Journalists tell stories, and the most interesting stories are about conflict. Without conflict between two or more people, or groups, there is no story. That is as true of fiction as it is of reality. The conflict doesn’t have to be a violent one – it may be a clash of ideas or ideologies, a disagreement about policies or principles, or an argument about the distribution of resources. Often, however, journalists do report on violent conflict, on war and murder, and on deeply violent inequalities and injustices, the suppression of rights, and the oppression of individuals.
Such journalists work under difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions. They put their own lives at risk as they collect the story, and then their lives are often threatened further when the report is broadcast or published. Sometimes the reports they have risked all for are censored in part or entirely by officials or even withdrawn by their own editors and media owners.
And although violent conflict is in decline the world over it is also changing, becoming more often than not a clash between heavily armed, poorly trained and often drunk or drugged militias in the pay of warlords whose principle objective is to amass wealth and power. At the other end of the scale there are well-disciplined, political and religious extremists whose leaders have an ideological objection to way a state is run, or to other formal structures and power systems. And then there are the fast-moving, diffuse revolutionary movements such as those which overthrew longstanding, autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in 2011-12. Sometimes these three elements can be mixed in together.
As a result it is harder to know how to get the story, and more likely that the journalist has to be in the thick of the conflict to get a picture of events. Sadly, all this means that the journalist’s task has become more dangerous; the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that thirty two journalists were killed in 2020, and although the worldwide trend has been downwards since 2009 it may be on the way up again. Often journalists are killed by mistake, because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but increasingly they are targeted because one side or another doesn’t want a story to be broadcast or published.
In other words journalists are usually seen by the leaders in a conflict as being part of that conflict. The media is just another theatre of war to them, and they will try to use the media to their advantage. If they can they will try to control the story, which makes it hard for the individual journalist, and if they can’t then they will often try to kill story and the journalist at the same time.
Stories have power in the modern world, which means that journalists and media outlets have become recognised actors in conflict. Political and other leaders in a conflict will issue demands and statements specifically for journalists to pick up. The decision to broadcast or publish those statements, and the way in which it is done, is likely to have an impact on the conflict itself. In the same way events such as kidnappings, bombings and killings may be staged and even timed to fit the broadcast schedule so as to have the greatest impact. It is the presence of the media which makes this happen.
Reporting such events makes the journalist and the media outlet a significant player in a conflict. And whether events are being created for him or her to report or not, no amount of objectivity and balance – the traditional staples of good journalism – can prevent the story being used by one side or another for their own ends, and so influencing the violence and the conflict as a whole.
There is little journalists can do about the way others use their story, but they can ensure that they are not inadvertently feeding the violence, making the conflict worse by being careless in the way they report. They can ensure that they don’t provoke a new round of violence because of the way they report, and that they don’t risk the lives of others by reporting in ways which are likely to make the conflict worse.
This is what it means to be a professional journalist; being careful of the way in which an event is reported, careful of the words used, the context into which the event is placed, the sources used and the tone of the report.