Reporting Conflict – a review by Keith Somerville
As James Rodgers cites in his insightful and compelling examination of the reporting of violent conflict, journalism is often seen as the rough first draft of history (p.6). It is the way many millions around the world learn about their world and about the conflicts that both plague and shape it. What we know about the conflict in the eastern Congo or in Somalia or Syria we know through the reporting of correspondents on the scene or as near as possible or through the analysis of politicians and experts mediated through the prism of journalistic reporting.
This makes an understanding of how journalists report conflict key to the ability of people to ingest and themselves analyse what they are being told. Can they trust this or that journalist, newspaper or radio/TV station; where did they get that piece of video footage, that comment from an eye-witness, who produced that piece of social media; how have they represented the different parties to the conflict, the institutions, NGOs or politicians involved? These are all questions that need to be asked when reading, listening to or watching journalists’ accounts of events and are particuarly key when it comes to distant armed conflicts.
Rodgers’s book deals with all these issues from both the viewpoint of one who has been there, done that and done it commendably well as a BBC reporter, and from the viewpoint of one who knows and understands the academic literature on journalism and war. It is an ideal starting place for students coming to journalism either at BA level or, with knowledge and experience from earlier study or work, at MA level. But it is also going to be valuable for academics and researchers in other fields (notably politics and international relations) whose subject areas are the focus of conflict reporting but who don’t know how it works.
In true correspondent fashion the book is clear and concise and not filled with unncessary jargon or the academic waffle that is often used to hide a lack of understanding of how journalism actually works rather than how non-journalists feel it might or should work. Rodgers notes (p.3) that while some academic accounts are illuminating, “others are wide of the mark”. From my perspective as a career journalist who now straddles journalism and academia this is very true – many academic studies which get too wrapped up with intense sociological analysis or very fine detail critical discourse analysis do not, to journalists who read them, appear to describe their roles or the environment or business in which they work and are rather ideal-type constructs or creations of a virtual journalism that do not adequately achieve understanding of how it works, identifying processes as mechanistic and failing to account for how content is why it is.
Rodgers’s book does not fall into that trap because the author has succeeded in the world of journalism and can now apply a wide-ranging knowledge drawn from experience and measure it alongside academic study. Using these great advantages he provides a quick but nonetheless very useful history of the development of war reporting – from the much-feted but also rather flawed William Russell in the Crimea through the world wars to the start of modern, fast, TV-led reporting with the Vietnam War and on to contemporary conflicts. The Vietnam section is very interesting and Rodgers demonstrates the fallacies of the “journalists lost the war for America” angle describing the interplay bewteen political elites and the media and they way that at times the media was very much guided or even led by the nose by political leaders and that it was ony when those leaders lost their way and faltered that the media became more critical and its coverage of the horrors of the war hit home hard.
Rodgers, and this is no surprise given his wealth of experience, is particularly strong when it comes to looking at issues such as objectivity, balance, independencev access and the nature of the relationship between reporters at the front and the soliders with whom they go into battle or with whome they live in combat zones. This is a key area – especially as government and many armies have become ever more skilled in managing journalists and information in the wake of the lessons of Vietnam.
From an African point of view, I would have liked some reference to the way that the reporting of the US role in Somalia, the whole sorry Blackhawk Down episode and the reporting of it affected media coverage of US involvement in wars and may have had a profound effect on the lack of good reporting on Rwanda in 1994 and on the interplay between the media reporting and international action over both Somalia and Bosnia. The CNN effect is dealt with in passing but I would have welcomed the views of a seasoned correspondent on Piers Robinson’s very valuable refining of the concept and his work that suggests that it is not as powerful as first thought but that when (as in Vietnam) elite confidence or will is weakened then the media can have more of an obvious effect. This obvious effect is then very much dependent on the quality of the reporting of conflict.
Overall, this will be a very useful book for students and non-journalism academics alike, and one cannot but agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion that no sunstitute has emerged despite technological advance and the role of social media for the presence and expertise of foreign correspondents (p. 138).
James Rodgers, Reporting Conflict, basingstoke, Palgrave; 2012. Pbk, pp 154.