Do Mass Media Affect Conflicts and Wars?

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Wars, regional conflicts, and the like in the 20th and early 21st centuries have many things in common with their counterparts in earlier centuries. Wars always result in the loss of lives among innocent non-combatants. They have always caused normal, good people to become ruthless and violent, out of the necessity of destroying other people to accomplish a greater goal. Wars lately have been as terrible and destructive as they were in ancient times, and perhaps more so as our weapons technology advances. The means by which people kill each other now have become perhaps exponentially more efficient. As well, methods of communication have become amazingly efficient. The means by which print, radio and television media deliver news of conflict have become so high-tech that feats that were impossible in ancient times are routine. This media efficiency has the potential to affect a conflict while it is happening by turning public opinion in one direction or the other, bolstering or eroding public support for a particular fight such as with the constant media coverage of illegal immigration.

The idea is fairly amazing when compared to similar events in ancient times, when news of a battle might have taken months or longer to reach the homes of the citizens for whom warriors fought. In contrast, today a family in any number of countries can see descriptions and images of the results of fighting on the other side of the world that are perhaps minutes old and be affected by the coverage in a way that changes its opinion of the war. Multiply this phenomenon by millions of families, and the potential is there for something to happen that was surely unheard of centuries ago. Media coverage of a war may have the potential to change citizens’ attitudes about the conflict to the extent that it affects national policy on a fairly short timeline. Does this happen? A review of available literature on the subject seems to support the idea that media coverage of a war can change its prosecution in significant ways. A number of potential factors contribute to this phenomenon, including the media’s defining of certain terms or labels in their coverage of conflict, non-objectivity in reporting, the tendency toward sensationalism, and the relationship between media and government or military entities.

The Media’s Definitions May Become Ours

A factor in the possible media influence on conflict is the way media may commonly describe actors in a war or conflict. As an illustration, a battle might be described as being fought “along ethnic lines.” As well, nearly everyone has heard the term “ethnic cleansing.” Labeling a conflict in this way may color the views of media consumers about who the players are in a particular conflict. Several authors have described this occurrence.

Holland, in his chapter in Rolston and Miller’s 1996 book on the conflict in Northern Ireland, uses an analysis of American print media coverage of the conflict to illustrate this. He demonstrates that while a number analysts and historians are of the opinion that the conflict had a political origin (in the partitioning of Ireland) (p. 378), the print media in the United States portrayed the struggle as one between “two fanatical religious armies” (p. 378) with ancient grudges. He relates that this oversimplification of the conflict “succeeds in removing it from the realm of serious political debate” (p. 380), the result of which may be a lack of pressure from readers of print media on politicians to help broker an end to the conflict due to apathy. Print media definitions of the sides as irrational may minimize their importance to their readers.

In his 2006 book, Ellis expands on this to describe that media “play the central role in these portrayals” (p. 101), as “they are on the front lines of the definitions of groups and characterizations of issues” (p. 101). He describes an instance where the media characterized a particular issue in a manner that may have been misleading, and possibly created a perception opposite the truth. He tells of a headline in a popular Israeli newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, which read, “In Case of War – Jaffa’s Arabs Will Attack Tel Aviv” (111-112). The headline is misleading, however. The article headline refers to data from a survey of Jews in Jaffa, and is the opinion of the Jews surveyed, not the Arabs whose intent was reported in the headline. The intent of Arabs in Jaffa may or may not have been to attack Tel Aviv as stated, but it could likely not be determined by surveying Jaffa Jews. Ellis relates, “This is how distortions begin the process of entering political talk” (p. 112). It is an example of how media may influence the general public’s views on a war or conflict.

