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Strategic interests, journalistic battles and skirmishes

Xavier Giró i Martí
Lecturer in journalism at the UAB and member of the Conflicts News Coverage Observatory
Xavier Giró i Martí

Xavier Giró i Martí

A combination of factors determining which conflicts are in the news

A series of vectors operate in the mass media, in terms of both the decision about whether to cover conflicts, and how it should be covered. The international hierarchy of countries and global information flows is intertwined with the economic and political nature of the media and the culture of news journalism.

First, there is a vast amount of information that reaches the media from the major news agencies, which are all Western, without exception. As a result, the material they provide prioritises the tactical and strategic interests of the colonial powers and their former colonies, with which they almost always have some kind of relationship. International or internal conflicts in other countries with implications for great powers are also included.

The fact that their news focuses on their economic, political and cultural environments is explained by the fact that the American, British, French, Spanish and agencies primarily provide news to the media in their own countries, and stories about areas that are relatively familiar to them are obviously more attractive to their audiences.

Some media have no foreign correspondents; as a result, their choice is limited to the range of agencies. The ones they do have are in undoubtedly important locations such as Jerusalem or Washington, and in the areas of interest to the country where the medium is broadcast. For example, the Spanish media prioritise Latin America and the French media do the same for the Maghreb and sub-Saharan Africa.

In fact, the network of correspondents gives a medium prestige and character, because they provide different approaches to the same conflict - both professionally and ideologically - from the media with which they are competing. However, correspondents are not only for decorative purposes, and if they are on the payroll, their must earn their salary; so they are asked for regular contributions that will inevitably be about the area where they are located. This is a vector that reinforces the priority that comes from the metropolis.

However, it must be added that sometimes, within their area, they also report on conflicts there are little known, albeit in a highly restricted manner because news space is finite, limited and defined by the issues that are considered topical within the current media system.

So what determines what news is? In general terms, there are two opposing mechanisms. The first is to toe the line of the "flagship" media: CNN, the New York Times, etc. So much so, that there are plenty of stories about news editors who ask correspondents or special correspondents to produce stories based on what they have just seen or heard on CNN.

The other approach, which is only apparently paradoxical, is to look at what the competition has done. If they have all done more or less the same thing, they confirm the correctness of each other's approach; if one disagrees, they worry because they are off-message and thus the circle closes.

This selective practice is also combined with journalistic and ideological criteria. In quantitative terms, a conflict warrants becoming news if it affects a lot of people or leads to a great deal of material destruction. And in qualitative terms, it is news if the events affect people with power - albeit just a few of them - or involve a violation of human rights that public opinion deems outrageous, even if a small number of individuals are affected, such as cases of torture.

With criteria like these, sometimes there are conflicts that are not even within the interests of the powers but take up news space because someone in the newsroom, in a type of internal battle, has managed to smuggle them in under the radar. For example, the criterion of solidarity is the exception rather than the rule, however much it happens.

The vectors therefore explain why a lot of conflicts are not media-friendly. However, what happens to those that appear in the news and then disappear, even though they continue?

The battle for audience is fought around a key question: what's new? A conflict that does not evolve provides nothing new, and so is no longer news. And even if there has been some development, if the reporter does not see the changes or is unable to explain them, it ceases to be news.

The media cover these conflicts, but another fresher one appears, which has just broken out, and inevitably the newer one is more interesting and it is therefore likely to fully or partially displace the previous one, because news space, as already noted, is limited. If in addition the medium was not particularly interested in the old one, for whatever reason, it will soon vanish.

It goes without saying that if it is a conflict that is already involved in a peace process, interest drops, precisely because peace processes are slow, and require calm and consideration. This is almost a catalogue of what is not as intensively newsworthy as what the media need to obtain audiences easily. Hence the strong tendency to leave the area when the violence has stopped, even though the resolution, reconstruction and reconciliation phase is just starting.

All this can be qualified in each medium depending on the ideological bias it applies. The particular business interests in a country or the political alliances of the media may explain their shifts in approaches to news. However, the general trends in the presence of conflicts in the news are determined by the factors outlined above.