Partiality in Conflict Reporting: The Media’s Secret Shame?

This introductory essay by Nik Gowing, written as an foreword to a substantial report on conflict coverage, was published in the late 1990s.  It reflects many of the changes taking place in  journalism at the end of the 20th century as a result of technology, reducing budgets and shifts in attitudes.


Partiality in Conflict Reporting: The Media’s Secret Shame?by Nik Gowing

The report recommends that the media conducts its own self-critical evaluation of the adequacy and impartiality of its reporting of complex emergencies in the developing world, and that they draw lessons for more responsible reporting .

There is one cancer above all that afflicts much of the reporting from wars and conflict.  It is the virtually unspoken issue of partiality and bias in conflict journalism.  The mere mention of it is usually seen as taboo and even heretic.  

Few media people want to discuss partiality and the resulting distortions.  To do so would undermine the perceived integrity and objectivity of correspondents who report from battle zones.  It would also challenge the motives of the organisations that print and broadcast their material in the name of objectivity and balance.  

In Bosnia, above all, there is more evidence than many media personnel care to admit that journalists embarked on crusades and became partial. They empathised with the Bosnian government because of personal outrage at Serb aggression.  Prima facie, this partiality distorted the reporting and led either to a refusal to include certain qualifying facts in stories or to distorting the overall impression.  

 It is dangerous to generalise.  There are reporters who cover conflicts at great personal risk and with the greatest degree of objectivity they can muster, especially given the often miserable conditions in which they find themselves.  It is also professionally risky for a senior journalist to cast aspersions on the integrity of some fellow journalists’ work.  A few journalists have made great efforts to investigate and refute allegations of misreporting by news correspondents and misrepresentation by the UN military.

But in Bosnia, there is compelling evidence that coverage has been skewed due to both the personal emotions of correspondents and the corporate policies of some leading news organisations.  Under the apparent veil of objectivity, they have taken sides, often unashamedly.  Coverage has not been balanced, yet no “health warning” or personal declaration has accompanied the coverage.  As the BBC’s TV correspondent Mark Urban wrote: “Few of the British-employed journalists — with some exceptions — seem to have been concerned with telling us the tales of the Serbian housewives blown away by Muslim snipers’ bullets, or the Croat villagers whose throats were slit by the Muslim raiders from nearby villages in central Bosnia.” What could be called the hypocrisy of governments — especially of the U.S.  — has reinforced this cancer, along with a trend towards what might qualify as deceit.  

A former senior U.S.  commander in Europe, General Charles G.  Boyd, has written a remarkable exposé of the true perception of the Bosnian conflict by many U.S.  officers. The retired general’s decision to go public is rare.  His view directly contradicts the conventional political wisdom in Washington, which Boyd concludes was “stunted by a limited understanding of current events as well as a tragic ignorance or disregard for history.” In his damning indictment Boyd adds inter alia, “Most damaging of all, U.S.  actions in the Balkans have been at sharp variance with stated U.S.  policy .  .  .  We must see things in the Balkans as they are, not as we wish them to be.  We must separate reality from image.” 

The same complaint, nay accusation, may be leveled at some correspondents and news organisations who, for whatever reason, willingly became party to this misrepresentation.  Would that some would come clean, even retrospectively, in the way a senior general such as Boyd has chosen to.  “Above all, we need to tell the truth, if only to ourselves,” Boyd holds, especially when it comes to the misrepresentation of Sarajevo as a city under siege.

Boyd focuses on the politicians and establishment who, by intention or by default, went along with the conventional myths.  In theory, a free and independent press should have been able to challenge and dispel the establishment’s myths by way of its on-the-ground reporting.  By and large, the media failed and instead reinforced the myths.  

Many military and civilian members of the NATO/UN operations who privately belong to the Boyd school of disillusionment have become increasingly angry with the media performance they witnessed. Even if we allow for an instinctive institutional antipathy towards the media, the kind of complaints expressed by a pseudonymous UN official in Sarajevo, “Kenneth Roberts,” deserve detailed and serious attention. With evident bitterness, Roberts complained, for example, of the deceptive picture of Sarajevo portrayed by the media.  People were not starving, he said.  The city was neither besieged nor isolated; otherwise how would the markets be so well stocked — at a price? Like others, Roberts alleged that “crusading” journalists succumbed to clever and ruthless Bosnian government tactics designed to ensure that the image of suffering Moslems was not undermined.  In a broadside aimed at all media representatives in Bosnia, Roberts alleged manipulation and said: “CNN ought first to ensure that it is presenting the actual facts.  But instant reporting precludes analysis and verification.” He concluded by asking, as many non-journalists do, why there is no regulatory media body to exact sanctions on journalists who fail to report objectively.  

