Framing conflict and war – the Cold War and after

Keith Somerville speaking at the Institute of Commonwealth event, 'Journalists & Commanders. Reporting in times of war, tensions and crises' - 1 March 2016

Professor Keith Somerville

The media – whether mainstream or the ubiquitous social media – is the main source of news and information about conflicts and war, especially those in distant lands. Few people directly witness or are able to directly research the nature, causes and consequences of conflicts. They rely on the media to help them better understand war and why it is being waged.

With the best will in the world and the most balanced and informed journalists media outlets cannot ever give a fully accurate and totally balanced account but they can do their best to select the most important facts and present them as clearly and impartially as possible with interpretations based on verified information.

But not all media outlets are diligent. Many have built-in biases and in a world of expanding social media and shrinking numbers of experienced correspondents, the availability of checked, researched accounts of war and conflict is in decline. Some are even directly propagandistic such as Fox News and Russia Today.

Even the most balanced and cautious media outlets will have their frames for stories, often derived from deep-seated values within the organisations and held by the journalists themselves or by the societies in which they live and work.

The BBC World Service, for instance, during the latter decades of the Cold War, did not openly or consciously propagandise against the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, but it had sets of values that meant that interpretations of human rights, social systems and democracy were very different and meant that journalists like me based our reporting on broad ideas of respect for human (individual) rights, freedom of speech and freedom of information. These basic frames implicitly guided the choice of stories, the angles from which they were reported and the representations of those involved.

This framing is very important in informing people far away from the conflict zone and is part of a long tradition of presenting images to tell stories. Modern media is more sophisticated than Plato’s allegory of the cave, but it still projects to its audience an image of the reality it is reporting. The finite broadcast time available, web or page space limit the breadth and depth of reporting a subject and so selection takes place – on the basis of the values of the editors/journalists involved, and these will vary in their skill, integrity and desire to give as truthful and comprehensive account as possible. They will also have views on what interests their audiences and what their audiences will understand, and these affect selection.

But selection means leaving some things out, compressing others and rarely being in the position to give sufficient context to make stories as fully comprehensible as journalists would like – so with the Palestine conflict you get news reports or even features that can go little beyond event-response-retaliation and do not provide the sufficient historical or humanitarian context necessary to make full sense of events.

The Cold War frame

The process of selection of stories and the angles of approach involve frames – frames are in the journalistic sense are ways of fitting stories into simple contexts that let the audience know how to interpret them according to existing knowledge and value systems. So between WWII and 1990, the Cold War was a broad frame into which stories of conflict could be simply but often misleadingly fitted to enable the media to narrate a story in an established form of discourse.

So, for example, the national liberation struggles in southern Africa were often fitted into the Cold War context primarily because of Soviet, Cuban or Chinese support for liberation movements, the adoption by those movements of radical, socialist programmes and the opposition of the West to what was seen as Soviet encroachment in Africa. The US supported the Portuguese militarily and the West as a whole, right up to the late 1980s, were economic supporters of apartheid South Africa and effective political supporters, to the extent that Margaret Thatcher was prepared to label Nelson Mandela a terrorist. Rarely were the national or regional circumstances examined in detail – though there was a well-developed apartheid frame that demonised the system without justifying armed struggle.

Tribal and failed state frames

In Angola, the end of the national liberation war after the Portuguese coup/revolution of 1974, led to a civil war lasting until 2002. This was a war about competition for power between competing leaders and movements. It was not primarily about whether they were pro or anti-Soviet, but the framing of the war in the media was, until 1990, dominated by the Cold War. The Cold War intruded upon and distorted the conflict but did not cause it and after the end of the Cold War, continued for another 12 years until Jonas Savimbi, leader of the UNITA rebel movement, was killed. This required the imposition of a new frame – which was a mixture of tribal framing and failed state framing.

Post-Cold War frames

The Cold War frame placed most conflicts within the supposedly all-encompassing ideological struggle between competing blocs. But other frames existed too.The Biafran War, which involved the Nigerian government crushing the secessionist bid by the would-be state of Biafra in the Niger Delta, was one conflict which was not framed as part of the Cold War – Britain and the Soviet Union both supported and armed the Federal Nigerian government, while France armed Biafra.

