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Commentary :: Media
Media and War
02 Oct 2007
The news media in times of crisis and war reproduce and do not question the consciousness and attitudes of the elites. In wars, patriotism outweighs the journalistic self-image of critically distanced reporting.

The Poverty of War Reporting

By Alexander S. Neu

[This article summarizes the findings of sociological and journalist analyses of the roles and functions of the media in wars. The relation between the media and politics reveals the media’s responsibility to society. Published in: Wissenschaft und Frieden 2007-3, the article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]


The specific relation of the media and politics is critically examined in the specialized literature on the role and self-image of the media in the tension between “explanatory journalism” in the service of power on one hand and as the “fourth branch” on the other hand. In its genesis, political journalism represented an “integral element in communicating political interests.” In the course of the 19th and early 20th century, political journalism gradually emancipated itself and withdrew from outward political influence and manipulation. Thus politics lost an effective instrument in its exclusive control for guiding public opinion. Rather the powerful saw themselves increasingly confronted and controlled by opinion published by the independent media. This emancipation process from politics and the development of public control of political events by the media led to a new self-image of the “fourth branch.” However the media today have not entirely lost the stigma as a “sounding board” of the politically powerful despite this emancipatory development. The power inherent to media is much too tempting for politics not to attempt to utilize the media. [1]


The media have a quasi-information and communication monopoly on primary (political) experiences. Knowledge beyond immediate individual perception is only usually possible with the help of narratives of a third party, the media. The media are the “window to the world,” as the journalist and columnist Walter Lippmann rightly said. [2]

This “window-to-the-world” function of the media has a very special dimension in military confrontations. In military conflicts involving western states, western societies do not usually have primary (direct) experiences with the real war situation and thus depend substantially on war reporting. Societies can only gain knowledge about war this way. The question is raised about the facts that societies from the media about war and what they do not learn.

The media does not only eke out an existence as a quasi-technical means for the objective distribution of objective information. Persons, journalists, are set behind the media. A twofold subjectivization of objective reality occurs according to epistemology. Firstly, events are unconsciously seen through a subjective filter through individual value socialization. Subsequently this subjectively perceived reality can be consciously subjected to a political agenda. This means events are not published or information to be published is falsified. At the end there is a subjective reality product: the news. Whether subjective reality products are products of journalists captive to their value system or are explanatory products of government policy will be discussed here with the help of several armed conflicts.


War reporting had its beginning in the Crimean War (1853-1856). The Crimean War entered history as the “first press war.” [3] The journalist William Howard Russel (The Times), described as the first war reporter in history, revealed how much the British army disliked independent war reporting. He followed the English troops at the Crimea and reported about the wretched state of the English army. A conflict of goals arose. While Russel wanted to report what he saw as objectively as possible, the English army/ government excluded all negative aspects of this war from reporting and only supplied the English public with information approved by the army leaders. After long public discussion in British society about the functions and limits of war reporting, the British military finally introduced censorship toward the end of the Crimean War. [4]


In the First World War, war reporting changed into war propaganda. France and Great Britain established propaganda organizations to mobilize the emotions of their population and strengthen the unity and determination to support the war. Improved communication technologies like the telephone and the medium of photography proved very helpful. The efficiency of the supposed “authenticity” and “objectivity” of photography were powerful tools in the emotionalization of the masses. The governments of France and Great Britain encouraged hatred against Germany as an emotional element by feeding their media with alleged atrocities of German soldiers. The range of the descriptions extended from torture and mass rape to cannibalism. The goal was the dehumanization and demonization of Germans. The world was reduced to only two categories: humans and Germans. For their part, the newspapers often accepted these atrocity fairytales unchecked and without the necessary critical distance even though most of the atrocities charged to Germans could not be verified afterwards. [5]

German propaganda proved comparatively underdeveloped. Its far weaker propaganda activities were mainly directed against Russian and Serbian soldiers whose human nature was denied by Germans.