However, in the complex dynamics and politics of conflict prevention and management, the reader or audience must be made aware of the level of partiality of a particular journalist or news organisation.  Distorted reporting gives the wrong impression.  For any reader or viewer to understand the complexities of a conflict, accurate and balanced journalism is required.  To provide anything else can be considered a deceit.  Yet it is virtually unheard of for such a declaration of partiality to be made.  Martin Bell’s explanation of the emotional pressures, and latterly his call for a “journalism of attachment,” was a rare admission.  “All the reporters who work regularly on the Bosnian beat are, at least privately, interventionist,” he wrote.  “Surrounded by so much misery and destruction, it is humanly difficult to be anything else.”

But how many of them made explicitly clear their personal views? Almost none; to have done so would probably have led to censure by their employers.  

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour exemplified gritty, gutsy, emotive reporting from the Bosnian horrors in Sarajevo and beyond.  Her presentations and live two-way broadcasts helped to keep Bosnia a major issue on U.S.  TV news.  She underscored the tragedy of the Bosnian Moslems.  On a live satellite link between Atlanta and Sarajevo, she challenged President Clinton for a perceived “flip-flop” on policy to Bosnia. For staying in Bosnia, even with diversions to Rwanda and Haiti, Amanpour became renowned as the “Queen of the Sarajevo press corps.” But what about her style of journalism? In the view of one similarly distinguished and battle- scarred fellow journalist, Amanpour was “renowned for her defiance of bland ‘neutrality’ in the coverage of genocide.” General Boyd complains that “Serbian people have suffered when hostile forces have advanced, with little interest or condemnation by Washington or CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour.”

Amanpour believes that she “told it like it was.” She gives a robust response to those who allege that she was not neutral.  “Whoa .  .  .  It drives me crazy when this neutrality thing comes up,” she is quoted as telling an interviewer.  “Objectivity, that great journalistic buzzword, means giving all sides a fair hearing — not treating all sides the same — particularly when all sides are not the same.  When you are in a situation like Bosnia, you are an accomplice — an accomplice to genocide.”

Roy Gutman won a Pulitzer Prize for his revelations in July 1992 about Serb detention camps.  He has talked openly about the emotional difficulties of retaining the total objectivity that most people expect of a senior journalist.  “Some issues simply are not equally balanced, and we can’t give the impression that for every argument on one side, there is an equal one on the other,” he said in a discussion of his own shift from objectivity during his reporting of Bosnia.  “I do not believe the fairness doctrine applies equally to victims and perpetrators.”

Although claiming the high moral ground, few reporters or media corporations have openly declared their partiality in the way the Guardian’s award-winning war correspondent Ed Vulliamy was willing to do in 1994. In no way did Vulliamy’s honesty undermine his journalism.  Rather, it made his writing more powerful because of his close affinity with the Moslems, a closeness born out of experiencing fear, horrors, deprivation and near death alongside them.  

The trouble is that such emotive journalistic commitment was neatly exploited, especially by the Bosnian government.  Ministers in Sarajevo ruthlessly harnessed such partiality to generate international sympathy for the government’s fight against “fascism.” It was a deft manipulation to which many journalists succumbed, either willingly or, more typically, without realising it.  In the words of former EU mediator Lord Owen, the Bosnian government strategy, masterminded by Vice President Ejup Ganic, was “very credible but ruthless.” Its influence was “too often underrated.” Backed by public relations techniques honed in the United States, the Sarajevo government manipulated many of the international press who, like the Bosnian population, were enduring Serb shelling and a degree of danger and deprivation.  

Bosnian government ministers and spokesmen were always ready to comment or rush to the live satellite dishes to condemn the Serbs.  They usually enjoyed a free ride, their increasingly exaggerated claims accepted as fact by callow interviewers and anchors in distant studios who did not have the knowledge or background briefings to know better.  Frequently, Bosnian ministers made unsubstantiated claims that were untrue or grossly exaggerated.  UN military personnel knew that the claims were untrue, but they were either forbidden or restrained from going public with the alternative version.  Rarely were the Bosnian ministers and officials challenged, for example, about their policy of refusing to allow those of Sarajevo’s population to leave who wanted to do so, or their claim that Sarajevans were starving, or their military policy of taunting Serb artillery with futile infantry attacks in order to incite Serb shelling, or their exaggeration of the predicament of the Bosnian population in Bihac and Gorazde.

