Issues of balance and fairness in war reporting by underground

The following article was an assignment for a Public Affairs Reporting paper as part of my graduate diploma in Journalism. It is a commentary on the challenge of maintaining impartiality when reporting on conflict.

The first casualty of war is truth.

Issues of balance and fairness in war reporting

By Paul Harper

Objectivity as a goal has largely been dismissed by journalists as unrealistic, if not impossible. Impartiality, however, is regarded by many to be attainable. It is an ideal that journalists strive for.

But in wartime the game changes. The constraints of commercial interests ensure the packaged news is palatable to their audience and to advertisers. There are things audiences do not want to see and hear. When a nation is at war the media files in behind the troops, another cog in the war machine, patriotically flying flags, they become the cheerleaders repeating the official line.

Impartiality, balance and fairness go out the window.


Ken Jarecke\'s controversial photo of an Iraqi scorched by the American bombardment on Basra road in the closing moments of the first Gulf War

American photographer Ken Jarecke accused the mainstream media of censorship because his shocking photo of a charred Iraqi soldier in the 1991 Gulf War was not published by most newspapers until long after the conflict.

 Considering the shocking nature of the image, it is not surprising why most publications chose not to run with it. However if this is the reality of the wars our leaders pursue, should the media censor images and facts in order to make it palatable for their audience? Can governments be accountable for their actions if crimes go unreported?

 Australian journalist John Pilger argues that a “lack of truth” from the media allows governments to commit acts that would have not occurred if there were greater public scrutiny.

 He notes a New York Times editorial from August 2005, which conceded that if the public had known the truth before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the war would have been stopped by a “popular outcry”.

 Pilger considers this an amazing admission as it effectively says the war would not have taken place if journalists had not “betrayed the public by accepting, amplifying and echoing the lies of Bush and Blair, instead of challenging and exposing them”.


 Media bias can be more subtle than simply neglecting to report atrocities or providing a one sided account of an incident. It can be in the careful use of words used to describe an event.

 Journalism students are taught not to use loaded words such as “claimed” or “allege“ instead are persuaded to use the neutral “says”. But how can impartiality be maintained in war reporting given the constraints on what is acceptable to say and when it can be impossible to objectively say it?

In his Orwell-inspired book “unspeakGuardian writer Steven Poole argues that particular terms have found their way into our everyday vocabulary are loaded with political meanings, beyond their immediately recognisable meaning.

 He accuses the media of being “directly culpable in the prevalence of unspeak today”.

Poole says when the media adopt politicians’ catch phrases or slogans, they are endorsing the unspeak.

 An example Poole gives is the media’s adoption of the term ‘coalition of the willing’ for those countries that were involved in the invasion of Iraq.

 Poole argues this implies the coalition was a “far reaching alliance” in which only a few nations opposed, and those countries that were not willing to assist were shirking their responsibilities.

 Poole notes that, officially, the BBC, Reuters, The Guardian and The Washington Post all maintain policies that the term ‘terrorist’ should not be use in their own voice, but only when quoting others who use it.

 This has lead to what Poole refers to as the “farcical thesaurus-rush of terms” to substitute terrorist with equally loaded terms such as ‘militant’, ‘guerrillas’ and ‘extremists’.

Fair and Balanced?

Poole is critical of the “heavily conservative” Fox News network, considering their constant claim to be ‘fair and balanced’ a “glowingly blatant untruth”.

 When broadcasting stories on the war in Iraq, Poole notes Fox News would have a graphic banner reading “war on Terrorism” not too subtly making the dubious link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

He mentions according to the anti-fox film Outfoxed the channel’s executive John Moody instructed his reporters to refer to US marines as “sharp shooters” instead of “sniper”, which carries a “negative connotation”.

 In April 2003, former Fox producer, copy editor and writer Charlie Reina quit the network saying management enforced a conservative pro-bush slant on stories.

 He says a memo was sent to staff informing staff that Palestinian suicide bombers would now be referred to as ‘homicide bombers’.

 The memo suggested homicide is more appropriate, as “suicide puts the focus on and memorialises the perpetrator rather than the victims,” Reina says.

