The reporting of war and conflict displays some of the best and worst aspects of journalism in their most acute forms. The courageousness of journalists to enter conflict zones and their commitment to telling the truth about various forms of human distress shows journalism at its best. However, the stresses it places on journalists’ mental and physical well-being, as well as their potential instrumentalization by powerful actors (e.g., army commanders), shows journalism at its worst.
Given the dramatic possibilities, it is unsurprising that media depictions of such reporting are often romanticized in movies that show the swashbuckling journalist rushing to the front line of history (even as that hardened journalist is frequently subjected to intense criticisms back home). The reality of the reporting of war and conflict is rarely so simple or extreme, though. Nevertheless, such reporting matters a great deal given the impact it has both on public understanding of affairs involving literal life and death as well as on the health of the journalists who engage in such reporting.
The emergence of war reporting dates back centuries, but historical accounts of its modern form typically begin with William Howard Russell’s coverage of the British expeditionary forces during the Crimean War in 1853. Less than a decade later, war correspondents covering the U.S. Civil War also helped establish important precedents for the way war correspondence is practiced and the forms such stories typically take. In both of these instances, journalism served both as a mobilizing force to drum up patriotic support for a war effort and as a platform for challenging ideas about such efforts and about war itself. This dual role continues to be taken up in war reporting today.
Historically, reporters covering war were actively involved in the war effort itself, sometimes going to far as to serve as military assets themselves. For example, during World War II, journalists from many countries would wear military uniform, follow military law, and occasionally carry weapons themselves so that they could be called upon to fight on behalf of an army if needed. Similarly, there is some evidence that, during the Cold War, journalists covering conflict in the Americas, Africa, and Asia were actively recruited as spies.
However, journalists have also tried to maximize their independence under their constraints. For example, during the Vietnam War, journalists often had access to military transports and could sometimes follow soldiers on missions, even as they had considerable independence, such as the ability to detach from their military escorts to get a different view of the proceedings. This independence allowed reporters to go where they wanted and speak with whomever they pleased (though at great personal risk). That, in turn, resulted in considerable negative coverage of the Vietnam War, which had a measurable impact on public support for the war effort back in the United States. Military commanders even gave a name to this phenomenon: the ‘Vietnam syndrome,’ where they argued the U.S. public’s aversion to war was a consequence of journalistic depictions of its bloodshed and horrors.
Today, journalists covering war and conflict often find themselves stuck in between the desire to be independent and structural efforts to control them within conflict zones. In particular, it is now more common for journalists to serve as ‘embeds,’ or reporters who, with the permission of military officials, are assigned into a selected military unit for a specified period of time to cover the course of a military operation. These embedding programs offer journalists the opportunity to gain a firsthand, eyewitness perspective from a relatively safe vantage point. However, such programs are not borne from the kindness of a military. The access to the war zone often comes at the expense of journalistic independence, and includes restrictions on where the journalist can go, who they can speak with, and, to a certain extent, what they can write about. Moreover, the expectation of such programs is that by being socialized into a military unit, journalists would be more likely to adopt perspectives that favored the military — or at least engage in greater self-censorship so as to not alienate the individuals they were embedded with (or even risk getting kicked out of the unit).
In contrast to the ‘embeds’ are the so-called ‘unilaterals,’ or reporters who do not embed with the military. These journalists do not benefit from military protection or assistance but have far more journalistic independence. However, their independence is limited by a different set of factors, the chief one being that entering conflict areas without support can be a deadly proposition.
A good example of war journalism in recent times was the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. During that war, journalists in the field claimed professional independence but were subjected to considerable micro-management by Coalition forces. Such management came through mechanisms like codes of conduct, strict controls over the movements of journalists, and the use of reporting pools (where a single reporter would be escorted to an area or event, and their notes would be shared with a group of other reporters). Such efforts to ‘manage the message’ have been a direct result of the increased use of public relations strategies by military forces following the failures of the Vietnam War.
It can be immensely difficult for journalists from a country at war to step outside (much less challenge) the conduct or the rightness of a war. Such efforts can quickly lead to accusations of treasonous and seditious behavior on the part of the journalist, especially at the onset of conflict.
The calculus changes when there are powerful domestic voices raised against it by political leaders and societal elites, though. Accounts of war are typically dominated by the voices of the powerful and the actions of militaries, and having powerful voices speak both for and against war allows journalists to cover ‘the controversy’ from a more neutral place. Such controversy also gives journalists greater leeway to capture the voices of ordinary soldiers and others caught up in conflict, which often don’t make it into much of the coverage of war and conflict.