Few, if any, journalists or news organisations sympathetic to the Bosnian position gave any public signal of the level of manipulation that they were being subjected to.  Yet each day this kind of manipulation was skewing their news coverage, and with it the impression of the war abroad, especially among opinion leaders and journalistic elites on the east coast of the U.S.  

There is evidence that leading U.S.  newspapers, and TV news in particular, had scant interest in running stories that did not fit a clear editorial line on Bosnia.  They indulged in a pro-Bosnian Moslem campaign without openly declaring it, and the journalism was skewed unashamedly to serve that agenda.  No one can deny any media organisation the right to campaign for the “white hats” (Bosnian Moslems) against the “black hats” (the Serbs).  But it can be argued that such “reporting” should not be allowed to masquerade as balanced, objective journalism.  Organisations gloried in Pulitzers and the baubles earned by prizewinning journalism.  The impression was of a new generation of journalism’s finest hours.  But the record is less complimentary.  Journalism suffered.  The high ideals espoused by media organisations were quietly set to one side.  

This theme was taken up in a heavily criticised 1993 article in Foreign Policy entitled “Dateline Yugoslavia: The Partisan Press.” It detailed how, by late 1992, the majority of the media had become “so mesmerised by their focus on Serb aggression” that any principle of balance and objectivity evaporated.  

Shock waves from the article reverberated speedily through the U.S.  media establishment.  The veracity of the argument was quickly destroyed by scathing attacks on author Peter Brock for alleged inaccuracies in some of the data he used. Brock’s critics, for example, Charles Lane, agreed that there “is legitimate room for self-examination by the press about its performance in the supercharged Bosnian ethnic atmosphere.” But they demolished some of the author’s argument by questioning his analytical methods.  As a result, the integrity of Brock’s core argument about the partisanship of the foreign media in former Yugoslavia was swiftly undermined.  The discussion withered and died quickly.  

Yet Brock’s main thrust remains just as relevant today, if not more so, as the pointed analysis by General Boyd proves. Most telling of all is the fact that Boyd’s criticism comes from a senior military figure.  Had the criticism been written by a journalist, it probably would have been swiftly rejected and partially discredited, just as Brock’s was.  Boyd’s expression of concern, however, was subject to similar criticism and questioning in a later issue of Foreign Affairs.

This author has gathered evidence from journalists that illustrates the determination of some media organisations to peddle one line to the exclusion of other evidence in a conflict that might undermine the line.  One senior correspondent has described how “balanced journalism has gone out of the window” because of what he calls a “tyranny of victimology.” Some of the difficulty of persuading U.S.  media organisations in particular to take a more balanced and less partial approach to a conflict like Bosnia is revealed fleetingly by David Owen in his book Balkan Odyssey.  He describes an “explosive encounter” with the editorial board of the New York Times when he tried to impart to them some of the realities of Bosnia, including the fact that often the Bosnians were as deceitful and evil as the Serbs.

However, the overall mind-set and editorial views of almost the entire journalistic elite, especially in the U.S., did not change.  For example, the Sarajevo market massacre on 5 February 1994 was instantly assumed to be the work of Serb artillery firing from the surrounding mountains.  Without any question, the media swiftly reflected the conventional belief that Serb gunners were responsible for the outrage. However, a series of subsequent crater analyses by UNPROFOR ballistics experts from several different nations concluded otherwise.  On a clear balance of probabilities, all evidence pointed to the fatal mortar being fired by Bosnian forces, as quickly became apparent in Sarajevo. A finding to this effect was made public on 16 February, but the international press ignored it because it did not fit the conventional wisdom.  

The evidence has been related to this author, who has also been assured that a full report sits in the chancelleries of the main Western capitals.  Senior officials have described how, at the time, it would have been “politically unhelpful” to have undermined the case against the Serbs.  Similar evidence was gathered by David Binder of the New York Times.  The newspaper, however, declined to run the story.  Instead, some six months after assembling the data, Binder published his own findings for a limited, elite readership in Foreign Policy. The overall media lesson learned by those grappling with the challenge of preventing conflict is therefore disturbing: Do not trust either the line or the coverage.  

Two further questions must be asked: Is the journalist partial? What information might he or she have omitted? Regrettably, the answers are unlikely to be encouraging.  


Nik Gowing was A foreign affairs specialist and presenter at ITN from 1978. He became Diplomatic Editor for the flagship Channel 4 News from 1989. During his time with the BBC, Gowing presented The World Today (1996–2000), Europe Direct, HARDtalk, Dateline London, as well as Simpson’s World.