Jean Seaton, Professor Historian for the British Broadcasting Service, expresses ideas similar to Ellis’ and Holland’s in her 1999 work on ethnic conflicts and the media. She makes the point that media often characterize everyone of a particular ethnicity as having identical wants, needs and characteristics. Whether this is for ease of reporting, or due to bias on the part of reporters, it tends to have the effect of giving a boilerplate, unrealistic image of groups involved in conflicts in the minds of media consumers. “Oh those unspeakable Serbs! And then there are the envious Hutsis and the arrogant Tutsi, not to mention the aggressive Dinka” (p. 43). She uses these oversimplified descriptions to illustrate that those who rely on mass media reporting often know little about groups of people with whom they don’t have a relationship until they are informed about them by television, newspapers, etc. When they do learn of these people, they tend to take the simple descriptions at face value and base their own opinions on situations elsewhere on these incomplete snapshots (p. 43).

Regarding contemporary events, it may be that our view of Islamic activists or militants such as ISIS is guided by media portrayals. Thussu (2006) describes that media descriptions of Islamic militants tend to be very similar, regardless of their country (p. 6). He describes that what he calls the myth of the “clash of civilizations” (p. 6), being broadcast as it is over global English-language media channels all day every day, is hard to question or resist. He relates other so-called myths spread by American mass media and concludes that with the domination of American media in the world, it is likely that these attitudes will continue to spread. His opinion supports the idea that media may shape our definitions of cultures or events. What remains to be discussed is the method by which media outlets may achieve their aims and still act responsibly in relation to the perpetuation of these so-called “myths.”

In another instance of oversimplification of labels of actors in a conflict, Shaw (1996) uses the example of Rwanda. The labels “Hutu” and “Tutsi” were used to define the opposing sides in the conflict. In reality, however, there were many political and so-called ethnic factors involved in the country (p. 172). It may be understandable that journalists would attempt to simplify things for the sake of brevity, a situation supported by Shaw’s description:

The media found the politics of the situation difficult to deal with. Although it was clear that some Hutu had been among the victims of the genocide, and the [Rwandan Patriotic Front, which overthrew the government, triggering an end to the genocide] contained Hutu as well as Tutsi, the media could generally only describe the conflict in ethnic terms. (p. 172)

It may be advisable to acknowledge the phenomenon without faulting the media, however. It is not an easy thing to make a story digestible and report the most important factors or actors, and in some cases it may take a course of study, the time for which journalists reporting the crisis don’t have, to know everyone involved.

Non-Objectivity in Reporting

It may be that these labels and descriptions result from a need to simplify reporting for the sake of brevity, meeting deadlines, or other practical reasons. A more significant cause may be a lack of objectivity amongst journalists. It may be an idealistic attitude to view mass media as neutral watchdogs, reporting facts to the public so that people may be informed about what is going on in the world. The reality remains that reporting is done by people who are merely human, and so the potential for their being swayed by what they see, the people they interact with and even other reporters’ work, exists, as described in the literature.

Hackley describes this tendency, without finding fault or assigning blame, in her article comparing conflict resolution professionals’ and journalists’ roles in war. She describes that both groups of people want to fulfill their roles without partiality, but “while journalists work to be unbiased in their reporting, and conflict management professionals strive to not take sides with people in conflict, both invariably fail” (2009, p. 26). The article further illustrates a need for greater depth in reporting, as described above, to give a more nuanced picture of the situation surrounding conflict. This is more easily accomplished, it stands to reason, by journalists who resist media bias. Hackley uses the media coverage of the Bush administration’s building of a consensus for the Iraq war as an example of a time when a lack of strict objectivity may have given an incomplete picture to the world as to the situation in Iraq, and the U.S. plans for war. “Few journalists questioned: What are the objectives? What if the intelligence reports are wrong? […] What is the post-invasion strategy, or later, the exit strategy” (p. 31)? She describes that “the media seemed to buy into the view that it would be unpatriotic and unpopular to be critical” (p. 31).

