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March 20, 2003

War reporting: Some body help there

By Rezwan-ul-Alam, Ph.D.

Introduction: Media's love for bad news is wel-known. The Iraq crisis
has been in the news for months and we are sitting agape to watch the
climax. with the whole world's eyes set on unfolding tragedy in Iraq,
war reporting is likely to be more dynamic as rival news
organizations engage themselves in their own battle of news. It will
take some time to learn how war reporters have been gathering news on
Iraq war; however, a look into the past examples may shed some light
as to how war had been covered previously. Perhaps objective
reporting when it comes to war is one of the biggest challenge before
the media. Reporting from Iraq will show, if the media is still a
prisoner of past practices or the information age has got better of
it. This write-up, hurriedly compiled, attempts to put military-media
relations during war in the historical context.

The general trends: Writers and journalists generally agree that the
pen is mightier than the sword. On the other hand, the war leaders,
generals and the rank and file saw the criticism of war by writers as
an act of treason. General William Tecumseh Sherman is regarded as
one of the most notorious critics of the press. He banished newspaper
correspondents from his lines in the American Civil War and
threatened summary punishment for anyone who published information
about his forces. General Sherman believed that there was a direct
relationship between censorship and military victory and argued that
the press should have no rights during war (in Frank and William,
1995). It is in this context the American journalist Lippmann
commented: "Military censorship is the simplest form of barrier
between the public and the event" (1921:43).

There has been a great deal of research and scholarly works on

various aspects of military-media relations in the First and Second
World Wars. Knightley, in his highly acclaimed book 'The First
Casualty', recorded a detailed picture of confrontation between the
journalists and the military in the Crimean, Boer and subsequent
wars. Most writers generally concentrated on confrontational aspect
of the relations, such as the work of Cornebise (1984) and Crowe
(1993). Some writers like Berger (1961) detailed how propaganda was
mobilized during the two World Wars and Brown (1967) and MacArthur
(1992) explored the area of censorship on war reporting.

These works indicate that the relationship between the military

authorities and the media during war time was not only cold but also
confrontational. Journalists had to work under strict censorship
imposed by the military leaders and generals. Accurate and objective
reporting on the war situation was disturbed and, to some extent,
became distorted by the imposition of military censorship.

British censorship of the fighting in the First World War prevented

objective reporting of the slaughter. There was, for instance, a
complete ban on any photographs of dead bodies (Knightley, 1978).
According to historian Frederick S. Voss, the public were denied of
full disclosure of failures of the Allied forces, "not because
disclosure might help the enemy in playing to Allied weaknesses, but
simply because it reflected negatively on the Allied performance" (in
Frank and William, 1995).

New trends: The current research on military-media relations is

testing the notion that a hostile relationship between the two forces
leads nowhere and that, therefore, both forces must change their
attitude towards each other to achieve a workable relationship. Such
new approaches gained currency after the Gulf War in 1991 and the
many American military involvement in Granada, Haiti, Somalia and
elsewhere. Considerable work has been done on the military-media
relationship during the Gulf War in 1990. Notables among these are
the works of Fialka (1991), Hernon (1992) and Kennedy (1993).
Baroody's study (1992) on the policy of media access by the US
Department of Defense in the Gulf War indicates that the basic
differences between military and the media institutions would be a
crucial factor in the future as far as objective reporting of war of
war is concerned. Baroody (1992) observed:

Military and media groups differed in the way each framed its vision
of the role of the press, with the result that the two groups had
separate notions of the boundaries of appropriate practices for
journalists during war. While media respondent emphasised their roles
as watchdogs or chroniclers of history, military respondents noted
the media's function as "force multipliers" to boost morale or
confound the enemy. Reporters saw their jobs as interpreters of
events, while some military respondents believed reporters should
give facts without interpretation.

The British perspective about the Gulf War and media propaganda has
been more critical. As Taylor (1992:268) observed: "Despite the
existence of well over a thousand journalists in the Gulf from a wide
variety of news gathering organisations with different editorial
styles and journalistic practices, they were all essentially
dependent upon the coalition military for their principal source of
information about the progress of the war. It was monopoly in the
disguise of pluralism."

Controlled coverage: Some American writers share similar views and

they strongly attacked the media's dependency on military for war-
related information. According to Westphal, the press in America has
gradually become more dependent on the government for military
information. He observed that this dependency has led the media being
passive participants in a conspiracy to not fully inform the public.
Observing the situations in Vietnam and Bosnia, Westphal (1995)
remarked: "(the) coverage of each military involvement has been
progressively more controlled. In fact, the ruling elite has built
upon press management from military involvement to military
involvement to ultimately achieve a firm control of information—
leading to a grand finale of recyclable images that become U.S. war

Making case studies of the Vietnam war, the invasion of Grenada, the
invasion of Panama, and the Gulf war, Thrall (1996) refuted the
conventional wisdom that the military was primarily responsible for
press restrictions in recent American conflicts.

Thrall argued that the primary responsible for press restrictions in

recent American conflicts. Thrall argued that the primary
responsibilities lay with government itself and not with the
military. By controlling what it believes to be the key link between
war and opinion the media- the US government avoided the
deterioration of public support for war. Morrison and Tumber's detail
study (1988) on the Falkland campaign of 1982 highlighted the
tensions between the media personnel and the military officers during
the conflict. They interviewed journalists who accompanied the
British takes force and concluded that journalists were badly briefed
about the situation and material sent back by the media was "pooled",
which was a government tactic to loosen the media's "grip on public
symbolic life" (1988:350).

The odd couple: The fact that bringing military and the media into a
closer relationship is frought with challenges is evident from a
report by Aukofer and Lawrence (1995) titled "Amercia's Team: The Odd
couple – A Report on the Relationship Between the Media and the
Military". This report, which has become the standard text for public
affairs throughout the U.S. military, includes a series of
recommendations that both news organisations and the military can use
to improve coverage and better inform the American people.

The report, however, also shows that the attitude of the U.S.
military towards the media has not improved much. In the report,
Aukofer and Lawrence (1995) quoted the remark of an Air Force Major
who said: "Journalists are self-serving by nature, compensated based
upon copy-inch published, and focused solely upon their self-
aggrandising ego and the increase in circulation their sensationalism
spawned. The visual medium (TV) is the worst of the bunch."

The report showed that the military has a strong disregard for the
media. In ranking its confidence in various institutions, the
military ranked themselves first in confidence, followed by the U.S.
Supreme Court, the medical profession and major educational
institutions. Newspaper were in 9th place, with the U.S. Congress and
television news at the bottom of the ratings (Aukofer and Lawrence,

The British position in this regard is often the opposite. As Beevor

observed, the British Army's reaction to public controversy and
criticism can not be predicted easily. He wrote: "Sometimes it [Army]
consists of a tight-lipped reserve, sometimes it is acutely self-
conscious, sometimes the Army overreacts and sometimes, particularly
in the face of tabloid excesses, it is phlegmatic" (1991:469).

Conclusion: It is clear that misconception between these two

organisations (military and the media) will not go away as this is an
in-built system and no amount of education or good will can dispel
it. There is also a real danger that the reconciliatory efforts may
be another attempt to weaken the power of the media during an armed
conflict. We may have to wait to see if the military briefing of war
from its Allied Media Centre in Doha has really 'briefed' the spirit
of true journalism.

(The writer has a doctoral dissertation on "Military rule & the

media: A case study of Bangladesh" (1997), from Journalism
Department, City University, London.)