Vietnam was the first war fought on TV, and viewers have had a front row seat ever since. Three decades later, on-the-scene and in-your-face coverage has become ubiquitous, and it’s a good thing. A traditional WWII-sized conflict is a thing of the past, partly because now that parents have seen it for themselves, they won’t allow their children to take part. The brutal reality has been stripped of its patriotic veneer thanks to media coverage.
But this evolution has come at a cost, and that cost has been the lives of reporters who have placed themselves in the path of conflicts in order to return with the words and images that bring them into focus.
In this issue of RealScreen, we begin the first of a series of articles on news and current affairs programming with a look at the initiatives discussed last News World aimed at reducing the number of press deaths. The answers, in the broadcaster’s eyes at least, revolve around better training for reporters, reduced competition, and (as a last resort) pulling teams out when things get too hot.
Without question, broadcasters want to stop the deaths, but as long as they use the footage coming off the battlefields, they create a demand which will ensure people die attempting to fulfill it. If one reporter won’t do it, another will – but whether this says more about broadcasters or reporters, I’m not sure.
I’ve read a number of great books by war correspondents, and all have left their mark – notably Live From the Battlefield by Peter Arnett (Simon & Schuster), Dispatches by Michael Herr (Random House), and the more recent My War Gone By, I Miss It So by Anthony Loyd (Doubleday). These three authors, like most correspondents before them, embody both a drive to tell the whole story and the need to test themselves in the least auspicious conditions.
Arnett is the prime example: Having made his career with a five-year stint in Vietnam, he was one of the only Western reporters to remain in Iraq when the bombing started. CNN – which he was working for, and which to its credit provided everything up to a jet for emergency escapes – allowed its crews the chance to pull out. An overwhelming majority did, but Arnett stayed and got the story, and (to some harsh criticism at home) even witnessed how some of the American ‘smart bombs’ weren’t so smart after all.
The combination of a reporter’s drive to build a career and a broadcaster’s drive to sustain ratings can be fatal, but I don’t believe broadcasters should censor their news and I don’t believe journalists should be forced from areas of conflict. The voice of one neutral observer amplified through a broadcast entity can shape world opinion, and world opinion shapes conflicts. It’s an influence which sometimes must be paid for, but – as trite as it sounds – it’s a sacrifice for which the returns can be immeasurable.