to put aside their own views and be open-minded.
“And you try and realize that you have to be fair, you have to be honest, you have to try and talk to all sides, but it doesn’t mean that you say, you know, on the one hand and on the other hand and the truth is in the middle. The truth is not in the middle. The truth might be on that side,” said Bowen.
Martin Bell, long-time practitioner of the BBC school of journalism, questioned the concept of objectivity, which, after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, he says seemed to him “something of an illusion and a shibboleth”.30 When he was reporting from war zones, he always tried to do it in a fair and impartial way, with, as he explains, “a scrupulous attention to the facts”, but he did it using his eyes, ears, mind and store of experience, which he says are the essence of the subjective.
War reporter Ed Vulliamy also used his eyes, ears, mind and store of experience - and his common sense - to realize that what was happening in the camps near Prijedor were not the “facts” that Karadžić’s forces were trying to “plant”. Frightened eyes, thin bodies, carefully guarded pieces of bread in pockets, gave away something much more terrifying. In his interview with Mediacentar, Vulliamy rejected the principle of neutrality, which dictates that “I see an equation of some kind between the women who had been violated every night in the camp of Omarska and the beasts who were doing it. And I am not neutral between the camp guard in Omarska and the innocent inmate who was being mutilated and tortured and beaten to death. No.”

War reporter Christiane Amanpour practiced Bell’s model of journalism of attachment and looked at objectivity in a different way. “I have come to believe that objectivity means giving all sides a fair hearing, but not treating all sides equally. Once you treat all sides the same in a case such as Bosnia, you are drawing a moral equivalence between victim and aggressor. And from here it is a short step to being neutral. And from here it’s an even shorter step to becoming an accessory to all manners of evil.”

Whether they follow the model of journalism of attachment or not, these war reporters are referring to the same thing - to strive for truth, which, as Bowen says, may not be in the middle between two warring factions but on the side of one of them. What distinguishes the journalism of attachment - as practiced by Ed Vulliamy, Maggie O’Kane, Jonathan Steele, Roy Gutman and Christiane Amanpour - and the BBC’s approach to journalism is the call to action, to intervention. Journalists, as Martin Bell tried to frame theoretically, are not just silent observers - they point the finger at those who are committing evil and are aware of their role and the impact of their reporting. Bell wrote in an article in 1998 that he had never openly called for intervention, not because he did not want to, but because he did not need to, since the television images of the destruction of war were doing it for him. Thus, he said, he was a founding member of the Something Must Be Done Club and he found the company he kept there more honourable and easier to live with than those who associated with the opposite faction, the Nothing Can Be Done Club. He explained his actions by saying that there was a time for journalists to be passionate and a time to be dispassionate, and that he would not report the slaying of innocent people in the same tone and manner that he would use for reports on parliament debates. There is a tone and manner for everything.
Criticism of the journalism of attachment
Bell’s concept of journalism of attachment has come under a lot of criticism, primarily because it has been seen as a call to journalists to take sides and appeal for action. BBC reporter David Loyn described such journalism as the frustration of reporters whose reports were being ignored, leading some journalists to take sides and condemn the Serbs.
Media theorist Stephan J. Ward criticized Bell’s approach, not because it was wrong but because he believes that Bell misinterpreted the concept of objectivity. Ward wrote a critique of Bell and said that neutrality does not require journalists to be cold and restrained creatures but to accurately present the facts, based on reliable and diverse sources, expert opinions, documentation, accurate quotations and fair presentation of the main positions and views on a subject. In the case of genocide, an example that Bell repeatedly mentions, objective journalists can write against such evil based on good reasons and facts, Ward said.
Critics of this approach did not agree with the reduction of the conflict to a battle between good and evil, the role of judge that journalists thus assumed, and the encouragement of journalists to consider themselves righteous, and moralizers. They also criticized the view that journalists should call for action - which some believe is a part of advocacy journalism - where calls could often be reduced to presenting the West as the saviour of the “uncivilized world”. Critics also looked at the impact that such reporting could have on the public and particularly pointed out that the divisions created by foreign journalists while reporting from BiH, divisions into the good and the bad, led to public demonization of Serbs.
It is important to note that, in reaction to dominant reporting practices in the 1990s, peace journalism appeared, which opposes the media’s black and white presentation of the conflict, with a good side and a bad side. Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick, in their book Peace Journalism (2005), write that this type of journalism contrasts with war journalism in which reporting occurs on an us-versus-them level, which demonizes one group, spreads propaganda, is oriented toward victory, and focuses only on the visible consequences of violence. Peace journalism takes into account the complexity of the conflict, approaches the conflict with empathy, “humanizes” the other side, gives a voice to ordinary people and avoids reducing the conflict to two sides and one winner. An element of this journalism is avoiding words that demonize one side.
Although this theory of journalism seems comprehensive, especially because it takes into account the impact that media reports will have on the audience as well as on the continuation of the conflict, reconciliation processes and facing the past, it is nevertheless difficult to adhere to these principles in the face of atrocious crimes. Peace journalism, which contains elements of constructive journalism, was developed by theorists who considered how journalism could contribute to overcoming conflicts, which can be the case when it comes to political conflicts, divided war memories and processes of facing the past.
The journalism of attachment came from journalists on the ground who witnessed horrific war crimes and genocide. In those moments, all they could do - what their moral duty required them to do - was to understand what was happening with their eyes and ears and with common sense, to inform the public and - however unacceptable it seemed to journalism theorists - to call for action. Their moral and journalistic duty dictated that they call things by their right name, point out the perpetrators and, through their reporting, try to urge the action of those countries that could do something to make the war and suffering stop.
Maybe in certain areas they fell into the trap of simplification and the presentation of a black and white world, but in the circumstances of horrific crimes, the need to understand the other side of the story sounds like justification. In situations of horrific war crimes and civilian suffering, all theories and concepts of journalism fall through and what journalists are left with is moral duty and common sense.


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