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Seminar on "Kosovo and War Reporting"

When journalists become carriers of war

By Eeva Lennon

How does the media influence or distort our perception of war in general and of Kosovo in particular? What drives the media and does the media influence or is it manipulated by government?

Two speakers, Tim Allen, a lecturer in Development Studies at the London School of Economics, and Jean Seaton, a reader in the Centre for Communication and Information Studies at the University of Westminster, tackled these questions at a Finnish Institute seminar about Kosovo and War Reporting. The Seminar was organised with Prospect magazine for an audience of international journalists, media researchers and teachers of journalism.

In his talk, "Representations of Modern War", Tim Allen pointed out that even the usage of the word war has been shifting in the last ten years. The media is actually using the word war for lots of things that used not be called wars. The Oxford dictionary defines war as a strife usually between nations conducted by force involving open hostility and suspension of ordinary international law. But most of the cases called war do not fit this definition very neatly.

The media have moved towards the anthropological definition of war: anthropologists describe war as a representation of social integration expressed by violence towards a group that is external to their group. In practice it seems that we now employ the word war as a way of confirming the status of the conflict, Allen thinks. This indicates that the conflict should be taken seriously and not just as a criminal activity or dismissed as petty squabbling. The use of the label often says as much about the user as it does about who is fighting.

The fact that we use the word war so readily about what is going on in Kosovo is rather interesting. Later it was pointed out in the seminar that there is a major war going on in Ethiopia to which the media pays practically no attention at all.

Journalists as "agents of war"

Jean Seaton from the University of Westminster emphasized the significance of technology and the change that it has brought to the role of journalists recently.

In her talk, "Kosovo and the Media", she observed that because the equipment has become small and media images have become such politically charged aspect of this war, journalists are becoming carriers of war. They are not only reporters of war, "they kind of make it". The technology has got journalists in faster, images are returned quicker, but it has also got journalists more exposed, being agents of war, and perceived as being agents of war. More journalists have been killed in Yugoslavia since 1990 than the combined number of journalists that were killed in the Second World War and Vietnam put together.

Jean Seaton thinks that we only know a war is a war because the media calls it a war. Nowadays in every conflict there is a huge battle to get that kind of recognition from the media.

What is the compulsion behind journalism and what have been the commercial effects of this war on the media? According to Jean Seaton, circulation of newspapers rose for the first two weeks of the war and then steadied and dropped. That has been true in Britain and that has been true in America and even places like Norway and Greece. When you ask journalists about this you hear the argument: "Actually I don't think people are reading about the war, but they want the coverage to be there."

Sometimes wars boost the circulation and that has happened also this time. But it has been very expensive. Do not expect prime football on BBC next winter, they have spent the money on this war.

Newspapers are jockeying to claim: "We got the war right". The journalists know that if they "call the war wrong", they might damage their newspaper. The obvious example is Suez crisis in the 1950s, when The Guardian’s attitude to the crisis resulted in a huge circulation loss. It took the newspaper 15-20 years to get it back.

Journalists do try to find out what is going on, but behind it all there is also a commercial calculation of "how do we get the war right". All this is affecting also what we see and how we see the war on television, for example on CNN. News nowadays is a commodity under strong pressure.

Jean Seaton tried also to answer the question about media influence on government in this war. Empirical evidence suggests, that if governments have strong, clear policies, the media follow it. In Kosovo this seems to have been the case. If governments have unclear policies, then the media is very effective in pushing them into or getting them out of wars.

Eeva Lennon is London correspondent of the Finnish Broadcasting Company

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