Reports from the bleeding edge

Journalists under Fire

May 25, 2007

It is always fascinating to read first-hand accounts from journalists at the front line of reporting conflict. Their reflections on how and why they do their job and how they cope with the mundane and the dramatic give candid and vivid insights into the realities of one of the toughest jobs in journalism. Nearly two thirds of this book is given over to such reflection from more than 50 journalists, including some of the field's best-known broadcasters, print journalists and photographers.

Howard Tumber and Frank Webster have largely and rightly let these illuminating interviews speak for themselves. The anecdotes and ruminations are grouped thematically into seven sections covering key aspects of what they call "frontline journalism". These include motivation, covering an assignment, working relations, danger and safety, and training.

Where there is analysis and comment it draws out common attitudes, such as the professional values of "telling it like it is" and the duties that journalists have to the public.

But what makes the book more than a "day in the life" of journalists covering conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Chechnya, Angola, Zimbabwe, Bosnia and elsewhere is the accompanying analysis of warfare itself and the way it is reported. The authors argue that there have been significant changes in recent years in the way wars are fought and why they begin.

These changes, they say, go deeper than the obvious advances in weaponry and ever-more sophisticated command structures. There are social, political and economic factors - the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, globalisation, the "triumph of the market" and the emergence of what Anthony Giddens has called "enemies without states". What Tumber and Webster describe as "information war" is characterised by these factors and, crucially, the enormous efforts that those who wage it make to manage what people learn about it through the media. So the first part of the book explains and analyses these changes in some detail. They define "information war" and how it differs from "industrial war", which was characterised by the mobilisation of large armies and often whole populations and usually conducted between nation states. Alongside this has been the growth of the media and a changing relationship between those who wage war and those who report it. No longer is war reported in terms of "support for our boys" but in a more complex and ambiguous way, where it is much more difficult for one side or the other to control access to information and ensure the supremacy of its message.

All this puts the role of the journalist reporting conflict into context.

These are the people who contribute to the public's understanding of war yet operate in hugely difficult circumstances and face increasing personal risks. Their stories and views of their own experiences are the backbone of a book that will appeal not only to students of journalism and media but also to anyone interested in the world around them.

Journalists under Fire: Information War and Journalistic Practices

Author - Howard Tumber and Frank Webster
Publisher - Sage
Pages - 187
Price - £60.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 9781412 924061 and 924078

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