Originally published as a chapter of “Conflict reporting in the smartphone era – from budget constraints to information warfare”.
When journalists go to war
The world is a more peaceful place than it used to be. Objectively, the killings in wars in Syria and Iraq produce horrifying statistics, but globally the level of deaths due to conflict remains below that of previous decades. For instance, the Vietnam War alone claimed more than 2 million lives; in the 1980s the eight-year conflict between Iran and Iraq led to half a million fatalities; and the death toll from genocide and civil war in Africa, the Balkans and Sri Lanka in the 1990s topped a million.1
Nevertheless, war and terrorism are still making headlines. Prime time news routinely features the carnage of violence and conflict from Syria, Iraq, the Kurdish regions of Turkey, or further afield from the simmering tensions in Ukraine, Myanmar and the troubled border regions of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Thanks to the communications revolution, the world has become more connected and people are closer to the frontlines than they have ever been, but they struggle to find unbiased and reliable information when the news agenda is crowded out by intolerance and war-mongering.
Everywhere, media wars are fought across the global information landscape and there is intense pressure on reporters and editors to take sides. Media-savvy terrorists stalk the social networks and battalions of government spin doctors are deployed across the internet.
Reporting conflict provides the greatest ethical challenge to journalists. It is not easy to maintain the highest professional standards and there are many shocking examples of media failure and even complicity in acts of violence and inhumanity as shown by the genocide in Rwanda, war in the Balkans and grotesque propaganda around the Ukraine conflict.
Nevertheless, journalists must do what they can to avoid hate speech and inflammatory coverage. But how is that done in the heat of battle? The Ethical Journalism Network, which aims to strengthen the capacity of media professionals to report in an accurate, fair and humane way, argues that in times of war people need more access to reliable information. Quality journalism is vital for people to:
- Better understand the roots and reality of conflict;
- Create an information space for dialogue;
- Provide context and analysis that may open the door to reconciliation and peace.
Without accurate and sensitive reporting that provides insights into the mindsets of all those involved, people cannot make judgements and potentially influence the course of events by giving or withholding their support for the conflict.
But in times of war, all sides engaged in conflict do so without any sense of balance – no one says the other side probably believes their cause is just, or acknowledges the bravery of enemy soldiers. They abandon notions of fairness and objectivity and use propaganda and lies to demonise the enemy, its leadership and its people. Journalists have a responsibility to counter this threat.
1 Woolf, Christopher (2014) ‘The world is actually becoming more peaceful – believe it or not’, PRIs the World, September 29,
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