McLeod takes a similar, if firmer, stance on the topic, looking at that same media coverage of events leading to the Iraq war, and painting the mass media as strongly biased toward the administration views on the topic. Although he believes journalists did not do their due diligence in checking facts and remaining objective (his article is titled “Derelict of Duty”), he gives legitimate reasons that this happens as a warning for journalists to resist the tendency toward accepting the administration explanations readily. McLeod states:

Journalists are socialized with the ideology of objectivity, which values the idea of neutrality. However, in practice, whatever an administration official says is considered by definition legitimate news and accorded a high degree of credibility. Critics, particularly those who come from outside the power structure, are treated more skeptically.” (p. 133)

In relating this to mass media coverage before the Iraq war, he gives the opinion that the ideal should be for journalists to report both sides of an issue until one or the other side appeared to be substantially more correct in its arguments, and then supporting that side of the issue. He posits that the media did things in the opposite order in the case of Iraq and jumped onto side early on.

Similarly, Kellner (1993), criticizes the media for nearly identical bias during the Gulf War buildup. He states the media were guilty of unabashedly trumpeting the opinions of those who supported military action and criticizing or ignoring those who were against it. As an example of this, he relates that approximately 1% of the television time devoted to discussion of the Gulf Crisis after Iraq invaded Kuwait was used to report opposition to military intervention by the United States. He concludes that the extreme demonizing of the Iraqis and Sadaam Hussein, admittedly a very bad guy, in which the media were an active participant, precluded a peaceful solution to the problems that led to the invasion (p. 46). As well, he is critical of the military’s failure to allow discussion about the war amongst the troops to be reported. “Clearly, the military was concerned primarily with their image, with looking good, and with avoiding any criticisms rather than with legitimate national security concerns” (p. 43)

Ruffini also describes the media’s bias toward military intervention in the days before the Gulf War. In the most blatant example of this, Ruffini describes that major media outlets overtly squashed dissent. According to Ruffini, CNN, three television stations in Washington, D.C., and large-market affiliates of ABC and CBS declined to air paid advertisements by groups questioning the need for an invasion of Iraq (1992, p. 284). Ruffini’s point of view may itself not be unbiased, as he describes the information being put out by the Bush administration and its allies as “snake oil” (p.284). That said, he does report facts that support the idea that in that instance, the mass media were not objective.

Another article that acknowledges a lack of objectivity in mass media is Holguin’s (1997a) piece in the journal Peacekeeping and International Relations. Holguin questions not whether journalists are unbiased, but whether objectivity should even be the goal. She uses the examples of journalists who report from areas where war crimes are occurring, assigning responsibility, possibly, to reporters in such situations to be the eyes and ears of the public for the greater good, rather than neutral observers reporting both sides of the situation. She quotes CNN’s Christiane Amanpour to support this idea: “when you are neutral, you can become an accomplice, and in these situations you are an accomplice to some of the most unspeakable crimes against humanity” (1997a, p. 10). Holguin looks at the idea from the opposite point of view as well, relating the notion that reporting from the perspective of right and wrong rather than objectively has the potential for negative effects, such as the possibility of demonizing a larger group of people who are not involved in the crimes being committed (1997a, p. 10).

The Tendency to Report More Sensational Stories

As the saying goes, “if it bleeds, it leads.” A turn through the television news channels will show stories involving death and destruction front and center. The media have long been purveyors of the most frightening, the most horrifying, and the most tragic information available to report. This may be a matter of supply meeting demand, in that the consumers of mass media want to be scared, horrified, or saddened. It may be, however, that there is simply some manner of thrill to be gained by a journalist chasing the next sensational story. Either way, the ideal concept of the objective reporting of conflicts often yields to trumpeting frightening stories in a manner that pulls in viewers, resulting in improving the bottom line.

Meadow (2009) analyzes this tendency toward sensational stories and notes that the violence reported by the mass media tends toward splashy, large-scale hostility, rather than more mundane “unpredictable, invisible, random” (p. 231) violence such as the domestic abuse that may occur in homes daily (p. 231). While his article is a call to action for the media to cover election violence more often and more thoroughly, it is instructive regarding the topic of sensationalist tendencies in mass media. In setting the stage for discussion of election violence media coverage, he examines what the media tend to report: “suffice it to say that the old adage ‘if it bleeds, it leads,’ underscores the premium news media – and especially electronic media – place on vivid violence” (p. 232).

In Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War, and Death, Moeller discusses the media’s thirst for disastrous news at length. What it comes down to, in his estimation, is that the media are catering to their customers: their advertisers and the people they are trying to reach. “The print and broadcast media are part of the entertainment industry” (1999, p.10), and that industry has spent decades honing its ability to “capture and hold the attention of its audience” (p. 10). He describes that the media spend every day angling for attention from the demographic groups that will make their advertisers happiest. Those advertisers need their customers to keep tuning in, and so the media do not only keep disasters in the headlines; they switch to the next one as soon as it appears people are bored with the present one, because “it’s difficult for the media and their audience to sustain concern about individual crises over a period of months” (p. 12).

Girardet (1996) speaks to this issue, too, in discussing the status of humanitarian reporting as of the date of his article. “Attention spans are shorter, and one can only absorb so much” (p. 45). As well, people may not be very well-informed about other places in the world, and so don’t care enough to focus on lengthy coverage. If this is a true phenomenon, it seems to be more pronounced in the United States than elsewhere. According to Girardet, “Although Europeans at the high school and university levels still appear to be relatively well informed about events…it is striking to see how superficial awareness is among Americans of the same age” (p. 48). In describing this issue, he also relates it is the duty of the press to do a better job of informing the public about the world during its coverage of humanitarian crises.

Pauly examines this from the angle of conflict vs. resolution, and asserts that perhaps media, in jumping from crisis to crisis, are merely doing what journalists are made to do. “As storytellers,” he relates, “journalists constantly seek and exploit narrative tension” (2009, p. 8). As the clearest illustration of this concept, Pauly describes the mission statement of the staff of a Virginia newspaper, as written by its staff: “Our responsibility is to identify conflict and air it” (p. 16). As a result of this need, he describes that it may be media simply overlook other types of stories, such as changes in leadership that do not involve revolution, the evolution of social norms that change a country, and similar drastic changes that happen over time. The sensationalism of mass media today may also be the result of journalists defaulting to who they are.

A positive aspect of media’s tendency toward sensational stories is that reporting a tragic story may shine a light on a problem that needs world attention and motivate nations to help. Hammock and Charny (1996) touch on this, describing the cycle of assistance that happens during a humanitarian crisis such as Hurricane Katrina. They describe how media coverage of a humanitarian crisis as a “morality play” (p. 115), particularly that with disturbing images of human suffering, often spur wealthier nations to provide assistance based upon public opinion, often with a military component due to the infrastructure the military has (pp. 115-116). They go further, however, and explain that the initial outpouring of assistance does not typically last. They state that a lack of balanced media coverage after the initial wave of help results in, and they provide a primer for the best way, as they see it, for media to contribute to the sustained assistance of those in need through balanced reporting (pp. 125-128)

The reporting of sensational stories is not always in real time, in spite of the speed of media today. Blackhawk Down, the movie based upon the Mark Bowden book, relates the story of the American mission in Somalia that resulted in the death of more than 1,000 Somalis and nineteen U.S. soldiers (Anderson, 2006, p. 212). While not a traditional reporting medium, the movie tells the story of a real event. Anderson describes that, in the context of the time that it was released, when Americans were initially fighting in Afghanistan, it did report realities of war to its viewers. As an illustration of this, he describes that the depiction of casualties was not shied away from in the film; in contrast, he relates seeing a soldier in Afghanistan turn a reporter with a camera away from a medical evacuation, stating, “there are wounded Americans here” (p. 212). While not its primary purpose, the film may have been a way to indirectly report the war experience to people who would normally get information from the mass media.

In Black Hawk Down, we see not only wounded soldiers, but we hear what they say to each other and their commander (Sam Shepard), who listens at a distance as the mission collapses into chaos. We see the men fatally struck by sniper fire, being blown out of Humvees and crashing down in Black Hawk helicopters. (p. 212)

In the context of the media-government relationship, which will be discussed further, it was clearly an acceptable film from a government standpoint. The film was supplied with military equipment in large quantities, which would not have happened if the government didn’t approve of the film or its portrayal of the mission (p. 213).

The Media and Government in Coverage of Conflict

In order to cover conflict, journalists must interact with government and military entities. Without the cooperation of people in key positions as facilitators and sources, journalists would in many cases simply not get the story. This interaction necessarily affects mass media portrayal of war and conflict, and potentially, public opinion of the event being covered.

Holguin, cited above, also wrote an article titled, “Defining the Partnership with the Media,” (1997b) which discusses the role of media in partnership with military and non-governmental organizations. Holguin describes the general consensus that the media need the military to get the story, and that the media provides usefulness to the military as an asset they may use to get their story out. Holguin also relates discussion among military, NGO and media leaders that describes other ways the parties may exploit the relationship, such as journalists learning battlefield first aid and how to deal with stress related to being near conflict and war.

Anyone who watched coverage of the Gulf War will likely remember Peter Arnett’s, John Holliman’s, and Bernard Shaw’s coverage from Baghdad. That they were able to continue broadcasting after the Baghdad bombing campaign by the U.S. against targets in Baghdad was notable at the time. White (1994) describes the scene and their wonder at being on-air while the bombs were falling, and their exchange shortly thereafter, when they acknowledged that either the Iraqis or the Americans could have stopped their broadcast at any time, and that the implication was that, as Shaw stated, “This government wants word put out” (p. 127). White’s analysis goes on to describe similar reporting from Israel during Gulf War Scud missile attacks on Jerusalem, where the apparent bravery of reporters was used to good effect to get information out when CNN was the only news channel broadcasting during the attacks (p. 135). In both instances, it appears the military and the journalists used their relationships to further their own aims.

Knightley covers similar ground in his 1996 piece, “Truth, the First Victim of War.” He describes that the media and the military are at cross purposes: “that of the military whose principal aim is to win the war, and that of the media whose principal aim is to tell the public what is happening at the front” (p. 8). The “whole history of news management in wartime (p. 9) as he tells it is that of the military winning over the media in one way or another, or if that does not work, at least use them to spread disinformation. He gives examples going back as far as the Crimean War of the military/media dichotomy, and the military’s penchant for getting its own information out. He further relates that the one time they did not actively censor the media in modern times – America in the Vietnam War – journalists reported what they saw and thought, resulting in the war becoming massively unpopular and eventually America’s pulling out of Vietnam completely. Knightley seems to explain that the media can, in fact, affect conflicts and wars. This will be discussed further in reviews of other literature. Knightley also references the question of objectivity reviewed above. He gives an account of reporters embedded with British soldiers en route to the Falkland Islands, a trip that took six weeks (p. 14). He reports their account of becoming “trooper groupies” (p. 15), who were biased in favor of the soldiers they had gotten to know by eating, sleeping and working in close proximity (p. 15). Moving forward in time, Knightley describes the military’s relationship with CNN during the Gulf War. “I doubt if the Pentagon lost any sleep over CNN. The American military realized that CNN too is at the mercy of the commander at the front. It is his war, and if he does not want you to watch it, he simply denies you access (p. 21). Knightley characterizes that the military outwitted and controlled the media at every turn. He concludes with the thesis that we must accept that in our country, the media will be largely managed by the military in times of war, simply due to their holding all the cards.