The lack of a Cold War frame, meant that Biafra was framed by both the humanitarian and tribal frames.It could be simply presented as a “tribal” war between Igbos and the rest of the Nigerian “tribes” – a hangover from the crude and misleading tribal framing of Africa during colonial rule; tribe, a Latin word originally used to describe the uncivilized warring factions in pre-republican Rome, was used to denote supposedly primitive peoples, with different and therefore inferior societal structures and allegedly atavistic and intractable hatreds that led to war.

In Nigeria, this ignored the artificial nature of the Nigerian state, cramming together in one unworkable framework polities and peoples whose pre-colonial existence had involved trade, inter-marriage and other forms of non-violent contact between peoples as well as competition for land or resources, but not the existence of a state encompassing them all or an identity that was above community, kingdom, sultanate or cultural/linguistic identities.

Tribal framing was far more simple and pandered to popular prejudices and myths held about “primitive” Africa to present the war as a simple tribal conflict defined by mutual hatred than try to explain the complex political, economic, colonial and other factors involved. The humanitarian angle of starving children the victims of evil tribal warlords could be added in for extra impact.

Humanitarian frames

In 1984-85, the humanitarian frame was used to characterise the Ethiopian famine in reporting – notably in the famous but deeply-flawed report by Michael Buerk from Korem that sparked Band Aid and Live Aid. If you watch the report today it is obvious that apart from the brief mention in the cue by Julia Somerville, the wars in Eritrea and Tigre do not figure as causes of the famine.The humanitarian frame is dominant – it’s all about drought, food shortages and famine with passive Ethiopians reliant on white saviours (preferably young and female) from aid agencies.

Drought caused local but not national food shortages, but war caused the famine. Ethiopian troops burned crops in the fields in Tigre and Wollo, bombed markets and used food aid as a lure to depopulate the region through resettlement schemes to undercut support for the rebels. Those who have studied the famine closely or who were directly involved in aid efforts have criticised the aid effort that followed Buerk’s broadcast and the food aid and other support for the Ethiopian government resettlement programmes as something that probably led to a higher death rate than would have been the case without poorly-targeted aid that was allowed to serve Ethiopian government policies[1].

How the framing of a story affects the audience

Media frames influence opinions by stressing specific values, facts and other considerations, endowing them with greater relevance. So Western reporting of the Ukraine and Crimea crisis stressed Russian expansionism, while Russia Today and other pro-government media in Russia stressed malign Western intentions, the role of the far-right in the Ukraine with echoes of Nazism and defended Russia’s protection of Russian speakers.

The conflict was far more complex and, like many conflicts in Africa, were about poorly-conceived borders, the effects of the splitting up of empires or mega-states and involved aggressive or poorly-judged institutional expansion policies on all sides.A new framing in the Western media of an evil and expansionist Russia, the Putinesque remodelling of the Soviet evil empire, as it was labelled by Ronald Reagan, was a new frame that distorted reality and clouded public opinion.“Putin” became a trigger word within a “Russia as aggressor frame” that meant that little context or explanation had to be provided with stories about Crimea or the Ukraine once the new frame became established and enabled viewers/listeners/readers to retrieve images and explanations from memory and reinforce judgments about political actors.

Policy implications or framing stories

Ultimately, the way that the media covers conflicts sets an agenda for the audience of what is important and why. Having set that agenda, the frames are used to tell people what is important about a particular story, the cause of a conflict and effectively what to think about that conflict in terms of government policy and possible interventions. As Besova and Cooley concluded in a sharply-focused study of foreign news coverage and public opinion, “the way media cover international events and foreign countries has serious consequences on what the public thinks about the outside world, and – to a degree – on how policy makers shape foreign policy”[2].

