The Art of War (Journalism)

Picture of By Andrea Valdivia

By Andrea Valdivia

Throughout his life, Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, devoted himself to understanding the underlying mechanisms of war. With his grand work, The Art of War, he argued that one must use strategic thinking to find ways to weaken the enemy, where fighting is not always necessary. In principle, war and violence have always been known to go hand in hand, where events of such turbulent nature usually take place in a restless battle arena. Nonetheless, there may be other ways to take the main frontline without combating. War journalism, therefore, becomes an interesting case to exemplify that.

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” 

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

Violence is inherent in the nature of war, where fighting is a tangible action that translates into measurable outcomes that tame the enemy and outrace their efforts to succeed. This raises the question of why a great mind would come up with such a contradictory statement, where fighting is not a given for winning wars. Sun Tzu’s well-known philosophy did not transcend over centuries because of developing a treatise about tactics and military strategies on battling, but rather his sagacious reflection of war. If winning a war does not depend on force but rather strategy, war journalism is precisely another form of helping to subdue the enemy without fighting: not by means of actual weapons, but that of shaping one’s ideas with graphic images or written words. 

“He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.”

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

Although Sun Tzu referred to the military in his work, journalists could also be seen as soldiers taking part in the frontline. Being a journalist covering a war is a dangerous task, where war correspondents go into the battlefield and report news stories at the heart of any war zone. During wartime, news reporting becomes a practice that sparks national debate and raises morale in the public sphere. As seen in the Kosovo War, war journalism became important in shaping public opinion among Serbians. Television Serbia, a mainstream media, started spreading a narrative in line with Milosevic’s elite opinions about Serbian intervention, “trying to sell the story of Kosovo as a success and a victory”. Concerningly, war news production provides the opportunity for large audiences to stay partially informed,  and dehumanize the enemy.

“All warfare is based on deception.”

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Us versus Them

War journalism tends to use an ‘us-them’ narrative that allows for the victimization of a country and its members. Depending on who the public identifies with, and who poses a threat, war journalism has the potential to polarize and influence public views within or across nations. With limited information, millions of readers make up their minds about the motives and justification of violence in any war intervention, and this can be arguably strategic.

One key aspect that has been criticized about war journalism is its rhetoric, and within reason. After all, the only ‘warfare’ that war correspondents count on is written testimonials, photographs, or even film footage that partially approximates a war and its multifaceted dimensions. Knowing that journalists tend to provide a framework of interpretation to readers about any issue, one must question what implications does this form of reporting have in shaping reality, and the extent to which objective reporting is nearly achievable. 

Due to the high risk they must endure, journalists cannot afford to go to the battlefield through their own means; they require the company of armies to provide protection when there is conflict. Although this is a good initiative, and a necessary one, this may threaten the nature and quality of information reported. Not only correspondents may develop strong bonds with soldiers that veil for their safety, but sensitive information may be overlooked or kept unreleased. Whether intended or not, this embedded journalism can arguably reduce information plurality, and consequently, its objectivity.

In any conflict involving two opposing parties, there will always be a side of preference. This is why one cannot take for granted that war correspondents merely fulfill their duty to provide pure facts about combat and fast-paced confrontation. Although there has been a change in the trend where the war narrative in stories has shifted towards humanitarian intervention, war correspondents still heavily exploit the theme of suffering in their content. Therefore, war tends to be framed in terms of damage, casualties, or any form of violence, rather than the humanitarian aspect of it. The question lies in who is portrayed as ‘human’, and who causes such tragic outcomes. 

In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War 

The Humane Appeal of War Journalism

War journalism has been known for being significantly violence-oriented, where its main focus lies on the element of conflict. However, war journalism is not merely about politics but may appeal to the human side of a war. As war correspondent Julius Strauss from The Telegraph comments in an interview, what makes his work compelling is the unexpected events that he finds in this job. Because to interact with people’s humanity, to see it and feel it, you must be present in action. 

With a recent history of the Gulf and Yugoslavian wars, war journalism has progressively evolved after the 20th century. Nowadays, threats on news information like censorship, and governmental influences tuning in with the media are no longer as prominent. As much as war correspondents continue to be sent into contemporary conflicts, this expensive form of journalism is losing its appeal among large audiences. With less armed conflicts and coverage on them, war correspondence is thus scarcer, as seen in recent wars like Iraq and Afghanistan. 

War is certainly a complex topic that should be addressed, if possible, with impartiality and transparency. This is precisely why questions about the ethical aspects of war journalism and its narrative must continuously be asked. Because after all, there may be peace or war, but there will always be journalism to cover it.


Cover: Pixabay

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