Martin Bell, former BBC war correspondent, has argued for what he refers to as a “Journalism of Attachment” in the reporting of conflict. What do you think he means by this, and does it contradict the traditional calls for objectivity and neutrality in reporting war? With reference to recent or historical examples of war reporting, discuss the ethical implications of a Journalism of Attachment.
The concept behind the term ‘Journalism of Attachment’ refers to a philosophy of journalists being empowered with their own freedom of expression and choice. Martin Bell argues that journalists are not robotic and that, as human beings, they cannot be consistently dispassionate to scenes of anguish and suffering. The philosophy encourages journalists to embrace their emotional attachment to what they witness and that even trying to uphold one of the most fundamental ethical constructs motioned for journalists, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) second journalist’s fundamental, “A journalist, at all times, strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair,” is irrelevant when it comes to reporting some conflict situations.
There are strong arguments for and against Bell’s idea. He is entirely within reason to comment that journalists are ‘only human’ and that as human beings we are naturally aligned to side with those who are oppressed and those who are suffering. We have an instinct that looks for someone to blame whenever anything goes wrong, and so we are genetically predisposed to want to paint conflict in black and white. Bell strives for ‘journalism that cares was well as knows’ , stressing that from his experiences in Bosnia, journalists were ‘no longer spectators, but participants’. As members of society, Bell urges journalists to uphold a sense of responsibility to abhors oppression and defend a ‘just cause.’
“If journalists spread the same antagonistic, reduced and distorted images of a conflict as do political and military elites (see Herman & Chomsky, 1988), this is not a clue to a conspiracy between policymakers and the media but rather results from the mere fact that journalists are society members themselves.”
The problem stands when, in a media savvy society, we understand that conflict situations are complicated, and that we expect a metaphoric grey cloud to mask the truth of events that happen within the situation. We trust that (at least within an ideal public sphere) journalists will work hard to verify their sources and report a balanced and fair representation of any specific event, although, in practice this is not always the case. This would be particularly destructive if all journalists were to embrace the concept of Journalism of Attachment. One of the main issues is that journalists who practice Journalism of Attachment are in danger or presenting a view that people will interpret their work as a version of truth, despite the fact that their story is bias. Chris Stevens adequately summarised;
“If the reader is left confused, so be it – better to be confused about a war that is, after all, deeply confusing, than be fed an opinion.”
This fully denies the construction for Journalism of Attachment. Feeding an audience an opinion plays on the conditions of Nick Davis’s – Flat Earth News . Not only that, it suggests that journalists who follow Bell’s impression may slip into reporting not only bias news, but propaganda.
Mick Hume wrote a direct and aggressive response to the notions of Journalism of Attachment. In his short book called ‘Who’s War is it Anyway?’ Hume argues that Bell’s concept is subject to the biases that journalists strive to be without. Hume even goes as far to describe the Journalism of Attachment theory as a ‘cancer’ in the public sphere;
“…time that taboo was broken and the unspoken issue of fashionable bias in war reporting was openly debated. Then it might be possible to set about cutting the cancer out.”
Hume goes on to argue that this conduct of ‘fashionable’ journalism is where ‘taking sides is taking liberties’. Clearly, Hume’s compendium is in no way an ‘open debate’ when it carries sentiments that describe his opposition as a cancer, however, his book does convey some fundamental flaws in Bell’s construction.
One of the most alarming attributes that Journalism of Attachment insinuates is not perhaps the most obvious. There is a danger that a journalist who interprets a situation and offers a skewed view of events by offering his or her opinion could in fact impose that opinion to the reader. This is in effect, a form of propaganda. Tim Allen states, on the subject,
“It seems likely it has important influence on the fighting itself. This is particularly so where coverage makes no effort to look beyond the public ideologies of combatants or highlights what appear to be exotic aspects of a conflict.”
If events are hidden within the smokescreen of ‘the theatre of war’, then it leaves room for atrocities and politically ‘embarrassing’ incidents to go unreported if reporters are content to write about their feelings and instincts, rather than the actually eventualities. If the reader happens to be a governing body, then a populace may call for action on a subject that has had little research other than a writer’s opinion. When Mick Hume writes about ‘who benefits’ from Journalism of Attachment, he says that,
“It is ultimately a moral crusade for Western governments, through the United Nations and Nato, to take forceful action against those accused of genocide and war crimes around the world.”
This could perhaps be applied to a more contemporary situation like the war in Iraq. Media publications, including the BBC, wasted no time in stamping the label of ‘genocide’ when it came to Saddam Hussein’s weapons testing on the Kurdish population in Iran. Even recently, an article from the BBC headlines with the term genocide, as an attempt to grab attention with “UN report says DR Congo killings ‘may be genocide’. Another example could even be in Bosnia. Media reports suggest that as many as 250,000 people were killed in the country. There were plenty of accounts where the term ‘genocide’ cropped up in descriptions of the conflict there, however, the Stockholm International Peace Institute said that the Bosnian death toll was closer to 30,000 or 50,000 on both sides . Mick Hume talks about this in his section called ‘A Twisted Sort of Therapy.’
