NewsXchange 2003 Looks at War Coverage

By Morand Fachot, EBU Communication service

The coverage of the conflict in Iraq, the biggest news story of 2003, was at the centre of the debates of the second edition of the NewsXchange conference which took place in Budapest on 6-7 November 2003.


NewsXchange, a not-for-profit conference underwritten by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), has the backing of the 70 members of the EBU's Eurovision News Exchange and of the 29 members of European News Exchange (ENEX), the cooperative of commercial broadcasters. It is also supported by the major international broadcast news agencies and networks.

The 2003 conference brought together broadcast news executives, experts on safety issues in the field and media specialists for a comprehensive review of the coverage of the war in Iraq, a presentation on the latest developments in newsgathering technology and debates about the risks faced by journalists in conflicts and post-conflict situations. The strained relations between the media and governments in several countries and the influence of reality TV were also discussed at the conference, attended by some 340 delegates from over 40 countries.

Participants in places as far apart as Baghdad, Doha, Jerusalem, the United States, Moscow, London or Paris took part in the debates via some 40 satellite link-ups ensured by the Eurovision network.

Embed vs. unilaterals?

NewsXchange 2003 opened with "The Year in Pictures" and "A week in Baghdad," video reports produced, respectively, by APTN and Reuters TV.

The reports were followed by a lively debate, moderated by CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour, on the "embedding" of correspondents in frontline units, the role of "unilateral" reporters who operated outside official military arrangements, and what many regarded as attempts on the part of the British and US military to manage the news agenda.
"The US will control the battle space, it has to," US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs) Bryan Whitman argued. "When there are civilians we have to be sure that in no way do they compromise the battlefield. At the moment journalists are civilians, not combatants," he added.

The presence of hundreds of journalists on the battlefield is a major concern to the military, as Col Chris Vernon, chief spokesman of the British Armed Forces in the Gulf region, explained. Concern based on both risks to operational safety - which could be jeopardised by careless or untimely reporting - and risks for the personal safety of journalists, for which the military may ultimately be held responsible.

Although acknowledging that "embeds" contributed to better news coverage as reporters gained first-hand experience of the complexities of modern warfare, Col.Vernon also stressed that the presence of large numbers of journalists in the battle zone represented a burden for the military, particularly in terms of logistics and security.

A number of reporters, particularly unilaterals and those based at allied headquarters, expressed frustration at what they considered unnecessary restrictions placed on them by coalition forces, delays in releasing information and attempts at feeding them an official line.
Frustration was visible on the part of the military too. British Army Maj.-Gen. (retd) Arthur Denaro called on members of the media to learn more about the military: "I think we, in the military, certainly keep training, keep going on courses right the way through to 1- and 2-star level and we never see a journalist coming on, we never see anybody from the media industry. You come and talk to us on these courses, but we never have anybody coming in to learn with us," he noted.
Gen Denaro also pleaded for more contacts between the military and the media in peacetime to improve media coverage of conflicts. "In something which was forecast so well, as this latest conflict was, I believe there could have been much more effort, on both sides - by us to educate you and by you to come in and try understand the dimensions of this multidimensional business that we're all in," he said.

The session also featured the launch of a joint study by the BBC and Cardiff School of Journalism on war reporting and the policy of embedding journalists with frontline units.
Prof Justin Lewis, deputy director of the Cardiff journalism school, noted: "The criticisms that were made at the time, that the embedded reporters were more likely to give a pro-war spin, do not hold up. But we do have some reservations, particularly about the narrative that is created by embedded reports, where the only discussion is about who's winning and who's losing, with little of the wider picture."

The study also found that television reports produced by embedded correspondents during the conflict in Iraq gave a "sanitised" picture of war.

Although reporters who accompanied the British and US military were able to be objective, they avoided images that would be too graphic or violent for British television, the study concluded. A situation Mark Damazer, deputy director of BBC News, described as a "disservice to democracy."
Although participants were split on many of the issues discussed during this first session, the general consensus was that comprehensive coverage from the battle zone was best ensured by a combination of reporting from embeds and unilaterals, not by reliance on a single category of correspondents.