Arnett (1992) relates being used to get the Iraqi message out while in Baghdad during the Gulf War. He describes (with a certain amount of back-patting) being the only Western correspondent left in Iraq, and how he maintained his credibility in order to stay. It is illustrative of a method of managing the media-government relationship. Arnett states he had a prepared statement which he reported live from Baghdad daily, which had been screened by his Iraqi handlers (p. 310). After his prepared statement, he relates, he had a Q and A session with the anchor for that day in Atlanta, which made his Iraqi monitors understandably nervous as they could not control what was said (p. 310). His way of ensuring he continued to have access, an excellent view into the media-government relationship, was to avoid discussing matters of military security, such as the Scud missiles he had seen moving to a new position, anti-aircraft guns on his hotel, or details about military targets (p. 310). The method was apparently successful, as he eventually interviewed Sadaam Hussein. This is not to say he was trusted: the military and the media are not so comfortable as that. He describes the elaborate screening process he had to go through in order to meet with the President of Iraq during a war.

Five burly young men in suits escorted me to a room on the second floor, asked me to undress completely, and began checking every pocket and seam of my clothing. My [belongings] were put into a plastic bag and taken away. […] I was taken to the bathroom and my hands were submerged in a disinfectant carried by one of the group (p. 311).

He goes on to describe the interview with Sadaam, the product of his management of the media-government relationship in this particular instance. This implied coziness of CNN’s with the military and the government has not gone unnoticed in the literature. Winseck (1992) questions whether CNN is the official propaganda media arm of the U.S. Government (p. 65), and describes how CNN was given favorable access to the press pool during the Gulf War (p. 66), and then was “conspicuously absent” (p. 67) when a lawsuit by major news organizations was filed on First Amendment grounds. Winseck’s conclusion is that CNN presented the Gulf War and related events in “patriotic, non-critical terms” (p. 71) as a result of favored treatment by the military. It is an example of a different kind of relationship between media and the military or government than some of the other literature describes.

In contrast to Arnett’s success, Hess and Kalb (2003) describe frustrations other reporters had, this time in covering the war in Afghanistan. Kalb conducted Q and A with Carol Morello, a reporter with the Washington Post, who related her experience. “Any time news came within an inch of breaking out, we were told we could not report it” (p. 167). On a particular night, she relates to Kalb, she and other reporters were informed casualties would be coming into the base from which she was reporting.

Everybody hops up, and another Public Affairs officer goes to a computer he has set up, his laptop, and calls up a press release that has been written 7,000 miles away in Tampa, Florida. The casualties are being brought into a tent that is literally 100 feet away from us, behind us. They are being brought in as we speak. And he’s reading the press release written 7,000 miles away saying that this was a friendly-fire incident, that it involved a B-52 Bomber. (p. 167)

She describes how requests to speak with medics, injured Afghans, etc., were denied, and they were escorted away half an hour later (p. 168). “It’s a very difficult war to cover, at least covering the military. That’s what I remember” (p. 168). Although Kalb asserts, “The Pentagon’s Public Affairs officers understood the importance of ‘feeding the beast’––providing the media with access to troops and the action without jeopardizing lives or military missions” (p. 164), it is apparent that there is a dichotomy between the media and government entities that must be managed for each to use the other successfully.

What can happen when media are not merely cooperative with, but controlled by the government, is that they may be used as an arm of the government and used to foment hatred and stir up a call for war or even genocide.

Hudson and Stanier (1997) describe how this happened when Slobodan Milosevic, the leader of Serbia, seized control of all media in the country, and used them in a “campaign of spreading ethnic hatred” (p. 265). Over time, they relate, he ratcheted up ethnic tension in neighboring Kosovo by broadcasting inaccurate facts about the plight of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo, and their alleged persecution by Albanians, rallying Serbs against a manufactured common enemy, the Albanians (p. 266). Once Kosovo fell, he seized control of its media, and turned his eye toward Slovenia (p. 266). Instead of ethnic tension (there were few Serbs in Slovenia) (p. 267), he pitted Serbs against Slovenes by blaming them for effectively stealing Serbia’s wealth for their gain (p. 267). All of this was done through use of state-controlled media, which was arguably the strongest weapon Milosevic had at his disposal.