Scholars have long found that it can be exceptionally difficult for correspondents to secure accounts of conflict that deviate from official narratives, or those provided by actors who are promoting war efforts. This does not necessarily mean that journalists become pawns of political and military elites but it does mean that journalists often infuse their work with those elites’ preferred ideas and terminology. For example, in the aftermath of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, scholars repeatedly found that journalists used military jargon in their news reports. This included the use of terminology like “surgical strikes,” “collateral damage,” “soft targets,” and so on. The use of such terminology could easily come as a subconscious or reflexive act resulting from their frequent socialization among military personnel, which would become further entrenched as other reporters repeated them.
Nevertheless, the willingness to use the military’s preferred terminology resulted in the promotion of ideological presuppositions that were favorable to the war effort. This, in turn, helped to sanitize the reality of the conflict for news audiences. Scholars have found that such ‘sanitized’ news coverage can lead news audiences to perceive such conflicts to be ‘clean wars’ that are waged with ‘pinpoint accuracy,’ and thus reduce their likelihood to oppose such efforts. (In more recent times, we have seen this play out in the context of drone attacks, with officials repeatedly emphasizing their accuracy and the quality of the intel supporting drone strikes.)
Despite these criticisms, it is important to note that frontline journalists do have a strong ideological disposition toward “telling things as they are” and often adhere closely to notions of objectivity. They often recognize efforts to control them and take active measures to reduce the impact of those efforts. And, since war correspondents often meet regularly in different conflict zones, they typically form close-knit groups designed to offer important forms of mutual support. In short, it is important to recognize that they often adopt thoughtful measures and take great risks to help mediate events that are incredibly difficult to cover.
Journalists who cover war and conflict place themselves in great risk. The most obvious risk at the front lines is death. For example, the Committee to Protect Journalists identified 64 journalists who died covering the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq between 2006 and 2007. Such death counts tend to underestimate the reality, especially among freelancers and stringers, who typically receive less institutional support and must place themselves closer to the action to have their work get picked up by major journalistic outlets. Freelance photographers and videographers, who produce a substantial amount of conflict journalism, are especially at risk because of the visually oriented nature of their jobs.
However, journalists also find themselves at the center of an “information war” involving both state and non-state actors. For state actors, independent journalists wandering freely and broadcasting images and accounts of a conflict presents a strategic risk. State actors are thus willing, and increasingly so in recent decades, to turn their advanced military technologies against journalists — such as by tracking them through satellite phone signals — in order to either kill or capture those journalists. Moreover, journalists are sometimes deliberately targeted as proxies for their home country’s military, or even to stop them from testifying in trials over war crimes or human rights abuses.
Journalists have also become attractive targets for non-state actors, including kidnappers who seek publicity for their cause. The kidnapping of journalists will often produce coverage in the journalist’s home country, which often unintentionally helps elevate the kidnappers’ message. (At minimum, it sparks a debate within newsrooms over whether to cover that story, which elevates the perception of the kidnappers’ newsworthiness within editorial meetings.) For example, during Syria’s civil war, more than 100 journalists were abducted between 2013 and 2017.
Beyond the physical threats posed to journalists, covering war and conflict takes a serious toll on journalists’ mental health. For example, scholars have estimated that more than one-quarter of war journalists experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder — a rate that is much higher than journalists covering other genres. They also experience higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and divorce. This should come as no surprise given the nature of the work. Journalists covering war and conflict are not only subjected to the worst aspects of humanity in very graphic ways but they are routinely forced to make sense of those intense and disturbing experiences in order to carry out their job. Moreover, many journalists covering war and conflict quickly become disillusioned by the response (or lack thereof) their work frequently receives from news audiences. One need only read the memoirs of reporters who covered the 1994 Rwandan genocide to see the toll that the perceived inability to motivate people to take action against the genocide can take on a journalist.
In response to these growing risks, journalistic outlets — and, in particular, larger Western outlets — have developed more substantial training programs for journalists assigned to conflict zones. This includes military-like bootcamps as well as training programs for identifying threats, using protective gear, and soliciting emergency assistance. Additionally, those organizations will occasionally invest in private security for a journalist, and there are now far more counseling options for journalists when they return home. However, those gains — many of which followed the 2003 Iraq War — typically only apply to staff reporters, and even those have become more limited in recent years due to budget cuts. Freelance journalists and stringers rarely benefit from such programs. As such, war and conflict journalism remains an immensely risky and complicated, but highly important, endeavor.
Journalists covering war and conflict today often find themselves stuck in between the desire to be independent and structural efforts to control them within conflict zones. This includes ‘embed’ programs that offer military assistance to journalists in return for certain restrictions on their work.
Coverage of war and conflict often reflects official narratives and perspectives about them. Even when journalists want to deviate from those narratives, it can be difficult for them to do so — and it often comes at great personal risk.
Covering war and conflict is incredibly dangerous. Journalists not only risk getting caught in the crossfire but they are today increasingly targeted by both state and non-state actors. Moreover, such reporting often comes at immense psychological cost.