Safety first

The tone of the second session was given by a warning from Sir Jeremy Greenstock: "everybody should travel with their own hired protection, if possible in protective vehicles… protective measures have to be taken even by visiting journalists," the British representative to the Coalition Provisional Authority said.

The session, moderated by BBC World main anchor Nik Gowing, started with a tribute to the winners of this year's Rory Peck Award and a tribute from the International News Safety Institute to journalists and media workers killed in action.

On this occasion INSI, which held its first General Assembly on the eve of NewsXchange, launched a book "Dying to tell the story," dedicated to all media workers who fell covering the Iraq war.

Participants discussed some of the issues currently preoccupying news organisations around the world: is it time to reassess safety training? What about the use of security advisers? Is there ever a justification for these or journalists carrying guns?

The complex issue of armed security escorts for journalists was hotly debated. "I would have five or six dead colleagues had it not been for the defensive action that had been taken," said Eason Jordan, CNN executive vice president and chief news executive, following the showing of footage of the shootout between the security guards protecting CNN correspondent Brent Sadler and armed men near the town of Tikrit. "I very much regret that we find it essential at times to put armed protection in the field, but Iraq is not the first place where it happened. We faced it in Somalia, in Afghanistan. I have no regret whatsoever that this action was taken to keep our colleagues alive," said Jordan.However, many participants expressed concern that armed security escorts might make the work of journalists more - not less - dangerous at times of war.

Chris Cramer, managing director of CNN International disagreed with those who argued that a line had been crossed irreversibly with this incident. "This is not a Rubicon, we have not crossed the line, this is a slippery slope," he said, "we are - whether we like it or not - legitimate targets."
Cramer also argued that attacks against journalists were often motivated by greed, "We are travelling ATM machines, we have many carloads of many shiny boxes, very expensive cameras, which represent an opportunity for robbery," he noted.
The misadventure experienced by Channel 4 correspondent Lindsey Hilsum and her crew, held up on the road from Amman to Baghdad by two armed men who took $4,500 and a satphone, supported this claim. However, cameraman Tim Lambon, who was travelling with Lindsey Hilsum at the time, argued that they might have been killed had they been armed.


Participants were evenly split between proponents and adversaries of armed escorts for journalists.
The divide was mainly - but not exclusively - between representatives of large US or British news organisations, main users of armed escorts, and media organisations from other countries which cannot afford the cost of hiring security guards, a point highlighted by a reporter for Dutch public broadcaster NOS who covered the Iraqi conflict: "Our policy is not to have armed guards just because it costs too much. We can't afford it. It's very simple, so we don't even discuss it. There is no way we could ever afford it," he said.


Another major issue addressed at the session by Dr Anthony Feinstein, a clinical psychologist from the University of Toronto, and Mark Brayne, director of the Dart Centre Europe, was whether news organisations were doing all they could to help journalists who may suffer from trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Technology

The latest technology that allowed the remarkable coverage of the Iraq war and new developments that may revolutionise the broadcast news industry in the coming months were presented in a special session which included a video featuring highlights from the September 2003 International Broadcasting Convention in Amsterdam.


With remarkable leaps in graphics and virtual reality, there are new ways to make inaccessible stories more informative and visually stimulating. Experts demonstrated technology allowing this to happen and also debated the dangers of technology going too far and distorting reporting. [For more on the technology used to report the war via satellite, see Technical Review in this issue.]
The coming year will, in all likelihood, present more challenges to the news industry and - given the growing success of the NewsXchange conferences - more broadcast news executives, experts on safety issues, and media specialists will gather to discuss these at NewsXchange 2004. TBS


Edited version of an article first published in the January 2004 edition of 'The Channel', magazine of the Association for International Broadcasting (www.aib.org.uk)

Copyright 2004 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu