The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been a major focus of US news outlets’ foreign correspondence over the past several months. Starting with the involvement of ISIL’s forays into Syria, and reaching a fever pitch after western journalists like James Foley and Stephen Sotloff were beheaded on video, the militant organization has driven much of the media’s discussion about geopolitical conflict at the present moment. ISIL’s antics have certainly inspired news organizations’ renewed interest in the Syrian civil war. They have also illuminated the unfortunate fact that after a brief reprieve from fighting in Iraq, US forces are once again embroiled in the region. And though war correspondents have never been entirely absent from Iraq or from Syria over the past few years, they’re back at work in much greater numbers, reporting from some of the world’s most perilous locations.
War correspondence is a profession that deserves further attention from journalism ethicists, especially since digital media technologies and practices have lent more transnational visibility to war coverage than ever before. Communications scholar Stephen J. A. Ward has argued that the news media are now global in reach, because they have the capability of gathering and distributing information with unprecedented speed. According to Ward, this global reach “entails global responsibilities,” necessitating that foreign correspondents think outside the confines of their own nation-states. Rather than gearing their reports toward a national audience, Ward encourages journalists to think about the increasingly vast and diverse nature of the readers and viewers connected through digital technologies.
Communications scholar Herman Wasserman has also shown an interest in the growing interconnections—and yet, the continued disconnections—that define social and political life in the 21st century. He says: “Journalism in this era should constantly confront us with other views, other perspectives, other ways of making sense of the complex and changing world we live in.” Wasserman suggests that journalists should infuse “the recognition of difference” into their professional practice. Rather than attempting to dilute or ignore the cultural disparities that continue to exist in our tightly interconnected world, journalists should try to understand these differences. They should also help their audiences to understand.
This is especially the case with war journalism. Since war is essentially the ground zero of socio-political disconnection—the worst possible outcome of cultural disagreement, competition, or misrecognition—it is vital that conflict reporters treat social and cultural difference with the utmost care. Despite the difficulties in maintaining objectivity in the conflict zone, war journalists should still strive to put nationalism aside, instead seeking to understand all of the diverse elements that have engendered the conflict they are covering. The failure to do so could perpetuate the conflict itself, as well as laying the groundwork for future conflicts born of radical misunderstandings and misrepresentations of different cultures. This danger becomes all the more potent in the context of digitization, where such misrepresentations gain traction far more quickly than they once did.
US news outlets’ coverage of the rise of ISIL points to a number of relevant examples of the dangers involved in eschewing the ethical “recognition of difference” in war correspondence. One such example can be found in the news organizations’ tendency to focus on the plight of war journalists themselves. The strategy of turning the war journalist into the story is one that has been the subject of much debate in news industry circles. When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in 2002, for example, US news organizations flooded the mediascape with images of him in captivity, perpetually defending this choice by claiming that news audiences deserved to know what journalists and troops were up against in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Yet, this focus on Pearl’s situation did not ultimately save him, leading the New York Times to instate a media blackout when its correspondent David Rohde was kidnapped in 2008. Rohde later escaped.
In August and September of 2014, war journalists again became the story after news organizations reported that ISIL had beheaded US freelance reporters James Foley and Stephen Sotloff. The announcement of this tragic news resulted in an explosion of discourse about the safety of American journalists in Syria and the cruelty of militant groups in Syria and Iraq. This intense discussion was not entirely surprising; Foley and Sotloff had both ventured into one of the most dangerous warzones in the world, risking their lives in order to better inform news audiences about what was happening in Syria. They deserved better treatment than what they received, and they certainly deserved to be eulogized.
The problem arises, not in the discourse on Sotloff and Foley, but in the lack of similarly detailed attention to the plight of other journalists in Iraq and Syria, most especially those working for news organizations in the Middle East. This is a problem that has particularity plagued US television coverage since 9/11/ TV news networks have often fixated upon the suffering of American correspondents while only very rarely mentioning the fact that local journalists suffer the most in war zones. The website for the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that of the 10 journalists killed in Syria so far this year alone, 7 were from the Arab world, working for news organizations based in the Middle East. The CPJ website on journalist deaths in Iraq shows that five journalists have been killed there in 2014—one from Turkey and the rest working for Iraqi news outlets. In past years, the list is even longer.
Some might argue that it’s only natural for US organizations to focus on US journalists in the warzone, since American news audiences are bound to be more interested in the challenges faced by their own reporters. But that attitude situates journalism firmly within the purview of the nation-state, while also raising questions about objectivity and balance in war coverage. We live at a time when the beleaguered body of the war correspondent is routinely offered up as evidence of the world’s various war crimes. At times, news organizations will even go so far as to present their correspondents’ harrowing incidents as events that should inspire certain political stances. This especially occurs when organizations give most or all of their attention to the experiences of their own journalists, without further investigating the experiences that others face.
Yes, American journalists are being targeted in the field. Yes, the US has lost a number of amazing reporters since 9/11. And yes, it does make sense that those journalists’ experiences should be shared with news audiences, with the viewers and readers who need to know how difficult it is to give them the information they require. But so many other journalists have died since 9/11. If US news organizations are indeed dedicated to giving their increasingly transnational news audiences the entire story, then don’t these other deaths matter just as much?
In an era where journalists inevitably become a part of the story—targeted, kidnapped and killed by the groups on whom they are reporting—it is essential that news organizations strive to tell that story in its entirety. This involves a conscious engagement in the ethical “recognition of difference” and a dedication to providing audiences with “other views, other perspectives, other ways of making sense of the complex and changing world we live in,” to use Wasserman’s words. Yes, tell the story of Stephen Sotloff’s murder in Syria; but also tell the story of Mohammed al-Qasim, a correspondent for Syria’s Rozana Radio. He was killed only days after Sotloff, and his death raises a unique set of questions about Syria’s ongoing conflict. What stake do Syrian journalists have in covering the war, for example, and why are they being targeted? What stories can they tell about this struggle, and what perspectives can they add to those with which US readers and viewers are already familiar?
These are important questions, and not just for the people living in Iraq or Syria. US news audiences are now linked to other readers and viewers around the world, and the conflicts in distant places are not so very distant anymore. Because of this, it is crucial that journalists strive to achieve the “ethical recognition of difference”—even in the stories they tell about themselves.
Lindsay Palmer is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a faculty associate of the Center for Journalism Ethics.[photos used via Wikimedia Creative Commons license]