Representation of War in the Media


There's a specialist from your university waiting to help you with that essay.
Tell us what you need to have done now!

order now

“War is fought with the will of the government, competence of the armed forces and the support of the nation”

Carl Von Clausewitz

There is no doubt that the global reach and immediacy of the new media communications technologies and the ability to shape both national and international public opinion has made media a major player in limited conflicts. Such developments could be expected to significantly impact the way conflict is reported and debated by international community. Given the rapid progress and far reaching advances in communications over recent years, correct engagement with the media acts as a force multiplier for the commander on ground to achieve a more comprehensive success. On the other hand, the incorrect media engagement leads to loss of operational security and makes the task of the military commander much more difficult.

The media representation of wars has significantly changed over last years. Previously being just an instrument of coverage and propaganda, now media are considered a competent weapon. The war of real objects is partially being replaced by the war of pictures and sounds, information war[1]. Now we shall examine few significant national and international conflicts, where the media extensively covered these operations by the Armed Forces. Some were a success story while others left much to be desired form the way the Armed Forces engage the media.

The Gulf War

Control of the media during the Gulf war followed the pattern that was established in the Falklands and refined in Grenada and Panama[2]. The pattern included secrecy in planning, demonisation of the enemy, exploitation of the media to enlist national and international support, and the exclusion of the media during the initial phases of the operation[3]. The resultant news vacuum was filled by official coverage favourable to the military. Later criticisms were stonewalled.

In the Gulf, the media were excluded from the planning stages of the initial deployment and the deliberations leading to the change of war aims from that of the defence of Saudi Arabia to offensive action in Kuwait. The demonisation of Saddam Hussein was used to rally national as well as international support and the media was immediately co-opted into these tasks[4]. The Gulf also demonstrated the familiar pattern of exclusion of the media from the early action, when both the military and the administration were most vulnerable[5].

Before the commencement of the hostilities, USA set up the Joint Information Bureau to handle the media from a base in Dhahran. Journalists were formed into pools or Media Reporting Teams (MRTs).Guidelines were instituted, concurrent with the arrival of the first pool of reporters[6]. Subsequent guidelines gave detailed instructions how the information could be gathered. All interviews could be conducted only in the presence of a military escort, all reports, photos and videos had to be cleared by a security review system before transmission.

Beyond these measures, however, the Gulf campaign lent itself to complete media management through absolute control over the means of communication, transport and access. So powerful was this weaponry that there was no need for actual censorship[7]. Censorship was achieved primarily through denial of access and delay in transmission, backed a blanket decision not to allow media access to any event that was a strictly controlled. This was offset by a flow of favourable military sourced information to fill the vacuum created by media restriction. Material ranged from information provided at carefully controlled briefings which bypassed journalists on the spot. The combination of credibility afforded by the briefings and novelty of the new weaponry was enough to satisfy audiences[8].

The realities of war and any real analysis were foregone in favour of a politically acceptable, sanitised war which showed nothing but success. It was evident too that the military used the media not only to present its own policies in the best possible light, but to deceive and misinform the Iraqis.

Both the administration and the military clearly benefited from this control. CNN’s coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, when it became the world’s only instant chronicler of a major conflict, seemed only to confirm the formidable role played by Western news agencies in covering and framing international events. The impact of this kind of media coverage has been dubbed “the CNN effect,” referring to the widely available round-the-clock broadcasts of the Cable News Network[9]. Indeed, by the mid 1990s, some scholars and certain policymakers had come to the conclusion that CNN in particular was having a measurable impact on the way governments conduct world politics.

This proactive engagement of media by the Pentagon ensured that the military remains immune from scrutiny but also garners the voter benefits for the politicians. The only caution is that this form of media containment or partial exclusion can only work for a limited period. If, as in Vietnam; and as may well have happened in the Gulf, such a limited conflict becomes protracted and involves high levels of casualties, then the ascendancy of the military may be challenged and broken as the global media brings to bear the full weight of its capacity for independent news gathering and communications.

The 1991 Gulf war was the first televised war of the century wherein pictures of the night sky lit up with firing of weapons. Operation Desert Storm was the most widely and most swiftly reported war in history. In addition to being called the first “CNN War” this war also marked a turning point for the American’s view of that relationship. US demonstrated will and military potential to influence developing world in consonance of her policies.[10] The world saw the live footage of the 1991 Gulf war. CNN activities during the war were a classic example of the role that civil broadcasts and journalists can play in any future war. Media can be allowed selective access with a view to influencing the international opinion. The media enjoys the support of high technology equipment and access to credible media outlets. The CNN broadcasts provided useful inputs to put into operation diplomatic damage limitation operations to counter the fallout of adverse reports. The example at hand is the demonstration of her will and the military potential by the USA in influencing the world opinion, including engaging the media[11].

The first Iraqi war was totally covered by the media and the general opinion was that the media was focussing all their attention on the wars victory and retreating troops. Very few journalists looked after the Arabian people; in fact the Iraqi refugee problem was simply overlooked. In general, the media was very supportive of the American troops in the Persian Gulf. Though the reporting was positive, the coverage did not tell the absolute truth on the battle field. Journalists were more or less welcomed by the battalion commanders. The army was silent to “embedding” the media, while the Marine Corps was proactive and welcomed media attention. Public satisfaction with press coverage can be largely attributed to the increasing media savvy of the military leadership, who were able to successfully use news coverage to enhance the military’s image and win public support for its operations. General Schwarzkopf was a master at these press briefings. He analyzed the importance of the briefings and prepared himself mentally. He decided not to repeat the mistake made in Grenada, where the relations between media and the military had been eroded to an appalling state[12].

