Talking Politics

We need war reporters, not just citizens with phone cameras

By Dr Matthew Ashton

This week saw the tragic death of Marie Colvin, a Sunday Times journalist working in the besieged area of Homs in Syria. This is obviously a terrible event and part of a horrific wider pattern in recent years where ever-growing numbers of journalists have lost their lives in warzones. As unpopular as journalists and reporters might be at the moment, I think we often forget how many of them risk their lives in order to do their jobs and tell us what's really going on.

If you believe war matters, and it does, then you have to believe war reporting matters just as much. Governments make foreign policy decisions partly based on public opinion, and nothing shapes public opinion quite as much as war reporting. Some of the most memorable and shocking stories and images of the past fifty years have come out of warzones and helped change our perception of them.

In the modern world, however, good war reporting is increasingly difficult. Technology means that almost anyone can get access to a camera of video recorder via their phones. As a result we're currently drowning in a sea of first-hand accounts from the frontline. The trouble with this is that the vast majority are unverified. They lack context so could be showing anything. For instance I recently followed a link on Twitter to see a video of a man with an AK47 firing it from the side of a building. The footage had been posted by a pro-Assad supporter and purported to show a 'terrorist' shooting at innocent people, therefore justifying the government crackdown.

That footage could have come from over a hundred different conflicts over the past thirty years. Other people on Twitter had re-tweeted this link, each using it to make a political point about the current situation as if was somehow the 'truth' handed down from on high. In reality it was a piece of grainy footage from an anonymous poster that could be showing almost anything. Unfortunately if you log on to Twitter or a range of other social-media websites you'll see thousands of pieces of citizen-journalism like this every day. Maybe they're accurate, maybe they're not. Who knows? Citizen-journalism can be a force for good, but just as easily can lead to confusion and information over-load.

Cynics would argue that war reporting is just a tool of governments and the multi-nationals, and that even if the journalists aren't biased towards either the left or right, or one side of a conflict or another, they still suffer from a range of other biases. For instance a commercial bias towards reporting on stories or images that they think will be more likely to lead to higher newspaper sales or ratings. Equally they could be accused of bias towards bad news rather than good. All these criticisms are valid to a certain extent but mainly because there's no one clear definition of what news actually is. Is it what people want to know or is it what they need to know? Journalists are increasingly being trained to think about these issues and take them into account. Also journalists depend for their careers on supplying truthful and useful information. News, whether we like it or not, is a commodity and accurate news is probably the most valuable thing on Earth.

This is why good war reporting becomes so important. A variety of good reporters on the ground can give us the best idea of what's actually happening. This isn't to say that they can't have their own views of the conflict, but I'd rather trust them then random people on the web.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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