The loss of freedom of the press and the introduction of censorship affected German, British and French newspapers. Strict rules limited the reported themes and what could in no case be opened up for the general public that might undermine the inner unity. In all three countries, the press showed great appreciation for the censure rules and were willing to serve the native land sometimes with anticipatory obedience. [6]


In the Second World War, the use of the media and propaganda was refined and considerably amplified. However this time it was the “German Reich” that demonstrated its superiority in war reporting and propaganda. The NS-regime relied on media that were still undeveloped in the First World War. The effect of film and radio suggested even more authenticity than past photography. The media were controlled and instrumentalized by the NS-regime. In most cases, the NS-regime encountered little or no resistance among the established opinion-makers. These opinion-makers willingly served the new rulers. [7]

On the other hand, Great Britain’s techniques of information control stood the test in the First World War. The very restrictive information policy over the actual course of the world war provoked the displeasure of journalists at home and abroad. Given this pressure, people were compelled in the course of the war to supply the media with more information including censored information. [8] In contrast, the US like the National Socialists recognized the value of the media as a weapon. Under the maxim “public opinion wins wars” formulated by General Eisenhower, the activities of journalists and information activities were integrated in warfare and war preparation. Eisenhower viewed the war reporter as a de facto staff officer with a military function: “As staff officers your first duty is a military duty.” [9]

In the USSR, censorship measures were tightened so the information pluralism that hardly existed was completely removed just after the beginning of the war. All radio equipment was confiscated to totally eliminate the use of alternative sources of information. The population was provided with information – from the leader – with the aid of wired loudspeakers in their apartments. Posters and pictures reaching persons overstrained with the articles of “Pravda” with easily understood statements and slogans played a substantial role in Soviet war propaganda. Heroic films adjusted people to the new realities, i.e. the war situation against Germany, and strengthened the people’s endurance. [10]


The second Gulf War in 1991 fought out between Iraq and the anti-Iraq coalition led by the US represented a turning point in media technology. Never before could people participate live in war at home at the breakfast table or living room. The technological development of the television medium made possible the immediate visualization of war. “Real-time” reporting seemed to guarantee the “authenticity” of the events and consequently the “objectivity” of the war reporting. What information was communicated by the media? To what extent do politicians and the military use the media to explain the legitimacy of the war to the world public with the aid of censorship and propaganda? How far were the media concerned with enlightenment? Were onlookers offered detailed background information about the political substance of the war, the aim of the war, or did the pictures only satisfy violence voyeurism?

A revealing statement or acknowledgment of the commander-in-chief of the allied troops toward the end of the military confrontation when he gave thanks for the media’s cooperation showed the relation between the media and war. [11] The media were massively instrumentalized in this war and their reporting censored. The rules facing correspondents were considerable. The rules barred journalists’ access to relevant war areas so there were hardly any journalist eyewitnesses. [12]

The “privilege” to observe the war directly was “granted” to only a few journalists, as for example Peter Arnett who reported live from Baghdad for CNN. Journalists were set in a so-called “pool system” to centrally inform them with information and pictures filtered by the military in daily press briefings, i.e. to give them their reality structure.[13] The accuracy of distance weapons to suggest a “clean surgical strike” was regularly demonstrated with the aid of computers and video recordings. Although the information flood was massive, the substance of the communicated information altogether was trifling. Never did journalists on television provide so little information with so many words as in the reporting at the Gulf. [14]

The deficit of thematic substance cannot only be ascribed to military censuring techniques. The media itself has joint responsibility. The economic aspect is primary: the media are businesses. Economic pressure may have been one of the basic reasons for reporting something about the war instead of admitting being hindered in free press work. Many media construct their own picture of war or largely adopt the reality model of the allies instead of effectively sensitizing the public about this state through a reporting boycott and opposing the conduct of the military.


The western media ethos reached an all-time low with the media reporting before, during and after the 1999 NATO offensive war against Yugoslavia. Although the belligerent NATO applied censure- and manipulation techniques similar to the coalition of the allies in the Second Gulf War, this proved unnecessary. The media waged their own war against Yugoslavia with anticipatory obedience, the required shot of patriotism and even enthusiasm for the moral goodness of NATO.