In describing a related but different use of media in the region, Malley (2009) give a firsthand account of his experience in Belgrade in 2004. He describes an incident of possible ethnic violence, in which three Albanian children drowned in Kosovo, perhaps after being chased into the water by Serbs. Later, a Serb teen was shot by an Albanian, possibly in retaliation (p. 244). Malley describes that he had access to both sides of the story, as he had outside media access, and that all of the local media in Serbia presented the situation from a clearly Serbian perspective (p. 244). He states that weeks of serious violence between Serbs and Albanians followed the incident, exacerbated by media depictions (p. 244), demonstrating the media’s effect on conflict even on a smaller scale. It may be inferred (or not) that the sensitivity of people in the region to suggestion by media is still heightened after Milosevic’s use of media to further his cause.

In describing a use of state-controlled media to motivate its citizens to violence in a manner similar to that described by Armoudian analyzes the use of media to generate ethnic violence against Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda in 1994 and communicates the immense power of mass media.

In one hand, they held their weapon of choice – a machete, club, or a hatchet – in the other, a radio, most often tuned to Radio-Television Libre des Milles Collines (RLTM), the privately run station that aired hip, popular music; vital political information; lively on-air hosts; and messages of mass murder (p. 41).

Armoudian goes on to describe that the station was actually controlled by the Hutu Akazu faction of the government (p. 41), and, in a similar manner to what Hudson and Stanier describe in Serbia, was designed to draw listeners in so that they could be subjected to and affected by “an intense campaign designed to evoke…dedication for a murderous cause and to convert the annihilation of others into a noble act” (p. 41). Through this and other media outlets, the Hutu-led government caused Hutus to very swiftly begin a campaign of systematic violence, during which more than 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis, were killed in a span of barely three months (p. 51).

Media’s Effect on War and Conflict

There are many indications in the literature that the media – even when not state-controlled – may affect conflict by extending it, shortening it, or perhaps in qualitative ways, such as keeping people involved in conflict from committing crimes for fear of their being reported in the media.

Sommelius (1996) uses the Balkans as an example of international media having a negative effect on a war, going so far as to state they “influenced the opinions and power holders in the West in a destructive way” (p. 74). He describes a number of instances of incorrect reporting that gave the complete opposite impression than what the actual events might have. He describes a number of instances where “Muslim” prisoners or sniper victims were shown to television viewers in the West and reported sympathetically in the press, demonizing the opponent Serbs, when in fact the people described were Serbs (p. 83). Sommelius also lays blame for the start of the war in the Balkans at the feet of the media, stating, “without the media war, the war itself could never have broken out” (p. 86).

In a similar way, Banks and Murray (1999) report terms the media defined that became part of the lexicon, similar to what has been explored above, contributed to public opinion. They relate that the term “ethnic cleansing” came to be commonly used in the media to describe a purported campaign by Serbia to “create ‘ethnically pure’ pockets of land in those areas of Bosnia-Heregovina they claimed as Serbian” (p. 152). What made the term so impactful in this instance was that media, in this instance British, assigned a similar weight to the actions in Bosnia as those of Nazi Germany in committing genocide against Jews while coining the term (p. 152). This assured, purposely or not, that the Serbs would be viewed in a uniformly negative light (p. 152) across the world. They conclude their analysis by opining that this media-assigned description “fueled the war” and “obstruct[ed] the peace” (p. 159).