It might be an exaggeration to denote the concept of Journalism of Attachment as a form of distraction for contemporary writers to offload their dissatisfaction with our own societies but Hume suggests that our own hermeneutic horizons are too convoluted and complex to divide into right and wrong. People choose to label good and evil in foreign cultures so as to escape pointing fingers closer to home. It is perhaps more prudent when Hume criticises journalists for searching for a sense of trend worthy stories, of which their purposes are not to highlight an events but to idolise the reporters. He states that,
“If the journalist is to be taken seriously as a crusader for the cause of Right, she (or he) cannot be seen messing around in dirty little local wars that don’t matter much to the rest of us. Every conflict she is reporting has to be recast as one of world-historic importance…”
There is not so much of an argument to put this down to Bell’s concept of Journalism of Attachment. Many journalists will try to persue stories that will land them in good stead with their editors, as an ambitious drive. This is not something that all journalists are immune to, whether they are for or against Journalism of Attachment. It does cause concern that Journalism of Attachment might encourage ‘bad habits’ in terms of journalistic practice. This goes back to the concept that if journalists are looking for stories solely to grab the attention of viewers, and that the content that they supply is bias, then that surely constitutes to propaganda, and will act to fuel and continue war efforts, rather than to pacify. Even more debate would arise over whether or not it is a journalist’s duty to be a peace maker, however, Journalism of Attachment certainly insinuates a level of warmongering, since conflict can idolise a journalists and their efforts. Good stories from a wartime situation will most certainly launch a journalist’s career to new heights.
Martin Bell promotes the cause of ‘the human element.’ He urges that journalists should in all accounts, strive to find those who suffer and those who are helpless in conflict situations, to report their anguish, so that their suffering might not be in vain as viewers sat comfortably at home might feel compelled to help. This in theory could be highly positive and productive. He suggests that when editorial decisions are being made about what content is to be shown, then that is, even at a basic level, a level of bias. In order to harness the loophole, he adds that the notion that it should be harnessed and so, the since the human element sells well in the first place, it should be prioritised. However, Hume argues that focusing on the human element deletes the complexity of a situation and dramatises war;
“Instant reports from amid the rubble that focus only the blood and tears will always tend to make warfare look like the apparently mindless act of evil men.”
Wars are products and eventualities of political and social unrest that have reached melting point where they are then converted from hostile sentiments to hostile manoeuvres. These would be the only elements that would be reported if Journalism of Attachment were in effect. Not only that, it could be argued that these reports would be damaging in the long term, with regard to Western societies current media consumption. Desensitisation in the media already deems many stories dull and obsolete as we see elements of human suffering every day. This relates to the point of ‘Crusader’ journalists, who are search for stories to make their names, rather than highlight important issues, since the issues are become less and less important to a growingly ‘immune’ public audience. Adam Curtis summarised this with a short film called ‘Oh Dearism’, which compares the notion of a desensitised culture to a ‘depressed hippy.’
Bell seemed to reach a point in his career where his Journalism of Attachment epiphany occurred almost simultaneously to his injury in Bosnia. Robert Fisk is a reporter of a similar accolade to Martin Bell. Fisk also suffered in a conflict situation, perhaps more severely than shrapnel to the stomach, however, Fisk was adamant that his own experiences should not change his opinion on the topic he was reporting;
“Why record my few minutes of terror and self-disgust near the Afghan border, bleeding and crying like an animal, when thousands of innocent civilians were dying under American air strikes in Afghanistan, when the War for Civilisation was burning and maiming the people of Kandahar and other cities because ‘good’ must triumph over ‘evil?”
Fisk has inadvertently touched upon perhaps the most important issue. A war will still continue, despite people’s opinion of it. Whether or not someone is pro Journalism of Attachment is irrelevant. Philip Knightly states that it does not matter if you are for or against Bell’s concept, he dismally depicts that there is no use trying to report as an independent journalist in an increasingly dangerous theatre of war and that Western military powers are currently too clever and manipulative to undermine and report;
“Fear for the lives of correspondents who want to be independent will deter their organisations from allowing them to be so. As well, insurers will either refuse to underwrite the risk to correspondents’ lives or demand prohibitively high premiums.”
He continues to criticise The Pentagon since he feels that it does not ‘care’ about public concern. Knightly paints a dark picture that the only way for future journalists to be able to report safely from a conflict situation is by being embedded, and that way, having to see a conflict from one side. In this effect, Martin Bell’s theory seems to already have been accepted as a norm and according to Knightly, it may have to be embraced. He concludes;
“Whether war correspondents would wish to continue as propagandists and myth-makers, plying their craft subservient to those who wage wars, is a decision they will need to make for themselves.”
Knightly is denying Herman and Chomsky’s theory that journalists will infringe their opinion because they want to. Knightly stresses that journalists report one-sided accounts because they have to.
If the future for war reporting is only to become an embedded journalist with the an army, then that would spell defeat for the freedom of information and even freedom of expression. It would mean than countless people would have their stories and lives lost in an opaque ‘grey area’, otherwise known as the theatre of war. It has perhaps already happened. War reports have become entirely sanitised as we see images of high tech weaponry like missiles being fired from a battleship in a market in Iraq. Viewers are never shown the images of the missiles in the market, but we can only speculate. The problem arrises when, if we relate back to the idea of bias reporting acting as propaganda, and propaganda fuelling conflicts, then are we to expect an era of conflicts that never end? Perhaps the reverse will happen and the conflicts will be reported as military powers want us to see them, as short, lossless, and glorious pursuits.
Herman & Chomsky, 1988
Ethan Bronner, A. Forign Correspondent Who Does More Than Report. New York Times, Nov 19th 2005.
Chris Steven, covering the Macedonia conflict. The Scotsman, 2001
Nick Davis, Flat Earth News, Chatto and Windus, 2008.
Jake Lynch, Reporting The World. Conflict and Peace Forums, 2002.
Martin Bell, In Harm’s Way; Reflections of a War-Zone Thug, 1996.
Wilhelm Kempf, Conflict Coverage and Conflict Escalation. Goteborg Nordicom, 2002
Mick Hume, Whose War is it Anyway? Informinc, 1997
Philip Knightly, The First Casualty. The John Hopkins University Press, 2002.