The lines between the ideals of “responsibility”, “objectivity”, and “truth” are often blurred. This is particularly the case when reporting on war and the debate between patriotism and objectivity intensifies.
If a reporter travelling with the country’s enemy battalion can prevent an upcoming attack to save the lives of soldiers from his/her own country, should they intervene, or do nothing?
This work will argue that it is the patriotic duty of the journalist to be objective, remain professional and maintain the access they have. This is because of the situational biases that exist, as well as the importance of preserving the possibility of others doing the same in the future.
1.Historical precedent of ‘involved’ war correspondents.
There are many instances where war correspondents have found it difficult to resist involvement in the wars they were there to report on. Analysing the scenario proposed, using some of these examples provides essential insight to aid needed to reach a coherent conclusion.
1.1.Correspondents acting ‘patriotically’
During the Mexican War (1846-48), George Wilkins Kendall rode with the Texan Rangers as a journalist and combatant. He was applauded for the intelligence this generated, allowing him to provide an unprecedented insight into the war (McLaughlin, 2016).
However, instances such as this one suggest that direct involvement removes any sense of impartiality, necessary to report facts as they happen. Whether it is to preserve the strategic secrets of the serving army or simply to resist acting as a mouthpiece for the generals in charge.
This scenario differs from the one proposed in this paper by the fact that Kendall was riding with his aligned battalion and did not face an internal conflict.
Nevertheless, instances such as this one set an unhealthy precedent for military-press relations in wartime for the next decade, where the truth was subjective and depended on the common understanding of patriotism (Lande, 1996).
This continued well in to the 20th century. Evelyn Irons of the Evening Standard for example forced the surrender of a Bavarian village with three other reporters armed with revolvers during the Second World War (Collier, 1989).
Ernest Hemingway breached army rules and the Geneva Convention by working as a war reporter packing two pistols. Journalists were given the rank of honorary captain but they were still civilians and were not allowed to carry weapons (ibid).
The general trend identified in these examples is that the objectivity of journalists is rarely questioned if he/she is working to help the cause of their own country and is hence regarded as a patriotic duty.
1.2.Correspondents acting ‘un-patriotically’
Contrastingly, when journalists have seen no conflict between being a professional and objective journalist but have acted to aid what was generally viewed as ‘the enemy’, their actions where criticised and viewed as un-patriotic.
For example, in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, reporter Kurt Lohbeck and others working for CBS, were criticised for becoming too close with the Mujahedeen rebels (Jensen, Parenti and Tomorrow, 1997).
Lohbeck was accused of helping rebels with public relations and aiding them in forming ties with western media outlets. It is important to note that Lohbeck did have a career in political lobbying which often conflicted with his ability to report objectively prior to getting the position. However, because gaining access to report on the war from the perspective of the opposition is often difficult and expensive, CBS ignored these drawbacks.
The issue and ‘conflict of interest’ was only flagged when the reporter began to work against the agenda of the organisation and hence the public they see themselves as serving. Setting such a precedent is again dangerous, not only for journalists trying to report objectively, but also for the public perception of conflicts which rely heavily on reporting fact objectively.
If applied to the scenario in question, compromising the position as a reporter by alerting the troops would mean that it is likely that access would not be given to any journalists from the west in the future. In order to be truly patriotic and allow for the public to gain insight into the conflict, it is therefore invaluable to remain in the realms of reporting rather then being actively involved in the conflict. Otherwise, the patriotic duty to act overshadows the patriotic duty to relay the truth, and hence damages the integrity of the profession.
2.Displaying patriotism in pursuing objective truth.
Similarly, in instances when reporters have remained objective and scrutinised the actions of their own army, not diminishing to promoting propaganda, they have shaped history and possibly saved many innocent lives.
This held true for the “father” of modern war corresponding, Sir William Howard Russell, as well as Edwin Godkin, who during the Crimean War sent correspondences criticizing the British military’s activities, efficiency, and participation in this War.
Their reports affected the public’s perception of the War, yet also led the military to re-evaluate its approach and the conditions of its forces. Gen. Peter Gration wrote, “…. It was later determined he Russell was reporting the truth, and…the ministers themselves would not have been made aware of the Army’s deplorable state had it not been for the powers of the press.” (Gration, 1992)
Applying this logic to the scenario proposed, it is essential to assume that the reporter has his or her own perspective on the conflict whether it be in support or in critique of their home nation. Determining whether to intervene based on this assumption again removes objectivity, and hence continuing to report again becomes the essential and patriotic duty of the reporter, who must always consider the long-term repercussions of their actions.
If this is not followed, the military will continue to view the media as a means to rally and shape public support and will persistently put pressure on journalists to do their “duty”.
However, those who acknowledge this, and suggest that it is patriotic for journalists to challenge the mainstream narratives of political elites and military leaders, also acknowledge that this is difficult as “the identity of a war correspondent is rooted in the idea of impartial “objectivity” aimed at reaching the “truth”, yet in communicating their interpretations they may adopt a conventional “patriotic” posture” (Ridley, 2003).
This idea suggests that true objectivity, is difficult, but can only be protected by resisting direct involvement. Howard Tumber and Marina Prentoullis write, “The problem posed for participant journalists…was how to respond when events force a choice between professional commitment and participatory loyalties.” (Tumber, Prentoullis, 2003).
Therefore, as citizens themselves reporters are influenced by the general consensus, which inhibits unbiased news coverage. The situational biases which must be considered to determine what a reporter does when having to make a decision on whether to intervene or not, removes the impartiality and objectivity required to sustain a healthy democracy.