 Addressing the liberal bias

 In a speech at Georgetown University, Fox Network owner and media mogul Rupert Murdoch said it is not Fox that has the bias, but the other networks.

 “People laugh at Fox News because we call ourselves fair and balanced. The fact is that CNN was always extremely liberal and never had a conservative, Republican voice on it. The only difference is that we have equal voices on both sides, but that seems to have upset a lot of liberals.”

 Murdoch’s assertion that Fox News is unbiased is contradicted by the comments of Fox News contributor, Neal Gabler, who responded to Outfoxed by saying:

 “To say that this network promotes the Republican view is like saying that the pope is Catholic. It’s self evident.”

 Holding the powerful to account

 On the polar opposite side of the political spectrum, Qatar based international news network al Jazeera has had a hard time selling itself outside of the Middle East, particularly in North America, where it has struggled to appear balanced and credible.

The channel has been criticised by American officials who have been upset by the channel’s footage of military deaths and the effect al Jazeera’s war coverage has on civilians.

 Former United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused the channel of “vicious lies” and “a pattern of playing propaganda over and over” in its coverage of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars.

Al Jazeera English’s Riz Khan told the Washington Post the main objection Americans have with al Jazeera is that it has been too honest in its reporting of American military power, but he says there is nothing to be ashamed with holding the powerful to account.

American news channels “show the missiles taking off,” Kahn says. “Al Jazeera shows them landing.”

 Anti-American bias

 Al Jazeera has not been without dissenters, like Fox many staff have departed following disagreements over content.

American news anchor Dave Marash quit al Jazeera English in March, citing an anti-American bias.

“Given the global feelings about the Bush administration, it’s not surprising” he says, but the “reflexive adversarial editorial stance” of the channel angered the former ABC newsreader.

 Washington bureau chief, Will Stebbins, told Associated Press Al Jazeera was disappointed to lose Marash, who as an American Jew gave the channel credibility, but denied an anti-American bias.

 “We certainly evaluate US policy rigorously,” he said. “But we do our best to give everyone a fair shout.”

 Yet is al Jazeera’s screenings of Osama bin Laden’s videos that have angered critics of the channel the most.

 After screening a video in October 2004, the channel argued any network would have screened it, even though Washington had asked that they not air the footage.

 “We don’t believe anyone can argue about the newsworthiness of this latest Osama bin Laden recording,” spokesman Jihad Ballout said at the time. “Any news organisation would have aired the tape if they had received it.”

 It must also be noted that it is not only western nations who have struck out at the Arab network, as al Jazeera has also received criticism from Islamic governments for their secular-democratic position on issues and also from militant groups for allegedly misrepresenting their message in edited footage.

 War is War

Perhaps al Jazeera is on the right track; after all it receives criticism from all sides of a conflict, for showing the realities governments would rather hide for reasons of troop morale, public opinion and propaganda.

“War is war. It produces carnage and death,” says managing director Wadah Khanfar. “Part of our job is to show that.”

 Steven Poole says there is no such thing as “perfectly neutral, impartial language, but the media can certainly try to avoid the most loaded terms

 “At the same time the public should and can think more critically about the language in which the news is conveyed to them.”

 John Pilger recalls the comments of Czechoslovakian novelist Zdenek Urbánek who told him the communist country’s people were in one respect more fortunate than those in the West.

 “We believe nothing of what we read in the newspapers and watch on television, nothing of the official truth. Unlike you, we have learned to read between the lines, because real truth is always subversive.”




Pilger, J. (2002). New rulers of the world. London: Verso. ISBN185984412X

Poole, S. (2006). Unspeak: Words are weapons. London: Abacus. ISBN9780349119243


 Al Jazeera code of ethics


 Georgetown University website “Murdoch: Technology driving vast changes in media”


New York Times article “American anchor quits al Jazeera English channel”


Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s war on journalism “What people are saying”


Salon.com “Fox News: the inside story”


Sydney Morning herald “al Jazeera defends airing bin Laden tape”


Washington Post article “Al Jazeera’s US face”


Yahoo news “Dave Marash quits al Jazeera English”


Anti-war.com “The real first casualty of war” John Pilger





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