The content that conflict journalists produce is spread far and wide. These journalists observe and digest the truth to feed to the public and bring justice and awareness to those who are unable to speak for themselves.
Though the media released by conflict journalists is widely viewed in the general public, it wasn’t until the broadcasted murder of James Foley captivated a worldwide audience in August that conflict journalism became a topic of discussion.
Many conversations quickly revealed that massive pockets of society are unaware of the definition and impact of conflict journalism.
“I think especially these days, people don’t know what conflict journalism is,” said Lindsay Palmer, an assistant professor with a global media ethics concentration in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Journalists reporting from conflict zones “do not set out to reduce conflict. They seek to present accurate and impartial news,” said Ross Howard, in a conflict sensitive journalism handbook he wrote and produced for professional journalists. “But it is often through good reporting that conflict is reduced.”
Palmer believes that journalists must be present in conflict zones to stimulate discussion and facilitate change.
“To improve the world, and to improve society, you [must] have conflict correspondents. Without knowledge of the very worst things that are happening in society, it’s very difficult to inspire people to change,” Palmer said.
“If you don’t have professionals who are trained to go to these places and try their best to communicate back to the rest of the world what is happening, you very simply can’t get anyone on board to try and make changes.”
When objective conflict journalists aren’t present
Historically, substandard journalism and biased news management condemned entire ethnic groups and social classes to xenophobia and violent conflict.
This is exactly what happened in the Rwanda genocide of 1994. Biased and partisan media outlets in Rwanda helped foster and massage a toxic environment that dramatically increased and influenced the fear-mongering and violence that left at least half a million people dead.
“Media were used in Rwanda to spread hatred, to dehumanize people, and even to guide the genocidaires toward their victims,” reads a message to symposium on the media and the Rwanda genocide prepared by the United Nations. “Three journalists have even been found guilty of genocide, incitement to genocide, conspiracy and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.”
Journalists that have reported on the Rwanda genocide, including Allan Thompson, argue that the killings in Rwanda intensified after international media left the country in April of 1994. By failing to report on the content, Thompson said, there was no one to hold the murderers accountable for their actions.
This belief supports the notion that civilian lives can quite literally depend on the continued practice of conflict journalism.
Is the pen mightier than the sword?
The dangers that journalists face while covering conflict abroad are significant. The highly-publicized beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff are merely two of 40 journalists killed in 2014 while reporting from conflict zones. As recently as Sept. 10, Rozana Radio Correspondent Mohammed al-Qasim was ambushed by unknown gunmen who ambushed the vehicle al-Qasim was riding in. Both al-Qasim and the relative he was riding with were killed.
Julian Reichelt, Editor-in-Chief of the German paper Bild, believes that there are several reasons that journalists can be specific targets of violence when reporting abroad.
“Kidnapping can silence [journalists], which can be very helpful,” said Reichelt, in a seminar addressing reporting on global conflict at the University of Southern California.
“Journalists can also be used for political leverage,” said Reichelt. “We have become a favored target of bad people, which makes it very difficult to go in and check on news, which leaves a lot of room for propaganda,” said Reichelt. “Propaganda [can be produced by] anyone. ISIS is a great example of this.”
Reichelt was a war reporter in Syria from 2012-2013, and was sleeping a few miles away when Steven Sotloff was kidnapped. He recounted his experience in a post on Ozy, a daily news website, stating: “What happened to Steven and what I luckily escaped that week is now covering Syria like a black blanket…ISIS –and the despicable Assad regime – has won. They have turned Syria into the darkest place on earth.”
When Reichelt spoke at USC, he asserted that, without conflict journalists, all the world will see is propaganda.
“Every time they run footage about ISIS, it’s shot [by ISIS]. We don’t have access. It always looks the way they want it to look, and we have no way around showing it if we want to know what these people look like.”
“Media outlets using their content should take responsibility”
Meghan Dhaliwal, Multimedia Projects Coordinator at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, acknowledges that the conflict in Syria and the recent beheadings makes for a “dark time” for journalists attempting to objectively report.
“This is a really dark time for journalists, but it is also a time where journalists (particularly freelancers) are banding together and trying to figure out a way to keep each other safe,” said Dhaliwal.
Dhaliwal, who reported from Afghanistan in July of 2014, believes that journalists can support each other as they attempt to navigate the complex world of conflict.
“There are always going to be people drawn to telling the stories of those directly and indirectly involved in conflict,” Dhaliwal said. “What we can do in the face of the deaths of our colleagues is keep pushing for the rights of freelancers, and keep working to have each other’s backs in the field.”
Support for freelancers is something that assistant professor Lindsay Palmer believes is incredibly important.
“I think it’s important to tell the public to not just think of these journalists as just people who make good or bad decisions. It’s a deeper problem,” Palmer said. “Freelancers get kidnapped and they don’t have anyone really associating with them and making that extra effort to help them get out of there. It’s a huge problem and it needs to be fixed on a structural level. The media outlets using their content should take responsibility.”