By: Sharon Gutowski
At first glance, journalists and military operations seem at odds with each other. The military wants to control information and journalists want to share it. However, the presence of journalists in a combat zone reveals a mutually beneficial partnership1. War and news feed each other. The phrase “slow news days” shows the benefits of war to media: tragedy allows journalists to do their job and creates demand for the service and products; although media does not always portray itself as a product sold to consumers. People are naturally interested in conflicts that relate directly to their lives 2. Coverage of distant conflicts creates a sense of closeness to the front lines, increasing the emotional investment of the audience3. However, all media coverage is a translation, transformed for television, written form or the web, cropped and edited for time and length.
These interpretations have significant consequences. Historically, constant news of suffering in both Bosnia and Iraq (first Gulf war) correlated with increased US involvement in each conflict. More recently, the Walter Reed scandal exposed chronically poor conditions at the Army hospital, but the Army did not want the embarrassment of seeing the story covered heavily. Not only did the Washington Post shed light on the very bad conditions, but also simultaneously shamed the Army for pressuring the few individuals who knew about the problems to prevent further investigations. Eventually public outrage from the news coverage resulted in staff changes at senior levels of the Walter Reed hospital. In 1997, the campaign to ban land- mines relied heavily on the support of the online media to gain momentum. Unlike the first two examples, the land-mine campaign resulted from many different actors (including the general public) working on the same issues at the same time to successfully change policy.
Media coverage is also a product, sold first to advertisers, who crave the attention and money of young people. The all-encompassing term “media” gets thrown around a lot, as if it refers to some specific, proper noun. But “the media” actually refers to a wide array of communications methods, messages, personalities, and agendas. Successfully selling news means selling the idea of an unbiased, trustworthy source of information. But in combat, the distinction between an observer and participant can blur, and news organizations exist within a larger social, political, and cultural context shared with the audience4. When media is able to influence public opinion, it can have a strong impact on military activities. The nature of the relationship between the media and public opinion has spawned many theories5. Public opinion shapes the media as well. Consumers have the freedom to choose from a variety of viewpoints, like any other product on the market.
It would appear that choices of news sources abound. Yet, the news-stands bursting with magazines and the multitude of TV stations (and websites) mask the small concentration of media ownership. Consumers have many newspapers and channels, but few choices of media companies. Very large corporations determine the issues covered6. News, like any other product, follows profit. However, with the prevalence of social media, individuals outside the realm of professional journalism can create and distribute information to wide audiences. The western reporter has become a middleman, an expensive and unnecessary complication7. Accessible, affordable technology has led a shift towards news created and distributed by citizens, challenging traditional journalism and creating a need for a revised understanding of conflict coverage.
The Changing Face of News Production and How People Use it to Their Advantage
Journalism has transformed from a career to an activity. Professional journalists still get paid to deliver news through official channels. But the person on the street now has the power to create, edit and distribute their interpretations and experiences8. They lack formal training of media professionals, but because it was by-stander produced, viewers do not necessarily expect an unrealistic level of neutrality. It also enables the viewer to justify their opinions, seeking out opinions that match their worldview, creating a competition between professional, opinion and amateur journalists. Many people in the developing world have regular access to the Internet despite spotty coverage of electricity.
Witnesses of events have the advantage of time and place over formally trained journalists: correspondents can only react to incidents upon receiving assignment. They also have an advantage of content. Homemade videos seem fresh from the scene and therefore more reliable than the clinical, emotionally detached approach of formal news outlets. Professional media possess constraints such as decency standards, whereas American media outlets (as those in other states) have strict rules, specifically relating to the graphic nature of violent content, especially banned is the showing of dead bodies. The difference between news footage and newsworthy footage becomes blurred9. As citizens witness newsworthy events, their documentations will have the advantages of speed and compelling narratives.
With the increases in cameras in cell phones, the ability to capture meaningful images and videos of conflict is no longer limited to professional journalists. Both militaries and terrorists have confronted the new information. Terrorist organizations have incorporated this new environment into their plans at all levels, fusing attacks to media. Militaries, meanwhile, must accept that soldiers and citizens alike have unprecedented speed of communication with loved ones and can potentially leak information about events, mistakes, current locations or operations.
Meanwhile, terrorists have long been adept at using media. Terrorist attacks have evolved into media events, turning film into an effective jihad weapon. They depend on strong visuals because the target has shifted from the people killed in the attacks, to forcing the audience to look at the attack and its aftermath. Starting with the Mujaheeden, in Afghanistan in the 1980s, terrorist use of media evolved in the 1990s as Chechen rebels started to film attacks as well as coordinate them. During the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel, images and video became an integral part of Hezbollah’s strategy but it used mainstream media for distribution. The era of the citizen journalist does not completely describe the situation: media now includes the terrorist journalist10. As important events, information about terrorist attacks becomes a commodity to be fought over by competing news outlets. Like war, terrorism creates a need for news. Terrorists know their attacks will be covered, and are thus allowed to manipulate the events in order to pass information to other terrorist cells or to seek legitimacy11. Both the media and terrorists know the difficulty of looking away from the coverage and rely on it for their respective objectives (survival in business or to damage communities).
