In depth

Finding out more

Finding out more

Fernando Javier Padilla Angulo

On this occasion, we will find out a little more about the relationship between the media and armed conflicts. With this in mind, we will begin with a brief historical outline of this long-standing relationship. We will then mention some tools that may be useful; in specific terms, extracts from documents related to journalistic ethics when covering bloody conflicts, audiovisual resources with some of the most striking images associated with war and peace in the twentieth century and the twenty-first century so far, as well as a map of the most dangerous countries to work as a journalist.

1. Historical background

The birth of the media can be traced back to the ancient Chinese, Roman and Persian empires. In the first century B.C., Julius Caesar created the Acta Diurna, bronze tablets which were read in public and which contained the most important news that had occurred within the borders of the empire, such as battles, legislation passed by the Senate, etc. However, it was not until the seventeenth century that the earliest gazettes appeared in Western Europe, with content similar to that of our newspapers today.

The relationship between the media and armed conflict emerged during the first half of the nineteenth century with the appearance of the war correspondent, with a major role played by the leading British newspapers during Napoleon's campaigns in Spain and Germany (1805-1814) and during the Crimean War (1853-1856). The spread of the telegram during the late nineteenth century made the work of correspondents much easier, and they ceased to write in a style more appropriate to literary essays and concentrated on writing articles and columns in which they briefly described the events in the war.

Until well into the second half of the twentieth century, the media were used primarily as machinery for propaganda by states. It is symptomatic that a then young British army officer, Winston Churchill, covered wars in northern India, Sudan and South Africa for several London newspapers, reporting the military exploits of his comrades in arms with almost no criticism. Perhaps the most outstanding example of this type of press propaganda was the birth of the tabloid press in New York in the late nineteenth century, where during the Hispano-American War, the newspaper editors Joseph Pulitzer and William R. Hearst fought each other to publish the most sensationalist news, regardless of its truthfulness. The accidental explosion of the battleship USS Maine in the harbour of Havana in February 1898, which they falsely attributed to Spanish agents and which gave the White House a casus belli to enter the war, is paradigmatic.

The use of the media - which were joined in the 1920s by the radio - by states as propaganda tools continued without major changes throughout the twentieth century, as they were repeatedly used to raise the morale of the troops and the population during the two world wars. The Spanish Civil War was no exception, and featured the presence of Ernest Hemingway as a war correspondent for a news agency in the United States.

The Vietnam War (1964-1975) marked a turning point: it was the first televised war. For the first time in history, war correspondents and cameramen were embedded in United States military units, and were able to record and disseminate images of the harsh reality of a war that America was losing with remarkable freedom. These images, many of which were broadcast live, and watched by millions of people on their televisions, managed to change public opinion, which shifted to mostly opposing the conflict. It is a therefore a commonplace that the Vietnam War began to be lost in the households of the U.S.

The attitude of governments was subsequently to select the journalists to be embedded in their military units, in order to encourage fraternisation between combatants and journalists. This had an adverse effect on the objectivity of the reports, which were also subject to censorship. This is the media pool model as used since the Falklands War (1982). In some cases, the presence of journalists has even been prevented, such as during the invasion of the island of Grenada by the United States (1983).1 As a result, the television channels CBS and ABC took their government to court for having violated the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to information.

However, states' desire to control information has come into conflict with the tenacious work of many media that have continued to offer their own perspective on conflicts. After the limitations on freedom of information imposed during the invasions of Panama and Iraq, news coverage of the actions of the United Nations military contingent during the civil war in Somalia, which began in 1991, marked a turning point. The images of bodies of U.S. Marines being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu and mutilated, in a situation that was out of the Pentagon's control, led to rejection of intervention in the Horn of Africa among the population of the United States and the West in general.2

The struggle between freedom of information and its control by states has since continued to have a high profile. A clear example is the U.S. government's unhappiness with the coverage by numerous international media during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The tank attack by the U.S. Army on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad, which housed many of the journalists covering the war,3 was a tragic example of this. However, there are still some media that operate beyond the boundaries of the control of news, despite Iraq being the country where the most journalists have been killed in recent years.4

The case of Afghanistan is similar in some respects. However, the state of war in the country makes the free movement of journalists on the ground very difficult. In addition, the attitude towards the media from countries that are part of the international coalition under NATO command varies, ranging from the media pool used by the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Italy, which allow embedded journalists to travel with their combat units, to the more restrictive model of Spain, which limits the working area for journalists to military bases. Nonetheless, journalists working beyond the protection / control of international troops continue to operate.

Finally, the emergence of the new technologies, especially mobile telephones and social networks on the Internet such as Facebook and Twitter, has made an enormous contribution to democratising the ability to broadcast news. In the uprisings and revolutions that are taking place in the Arab-Muslim world, there is a constant trickle of images and stories broadcast by ordinary citizens, which cannot be censored by their governments. These new channels for news information are vital for learning what is happening in Western Sahara, Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen from first hand witnesses. Although they are not reports produced by the media, they are gathered and used by them, as a tool to support and complement the "traditional" coverage of conflicts.