The media researcher Karl Prumm criticized the “secret mobilization” of the western media during the war. “How the much-praised plurality of the electronic media vanished and how esprit de corps and the official government consensus dominated are among the most lasting shock experiences of this war.” [15] In this context, the linguist Clemens Knobloch reproached the explanatory journalism of the press and radio. The explanations of NATO were passed by the media and the horrors of war minimized. The media were synchronized or brought into conformity with the NATO war party through the adoption of NATO terminology as for example “collateral damage” or “air strikes.” Knobloch also decried the media’s “emotional demagogic slogans” that contributed to building the Milosevic scapegoat. [16] Hermann Meyn criticized the one-sided international reporting in favor of NATO and the open sympathy of the media for the UCK. [17] The special British correspondent of the “Independent” for Yugoslavia, Robert Fisk, refers to the patriotic attitude of western journalists/media that avoids raising critical questions at the daily NATO press briefings to not endanger the moral legitimacy of the war. [18]


On the basis of the analyzed specialized literature, the media in the majority of cases was/is obviously instrumentalized not only by its own initiative in serving its state -involved in a military conflict – or by state pressure. Rather a mixed picture appears in which on one side belligerent states seize censure- and instrumentalization measures and on the other side build a media war front more or less voluntarily on account of the patriotic duty of the “just cause.” Wars are obviously seen as exceptional situations by the media in which patriotism or love of one’s country outweighs the journalist self-image of critically distanced reporting.

The official aims and goals of war up to “arson” of national political/military decision-making were/are adopted uncritically. Critical distance to war policy was and is mostly outside the journalist and media “mainstream.” The media fail the moment they take away the public’s consent to war by refusing comprehensive and critical reporting and opening up their own front: the media front.

The communication researcher Georg Ruhrmann comes to a similar conclusion based on findings of media- and communication research. “With few historical exceptions, news media in times of crisis and war reproduce and do not question the consciousness and the attitudes of the elites.” [19] The most conspicuous kind of this reproduction is the uncritical acceptance of the war-terminology of the elites. Euphemistic terms like “collateral damage” are one example.


Altmeppen, Klaus-Dieter/Löffelholz, Martin, Zwischen Verlautbarungsorgan und »vierter Gewalt«, in: Sarcinelli, Ulrich (Hrsg.), Politikvermittlung und Demokratie in der Mediengesellschaft, Bonn 1998, S.97.
Lippmann, Walter, Public Opinion, New York 1922.
Dominikowski, Thomas, »Massen«medien und »Massen«krieg, in: Löffelholz, Martin (Hrsg.), Krieg als Medienereignis " Opladen 1993, S.37.
Knightley, Phillip, The first casualty, London 2003, S.1-17.
Knightley, Phillip, a.a.O., S.83ff./Beham, Mira, Kriegstrommeln - Medien, Krieg und Politik, München 1996, S.25ff., 55.
Dominikowski, Thomas, a.a.O., S.39ff.
Wette, Wolfram, Die schwierige Überredung zum Krieg, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte B 32-33/89, S.8f.
Royle, Trevor, War Report: the war correspondents view of battle from the Crimea to the Falklands", Worcester 1987, S.169.
zitiert nach: Royle, Trevor, a.a.O., S.148.
Leonhard, Wolfgang, Die Revolution entlässt ihre Kinder", Köln 1955/1981/1990, S.142-145/Ostrogorski, Wladimir, Die ätherischen Verführer, in: Kalaschnikow - Das Politikmagazin, Ausgabe 12, Heft 1/99.
Bresser, Klaus, Schieres Bauerntheater, Interview, in: Löffelholz, Martin, Krieg als Medienereignis,. a.a.O., S.162.
Richter, Simone, Journalisten zwischen den Fronten - Kriegsberichterstattung am Beispiel Jugoslawien, Opladen/Wiesbaden 1999, S.50.
Löffelholz, Martin, Der unwirkliche Krieg, in: IKÖ-Rundbrief, Nr. 4, 4/1991, S.46ff.
Mast, Claudia, Kriegsspiele auf dem Bildschirm. Anmerkungen zur Berichterstattung über den Golfkrieg, in: Bertelsmann Briefe, Oktober 1991, S.25.
zitiert nach Prümm, Karl, in: Journalist, 2/2000, S.13.
Knobloch, Clemens, Sprachgebrauch im Krieg, in: Journalist, 2/2000, S.13.
Meyn, Hermann, Informationen mit Fragezeichen, Journalist, 2/2000, S.14-15.
Fisk, Robert, Medien zum Kosovo, in: Le Monde diplomatique, 13.8.1999, S.1-3.
Ruhrmann, Georg, Ist Aktualität noch aktuell, in: Löffelholz, Martin, Krieg als Medienereignis. Grundlagen und Perspektiven der Krisenkommunikation, Opladen, 1993, S.89.

Dr. Alexander Neu ist Wissenschaftlicher Referent für Sicherheitspolitik der Bundestagfraktion Die Linke

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