The widespread use of photo and video technology resulted in a contraband cell phone video of Saddam Hussein’s execution12. Due to the sensitive nature of the event, the US military wanted to avoid images of the execution, knowing that once an image is available online, any group can take the image and use for their own objectives and messaging strategies.
Of course, images and videos need not be real in order to serve terrorists or other groups. In 2000, a video claiming to show the death of a 12-year old boy, Muhammad al-Dura, by IDF made international news and fueled outrage. The al-Dura video became the new version of the icon of outrage. Muhammed al-Dura has been put on much pro-Palestinian propaganda and even postage stamps in many Muslim countries13. This became a quintessential viral video regarding the Israeli-Palestine conflict, leading to many conspiracy theories14, including some that raised questions of whether or not al-Dura was even killed. Well-respected journalists reported the video as fact, despite the fact that the footage did not in fact, show the boy’s death. The incomplete nature of the footage means that virtually any image or video can be transformed into propaganda and purport to have a message completely incompatible with its original content. In fact, studies have shown that when viewers are in a heightened emotional state for any reason, they attribute truth to programs even when they are clearly labeled as fiction15.
In another example, an American soldier in Iraq lost a personal video diary, which insurgents found and edited. They replaced the audio with a narrative accusing American troops of manslaughter and rape by American soldiers. In the final product, the soldier seems to complain that the Iraqi people hate the Americans and expresses a pessimistic assessment of war. However, the insurgents took too many liberties when they falsely added that the soldier had died, which allowed professional media outlets to verify the video had been altered16. The death of the one soldier, bothered by the crimes listed in the video would have made a more compelling story, and would have snuffed out the small hope provided by one soldier’s courage to speak up. Now that the one good American soldier has died, all that remains for the viewer is the crimes he describes being committed by his peers. Faking events for propaganda goes far back into history, people no longer need to resort to such efforts to obtain viable footage to promote their agendas. They can easily alter images and videos already in existence.
Both traditional advertisements and terrorist groups need to influence the young people of the world. Young people also are the adopters and proponents of social media and new technologies. Change often takes a generation. Things that seemed normal to parents often become unacceptable to their children as they grow up. With the world becoming more globalized and information passing across borders with ease, the issues of media and its influence on security will only become more important.
The administration of the US must take great efforts to understand the influence of citizen journalism on the ideas and motivations of populations at high-risk for terrorist activity. The old adage, perception is reality, matters greatly. Terrorists have long understood this and worked to use it to their advantage. Intelligence agencies that monitor the videos and messages put out by terrorist organizations will get insight into the messaging, branding and psychological tactics. It will also help the US to understand the opinions of the general public in areas where terrorist groups have large influence. In order to counteract the messaging, the US government needs to engage with highly skilled communications professionals, who truly understand the culture, language and religious issues in areas where terrorists are sending their media. People respond to messages they perceive to be authentic, fiction or non-fiction, so crafting messages based solely on the objectives of the US government will fail to reach people. It must speak to them on an emotional level. Only by creating buy-in at the local level can the US accommodate the strategic efforts of community engagement.
1Rai, Ajai. K, “Media at war: Issues and limitations.” Strategic analysis: a monthly
journal of the IDSA.[online] No. 24.9. 2000. 22 January 2011
2 Allen, Tim and Jean Seaton. The Media of Conflict: War Reporting and
Representations of Ethnic Violence. London & New York: Zed Books Ltd, 1999 p. 2-4
3Rai, Ajai, K. Op. Cit.
4Rai, Ajai, K. Op. Cit.
5Allen, Tim and Jean Seaton, Op. Cit., p. 2-4
6Rai, Ajai, K. Op. Cit.
7 Dauber, Cori, E. Op. Cit., p. 8-9
8Dauber, Cori E. Op. Cit., p. 5
9Dauber, Cori, E. Op. Cit. p. 31 and 33
10 Dauber, Cori, E. Op. Cit., p. 9-11
11 Keinan, Giora and Avi Sadeh and Sefi Rosen, “Attitudes and Reactions to Media Coverage of Terrorist Attacks.” Journal of Community Psychology, No. 31(2), 2003, p. 150
12 Dauber, Cori, E. Op. Cit., p. 8-9
13Karsenty, Philippe. “We Need to Expose the Muhammadal-Dura Hoax.”Middle East
Quarterly. No. 15.4 2008
14Allan, Diana and Curtis Brown, Op. Cit., p. 65
15Konijn, Elly A. & Juliette H. Walma van der Molen and Sander van Nes. “Emotions Bias Perceptions of Realism in Audiovisual Media: Why We May Take Fiction for Real.” Discourse Processes. No. 46. 2009, p. 309
16 Dauber, Cori, E. Op. Cit., p. 22-24.