Galtung (1993) referred to the media’s negative influence in the Balkans even as it was happening. In his Preface to Communication and Culture in War and Peace, he describes the media’s reporting of mostly negative stories about the political situation in the region. He relates that at the time of the writing, international media were giving “the many democratic anti-war movements in different regions of former Yugoslavia” (xi) little or no attention. “Not only do the media have this perverse fascination with war and violence; they also neglect the peace forces at work. […] How about some fascination with peace” (p. xi)? He states the reason for this is that the people in the media are poorly trained, and look toward power for their stories, rather than toward the work of regular people who aren’t in wars (p. xi).

Curtis (2000) discusses how the opposite can happen – how media can contribute to peace. He describes efforts after the conflicts in Rwanda and Bosnia to rebuild the peace, and how donors who came to assist set up media outlets to spread messages related to peace rather than war. He describes their success in assisting in the rebuilding effort, which is so positive that he advises media in such a situation to be careful not to be too successful, lest they attract negative attention from the government: “Donors must be aware that ‘peace’ broadcasting may threaten and antagonize certain local authorities” (p. 162). After his review of Rwanda and Bosnia, he concludes “the basic claim that local media can contribute to peacebuilding appears sound” (p. 162).

Laplant and Phenicie (2009) give several examples of post-conflict influences by the media, the most striking of which may be the description of the role played by the media in Sri Lanka before and after the conflict between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers ended. The authors relate that the state-controlled media and the Tamil media reported very differently. Tamil media tended to use more sources and to report civilian deaths and casualties factually (pp. 257-258). In contrast, the government-controlled media used fewer sources and “only included information approved by authorities (p. 258), resulting in a narrower view of the war for its consumers of content. The implication is a freer press may give people a truer picture of what is happening during a conflict.

Reuben gives another example of a positive effect the media may have had, except in a conflict environment rather than post-conflict, as Curtis described. During the conflict in Northern Ireland, Reuben relates that the media “played a constructive role by facilitating communications between the parties in a number of ways. It provided a medium through which Sinn Fein and unionist negotiators signaled each other on issues in contention” (2009, p. 59). He further relates that as the Good Friday Agreement got closer to being executed, media kept positive pressure on those responsible for negotiating the agreement, and “evoking a public spirit that the long-running conflict would finally resolve” (p. 59). Reuben’s piece is balanced and includes discussion of the negative influences the media have as well, but the credit given the media for the positive result in Northern Ireland is significant.

Should the media routinely have a role in conflict resolution? Gilboa (2009) studied media’s effect on conflict resolution and found “a paucity of research and analysis” (p. 88). He does, however, visit the Bosnian conflict, and describes again the media’s taking of sides for the Muslim population against the Serbs (p. 100) as an example of what not to do. He describes the overall status of media in today’s world relative to conflicts and decides there is much still to be decided on the media’s role and best practices in a war. He concludes, “The media can both help and hinder conflict resolution, and it is important to uncover the conditions determining the outcome. If these conditions are exposed, it would be easier to maximize the media’s positive contributions and minimize negative contributions (p. 100).


The mass media are more powerful than ever. A day’s news on CNN may eclipse what a person two generations ago may have been able to see or hear in a year or more. In the case of wars and conflicts today, the media are going to be there as ever, reporting where the action is. This may be the place where the journalist feels he may get the best story, but more often, it is where the sexiest splash of tragedy or conflict can be seen and used to draw in viewers.

Consumers of media are more plentiful, as well, and they may have events happening across the world, or even in outer space, transmitted directly to them on their living room couch, as mentioned before, or to their mobile device while they wait for a bus. As a result, the potential exists for media to change the opinion of the people in their living rooms or waiting for buses so significantly that their collective opinions affect lawmakers’ decisions.

A review of available literature on the subject seems to show that the media absolutely can affect the action. The authors cited in this study demonstrate that there are many nuances and issues that contribute to the effects of media on conflict. By examining the media’s defining of certain terms or labels in their coverage of conflict, non-objectivity in reporting, the tendency toward sensationalism and the relationship between media and government or military entities, it is possible to get a clearer picture of what the media’s influence may be.


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