Germany-Munich – In the ‘post-truth’ era, when facts are losing authority in public conversations, conflict coverage is becoming more relevant for both the wider public and policy makers more specifically. On the one hand, the news media infrastructure has developed to a stage where news is available wherever we are and, on the other hand, there are more correspondents reporting from conflict zones than ever before.
During the last few years, the number of conflicts has grown according to the Global Peace Index1 , and the world is seemingly becoming more dangerous a place. Journalists around the world are facing threats and violence. According to the International Federation of Journalists2 , 116 journalists and media workers have been killed in 2016. The numbers in 2014 and 2015 are even bigger.
In addition to the more obvious physical threats, journalists are subject to ‘invisible’ influences in the process of newsgathering. The worsening of conflicts in the Middle East with the apex of the war crimes in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has contributed to a world being less safe, and the people know about it through journalists as first drafters of history.
But, how does such news come into being?
Media coverage of war and violence is a central resource for the public understanding of conflicts; it often also contributes to the development or transformation of a conflict. For journalists, covering news has become a “natural” routine. They rarely have the time to reflect on everyday reporting and the various influences that play out in the process. In constructing stories about the world through news reporting, the relationship between facts, sources and the key narrative is of particular importance.
Many journalists say that the essence of their work is getting and presenting facts in a way that they reflect the reality on the ground. However, journalism is a business of storytelling. For that facts and sources are often available in abundance, news production is inevitably and inherently selective. Facts often lend themselves to different narratives, or “stories”, making “truth” a concept loaded with contingency. As conflicts have a past, present and anticipated future, journalists may produce different stories out of the same facts.
This is where facts, sources and the corresponding truth amalgamate into a story through cutting edges of the news under various influences. Just like all human beings, journalists have their own predispositions and prejudices that they likely bring to bear on their coverage, by which they may contradict their own professional norms and aspirations. In conflict, political and military actors as well as non-governmental organizations may be interested in receiving positive coverage of their actions and activities, which is why they often feed the media with information to make sure the journalists cover the story “properly”.
Social media, news agencies, non-governmental organizations and other institutional players that feed the public with first-hand witness reports already set the stage for the story, which is then substantiated with facts and sources the journalists decide to include in the news.
Furthermore, international correspondents often lack detailed information regarding conflicts, while local journalists often lack the objective distance to the conflict.
The combination lacking local knowledge among international correspondents and lack of resources on the side of the local journalists could be seen as an opportunity for international media to enforce closer cooperation with local journalists. This goes for conflict reporters from the Western Balkans to the Middle East and the Great Lakes region in Africa.
When journalists speak about their professional orientations and practices, they claim the originality of their stories without hesitation or thinking about any of the structural or cultural influences. However, when “confronted” with the content they produced, it turns out that many stories had “occurred” to them as a result of various external forces and influences, be that political leaders, non-governmental organizations or other media. Most of the conflict news content we deconstructed with the journalists has originated from external influence.
This is where the social media play an essential role in news production. One of the first things journalists do is to skim through the social media and look for interesting information. As the social media have changed the way journalists cover conflicts, this is a pivotal moment in news production as this pool of information is often very difficult to verify. Besides unofficial information, the social media also cater to official accounts from the government, military and other state institutions providing a wide range of sources and information to the journalists. Using their knowledge about conflicts and new, incoming information, journalists arrive at an idea about what and how to cover before they actually plan the story and before contacting any of their sources.
To be fair, social media also provide space for misinformation. As a journalist from the DRC said: “In times of war, it is difficult to tell the truth, but in social networks, truth can be told anyway”.
This highlights the fact journalists are prone to manipulations when picking the news from social networks. Structural barriers on access to information, on the other hand, can lead to journalists being scooped by social media. A journalist from Israel said that “sometimes it takes two or three days to get permits to report something, after it has been out through social media”. The need to be first, quick and exclusive with few resources available, which puts conflict news coverage under heavy stress. One of the most credible source that journalists check ‘to confirm or verify’ such incoming information is the non-governmental organizations and their network of informants in the field.
To conclude, journalists reporting conflict are exposed to the danger of physical threats and dangers in the field on daily basis but there is also a ‘silent threat’ to the profession of journalist as we know it, which is “truth” these days has become an object of contestation more than it used to be.