Dr. Kundan Aryal
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the number of media users must have increased all over the world. War provides a hot content for the media outlets, escalating their circulation among the readers/audience. The potential of news media would be maximised in times of war when media outlets and their reporters become the main source of information for the common people. However, the overflow of news reporting might represent different versions of reality as perceived and interpreted by them.
The war reporters, who possess exclusive rights to access battlefields and frontlines, try their best to fit the particular incident to the greater context. Moreover, there is a longstanding commitment towards journalistic ethics and professional standards. They abide by objectivity, impartiality, fairness and accuracy because every media person wishes to prepare his or her dispatch to be considered as truthful accounts of the grounds. However, as polarisation is inevitable in war, it would not be an easy task for a war reporter to maintain professional standards. The constant skewing from either faction of the war in a difficult circumstance may compel them to be slanted to one side. The use of the weapons from two sides is simultaneously staged on the communication front. During the military confrontation, the warring parties also fight for controlling news flow all over the world.
In 1896, William Randolph Hearst, a prominent newspaper publisher of the US at that time, sent a photographer to Cuba to cover a possible outbreak of war against Spain. When the photojournalist reached Havana, he could not observe anything like war. He then wrote over telegram, "Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here. There will be no war. Wish to return. Hearst, promptly replays, "Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I will furnish the war." Why did a leader in the dominant medium of that era, the mass newspapers across the US, write in that manner? Because, as Stanley J. Baran and Dennis K. Davis, media scholars from the US, state he may well have sent a photographer to Havana because he intended to make up war stories that would sell papers.
From the paper to digital era, the topic of war continues to be a prominent news value. But, another meaning of war for the media is censorship. War also does mean arrests, killings and abduction for the journalists.
Recently, Reporters Without Border (RSF) reports that Russian regulating agency censors Ukraine war coverage, asking the reporters to toe the Kremlin line. RSF issued urgent news saying that Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnadzor, has become a “Ministry of Truth,” as the independent Journalists and Media Workers Union courageously pointed out. It reports that the words “war,” “attack” and “invasion” are now banned from the Russian media. As only information from “official Russian sources”, the defence ministry, is now permitted, the meaning of war has been more clarified. The reports mention that for the last five months any information about military losses or troop morale had already been classified.
As in the past in many countries, any attempt to provide such coverage is liable to result in prosecution or inclusion on the “foreign agents” list in Russia today. Against this backdrop, it would be difficult to sum that the war reporters would be able to report accurate news stories from the war zones. The mediation amidst the state of rapid polarisation between two factions of war would very hard task to create the picture of the real world in our head.
One Hesham Moustafa completed his PhD on representation in war reporting from Lancaster University of UK in 2013. His attempt at a critical discourse analysis evaluates the news coverage in Al-Jazeera and the BBC Web-based English News during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. Evaluating the web-based news reports by the BBC and Al-Jazeera, he concludes that the language of war reports may reflect divergent attitudes and opinions which are shaped by the beliefs, values and ideologies of different news media.
News on wars or war news is considered as a type of subgenre of hard news. The conventional understanding of the hard news refers to up-to-the-minute news. However, apart from such news that is reported immediately, there could be a situation report known as soft news. In the war-time, the general public would be compelled to undergo through the different spectacles. The real world through spectacles might be different.
In a week, it could be easily assumed, the number of viewers of conventional television and YouTube channels have been escalated. However, the question is: are people able to get real meaning out of the fragmented spot news? War reporting has been undertaken within the criteria of spot news which again comes under hard news. Rather spot news is considered as the core of hard news. It covers unscheduled events that happen unexpectedly such as war which equals to the category of breaking news.
Wars produce breaking news every moment, eventually raising media rating points. But it divides people across the world. War is the crime against humanity. However, there would be an argument in the name of Thucydides trap, a concept which observes that when an emerging power threatens to displace an existing great power, war would be inevitable. Thucydides, a Greek writer and contemporary of Socrates, has written his prose on the Peloponnesian War of the second half of the fifth century, offering new insight into the wars between the rising and existing powers.
He claims that he has written his world, not an essay to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time. Media historian Mitchell Stephens states that news lives for the moment and gains applause. The danger lies here, as the media consumer might start taking war reporting as being informed of making scores from either side.
(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.)