2. Documents and resources related to the ethics of journalism in armed conflicts

We list articles on the treatment of armed conflicts by some of the most important ethical codes in journalism below:

UNESCO International Principles of Professional Ethics in Journalism, 1983 (The full version is available here).
Principle IX: Elimination of war and other great evils confronting humanity The ethical commitment to the universal values of humanism calls for the journalist to abstain from any justification for, or incitement to, wars of aggression, and the arms race, especially in nuclear weapons, and all other forms of violence, hatred or discrimination, especially racialism and apartheid, oppression by tyrannical regimes, colonialism and neo-colonialism, as well as other great evils which afflict humanity, such as poverty, malnutrition and diseases. By so doing, the journalist can help eliminate ignorance and misunderstanding among peoples, make nationals of a country sensitive to the needs and desires of others, ensure the respect for the rights and dignity of all nations, all peoples and all individuals without distinction of race, sex, language, nationality, religion or philosophical conviction

Council of Europe Resolution 1003 (1993) on the ethics of journalism (The full version is available here)
Situations of conflict and cases of special protection

  1. In society, situations of tension and conflict sometimes arise under the pressure of factors such as terrorism, discrimination against minorities, xenophobia or war. In such circumstances the media have a moral obligation to defend democratic values: respect for human dignity, solving problems by peaceful, tolerant means, and consequently to oppose violence and the language of hatred and confrontation and to reject all discrimination based on culture, sex or religion.

  2. No-one should remain neutral vis-à-vis the defence of democratic values. To that end the media must play a major role in preventing tension and must encourage mutual understanding, tolerance and trust between the various communities in regions where conflict prevails, as the Secretary General of the Council of Europe has set out to do with her confidence-building measures in the former Yugoslavia.

  3. Having regard to the very specific influence of the media, notably television, on the attitudes of children and young people, care must be taken not to broadcast programmes, messages or images glorifying violence, exploiting sex and consumerism or using deliberately unsuitable language.

The Code of Ethics of the College of Journalists of Catalonia, 1996 (The full version is available here):
Appendix 5. Recommendations for the coverage of armed conflicts or wars
1. Give a voice to all the actors and promote understanding between the parties involved. Encourage dialogue.
2. Do not dehumanise any party; mention the victims and the victimisers.
3. Avoid the language of the combatant parties and their allies. Expose the deceptions of any of these.
4. Show all grassroots groups working for peace, not just the leaders. In particular, show the efforts of civil society to help victims physically, emotionally and materially.
5. Examine the conflicts in terms of their complexity and cover violence and its visible and invisible effects, but also cover the various causes that have generated it.
6. The media should avoid sensationalism and should also prevent the uncontrolled broadcast of online messages that are warmongering, xenophobic, racist and sexist.
7. Reporting on conflicts even when there is no violence can help to prevent it.
8. Do not stop the coverage after the ceasefire and cover the resolution, reconstruction and reconciliation.
9. Use the similarities between conflicts so that constructive experiences help those who have yet to find the way towards resolution.
10. Always acknowledge sources of information, particularly when they represent opposing parties, and bear in mind that third-party sources enhance the perspective of the conflict. If news is produced under conditions of censorship or restrictions, those receiving it should be informed of this.

EthicNet. Journalism Ethics: A website including the ethical codes of journalism in most European countries, plus some outside Europe, such as the United States, making a total of forty-six.

3. Audiovisual resources

The following is a series of audiovisual materials related to war and peace, solidarity and violence, from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We have selected the photographs and radio and television clips presented here without using a strict criterion, but instead according to their media impact, dissemination, historical relevance or relevance to our society.

  • A widow mourns the death of her husband, after the bombing of Lleida by Francoist air forces in November 1937.
  • BBC broadcast of the surrender of Germany on May 7, 1945.
  • Flower power image, taken during a demonstration against the Vietnam War in Washington DC in 1967.
  • March for Peace in Washington, DC (1971) against the Vietnam War These images are from the numerous mass demonstrations that took place in the capital of the United States to show the government the majority of the population's opposition to a war considered unjust and pointless.
  • "The napalm girl". Images taken in 1972 on the outskirts of Saigon after a napalm bombing of a defenceless town by the Air Force in South Vietnam, an ally of the United States. WARNING: these images may offend your sensibilities.
  • The fall of Saigon to the army of North Vietnam an ally of the Soviet Union, in 1975. This recording was a public humiliation for the powerful armed forces of the United States, which had to hastily evacuate the city before the advancing Communist troops. The world saw how the United States had lost the war live on television.
  • Tank Man. That was the name given to this anonymous Chinese citizen who faced down a column of tanks during the Tiananmen Square protests in April 1989.
  • Hammer blows against the Berlin Wall (1989), by a citizen of East Germany before the passiveness of the GDR police forces.
  • The cellist of Sarajevo (1992), the nickname for Vedran Smajlovi?, the cellist in the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra who performed pieces of classical music every day in tribute to the victims of the long siege of the city, in the ruins of the destroyed National Library and University of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
  • No to war in Barcelona, a mass demonstration held in February 2003 against the invasion of Iraq by the United States and some of its allies.
  • Entry into Baghdad by U.S. troops in April 2003. The U.S. Army entered the Iraqi capital after a month of fighting. Two symbolic events took place there would mark the extension of the war in the country: the demolition of the statue of Saddam Hussein, cheered by the crowd gathered around it, and the placing of the American flag in its place, despite the outcry by Iraqis, who saw this act as a symbol of invasion and colonialism.
  • Map of journalists murdered since 1992. The Committee to Protect Journalists website provides a useful tool for finding out the number of journalists murdered since 1992 by country and year.

1 Martin, S. E. (2006). "US Media Pools and Military Interventions in the 1980s and 1990s". Journal of Peace Research, 43(5), 601-616.(Back)
2 Ibídem.(Back)
3 Two journalists were killed as a result, including the Spaniard José Couso.(Back)
4 According to data provided by the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. Its website can be viewed at