Kargil – A Water Shed for Indian Media

The Kargil conflict was India’s first real war of the information age and it was significant for the impact and the influence of the mass media on the public opinion of both the nation states[13]. During this operation, both the military and the media were interacting for the very first time in the backdrop of the technological advances made in the last two – three decades or so. The Kargil news stories and war footage were often telecast live on the TV, while many websites provided in-depth analysis of the war. This conflict became the first live war in South Asia[14]. The Indian Army tried to implement the “pool” methodology of the Gulf war after consulting some reputed and esteemed media persons. There were daily briefings in Delhi through the operational staff and journalists were allowed to enter the war zone[15]. The site tours were discontinued after some time and media persons got total freedom to move around on their own except where their lives could be in danger. But unlike the Gulf war, there was to be no censoring of media reports and there was to be no deviation from the truth[16]. The military and the media did not indulge in any deliberate disinformation drive. But they effectively exposed Pakistan’s lies and disinformation tactics.

The media for once highlighted defence requirements of weaponry and ammunition which otherwise do not get any significance for reporting in the normal sequence of events.[17]. The ‘Kargil War’, also brought into focus the significance of both the print and the electronic media[18]. The nation made a very clever use of the Internet and dedicated an exclusive Website to show case the heroics of the Indian Army. Trained PR officers manned chat sites on the web to establish a real time inter face with the youths of the country for possibly the very first time.

Television was able to invade the living rooms of the people to shape public opinion. The war received a human face because of the wide scale coverage of the war by the news channels like Aaj Tak, Zee News and NDTV Network. The media both Indian and overseas was predominantly compassionate to the Indian cause, with editorials in newspapers based in the west and other neutral countries observing that our western adversary was in principal answerable for the conflict[19]. Some analysts believe that Indian media, which was both larger in number and more credible, may have acted as a force multiplier for the Indian military operation in Kargil[20] and served as a morale booster. As the fighting intensified, the Pakistani version of events found little backing on the world stage. This helped India gain valuable diplomatic recognition for its position.

Media reportage on Kargil converged around a single dramatic image of a nation at war. In the initial phase, news coverage was restrained on the logic of operational security. The Army permitted first media coverage on 15 May 1999. In Jun 1999, travel permits of press personnel were cancelled again quoting compromise of security. The failure of understanding was due to incorrect handling of media by army as well as character and content of reportage. There was a tendency to trivialise and sensationalise news by many sections of media. The semantics of reportage of certain events like return of six tortured bodies, led to a proliferation of exaggerated stories.

However, media did not act as the force multiplier throughout. At crucial junctures, the over ecstatic media reported the crucial attack plans of the Indian army on the news in advance. This gave the all important operational intelligence to the adversary. The glaring example of this was the attack on Tiger Hill, where in after capture of Tiger Hill, the captured Pakistani troops revealed that they received the inputs about the Indian Army’s plans through the news channels. Also the telecast at times showed the location of the artillery gun bases, deployment areas and the logistic installations which was then suitably interpreted by the enemy to bring out effective fire on these locations.

Mumbai Terrorist Attacks of 26/11

Media’s reporting of terrorist activities is fast becoming critical in today’s scenario when no country is left untouched by terrorism. War on terrorism is a test for the Indian media. How much should be broadcast, whether broadcast of terrorist actions amounts to glorifying terrorism and violence and whether it incites people, creates new recruits and gives publicity to terrorists who seek to grab world attention are topics of debate across nations in the post 9/11 world. Similar debates have begun in India, more so after 26/11 Mumbai attacks.

The well coordinated terror attack on Mumbai brings about essential lessons, both for the media as well as the Armed forces. The news media with a lack of understanding of where the medium can reach in such a situation, reported the move of National Security Guard (NSG) from Delhi to Mumbai being declared by the Home Minister[21]. There is increasing questioning of the media’s conduct in the face of such attacks and more so after the live telecast of the 60 hour long Mumbai attacks. Concerned over the way many aspects of its operations got “jeopardized” due to live images being broadcast by TV during the 6- hour siege, the National Security Guard (NSG) pressed for restrictions on media coverage wherever its commandos are engaged to combat[22].

The case in point is the way NSGs operations at Nariman House were broadcast live. Questions were raised over the way Havaldar Gajender Singh fell to a terrorist’s bullet at Nariman House. As per the narration of incidents by an NSG commando “TV broadcasted our commandoes landing from a helicopter on the roof over Nariman House. By the time our men landed and started taking positions, the terrorists were already waiting for us and opened fire[23]”.

In contrast the operations at Oberoi could be conducted more smoothly since TV channels were kept beyond a one-kilometer radius[24]. This zone was put under virtual curfew with no access allowed to television crews. The operations there took the least time, just under 30 hours, as compared to the other two places. As per NSG officials while terrorists holed up inside probably did not have access to live TV images on the second and third day of operations, they still had phones and were probably getting “instructions” from people watching those live images on TV. The media in turn can question the NSG that was there any spokesman of NSG to guide the media? The media showed what they saw. Can you blame them for showing what was happening?