Just as the complexity of the Ukraine conflict has been simplified by framing, a framing influenced by hangovers from the effects of Cold War images, so new frames have been developed or old ones resuscitated since the end of the Cold War to build up new representations of conflicts – conflicts that the end of the Cold War should have terminated if you bought into the Cold War framing. But it is a complicated world without the certainties and ease of explanation of two completing blocs (even though this masked the actual complexity of global political competition and regional conflict. Now framing has to deal with many variables and seemingly confusing factors – here are just a few:

  • Growth in paramilitary organisations, private armies/party militias – like the Janjaweed in Darfur which was an outgrowth of traditional trading and raiding activities of nomadic peoples of the region but utilised and further brutalised by becoming part of the Khartoum campaign against Darfur rebels.
  • Increasing loss of state’s monopoly over violence – growth of informal violent groups or criminal networks that became involved in political conflict (like the Mungiki in Kenya in 2007-8, splinter groups, army mutinies. How do you explain/define these succinctly in a short news story or feature?
  • Kidnapping, drugs, arms exports,smuggling,the illegal wildlife trade and people trafficking as means to finance militias, criminal groups and insurgents? How do you explain to an audience with little knowledge and perhaps transitory interest in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Great Lakes region the complexity of conflicts in eastern Congo?
  • Blurring boundaries,state and non-state combatants. Disruption of civil society Growth in refugees and displaced people – humanitarian response but also laager mentality.

The result has been the re-adoption of tribal and ethnic frames to describe conflicts – particularly in Africa, where old colonial mentalities and the simplistic and frequently racist depictions of Africa (backward, barbaric, vibrant, teeming with wildlife, exciting but essentially dangerous) could be used to build new frames.African conflicts (Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan etc) are viewed as primitive and tribal but conflicts in Europe (Bosnia, Serbia-Croatia, Ukraine, Basque region of Spain and even the desire of many Scots to breakaway from Britain, are presented as nationalism and intrinsically part of a more developed and civilized form of societal development).

The humanitarian frame, with all its potentially patronising overtones, has emerged (most notably during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, where the role of Western aid workers was emphasised over local health workers and the success of Nigeria in stopping the outbreak in its tracks was almost completely ignored).This frame is mixed with a “fear of being swamped” frame to cover the current refugee crisis.

A “war on terror” frame developed after 9/11 and still persists with attempts to conflate separate crises, purely because of links with sets of Islamist beliefs. So, Boko Haram’s insurgency in Nigeria (which has entirely local causes and dynamics) is viewed as part of the war on terror frame, as is the conflict against Al Shabab in Somalia, whose origins predate 9/11 and any connection with Al Qaeda.In Somalia, this has been mixed with a “failed state” frame which became prevalent in dealing with African conflicts and a new, novel “piracy frame”.

The key point about these frames is that they often distort, over-simplify and so misinform and mislead. They derive from value systems, assumptions about little-understood events and conflict, the progressive reduction in specialist correspondents and in-house experts in media groups and a journalistic compulsion to report concisely and in simple terms that it is presumed the audience will understand – don’t worry their poor little heads with complexity. This leads to:

  • neglect of historical and economic factors.
  • random, fickle reporting, insufficient context or background explanation of reasons behind fighting.
  • reinforcement of post-Cold War decline in public interest in foreign conflicts, but make them very scary when they intrude into our consciousness.
  • use of the fear factor to sell papers and attract listeners/viewers/page views.
  • journalism that doesn’t report distant, complex conflicts and massive humanitarian crises (DR Congo, Central African Republic or South Sudan) that are too far away to scare people but just horrify or are too complex; which editors presume their audiences will not understand or be interested in.

The long-term danger is that frames do not give a clear image of the world and enable people to develop informed opinion and make rational decision based on knowledge – any more than Plato’s shadows in a cave did.

Keith Somerville is a Professor at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He publishes the website Africa-News and Analysis. His book Africa’s Long Road Since Independence. The Many Histories of a Continent was published in January 2016; his Radio Propaganda and the Broadcasting of Hatred was published in 2012. Hi next book, on the history and political economy of the ivory trade in Africa – Ivory. Poaching and Power in Africa, will be published later this year.

[1] Alex De Waal, Famine Crimes. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1997; and, Tony Vaux, The Selfish Altruist: Relief Work in Famine and War. London: Earthscan, 2001.

[2] Asya A. Besova and Skye Chance Cooley, Foreign News and Public Opinion: Atribute Agenda-Setting Theory Revisited, Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, vol 30 (2), 2009,pp.219-242, p. 223.

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