The Future of War Reporting

Since the Russian invasion of Georgia there has been a lot of discussion about the media war and who won it. The Guardian’s Peter Wilby, like many others, think “the Georgians played the PR game more skilfully.”

But another aspect seems to have received a little less attention – namely the nature of the media’s coverage and how it differed from other wars. Or, as a future PhD thesis might be titled: “The Media Coverage of the Georgian War: A Comparative Perspective.”

Let’s start with the Iraq War, which, like the Bosnian War before it, was a milestone in journalistic history. The tactics of the early Iraqi insurgency – indiscriminate killings, road-side bombs, kidnappings etc. – as well as the occasional Coalition aerial attack made the war the deadliest for the media. The war and its deadly aftermath have cost more reporters’ lives than any other conflict.

But reporting, too, seemed to undergo a transformation from its earlier Balkan incarnation. The Iraq War initially took the embed concept to the extreme. Viewers were up, close and personal – yet at the same time removed, as reporters were placed under different forms of censorship. We, the viewers, knew what the soldiers felt, could hear the whizzing bullets and could see their ghostly green silhouettes during night-time raids, but were left in the dark about the larger picture.

As post-combat stability gave way to violence, insurgency and chaos, it became too difficult to report outside Baghdad’s Green Zone. Suddenly we were looking down the other end of the media telescope: it became easier to understand the big picture – the missing WMD, the faltering reconstruction, the developing insurgency – but much of the detail was became, or at least fragmented. Relationships and personal stories – a stable of Balkan reporting – seemed rarer. Footage was usually after the event; a bomb would go off, but by the time the crew would to shoot the scene the bodies had been removed.

But in Georgia, the business of war-reporting seemed to take a step back to its Balkan version. Reporting was on the spot and live again. Really live. Pictures were not only after the event, but during the happening. We saw the footage as it happened, to the people, to the journalists. Even to the soldiers. “Embedded journalism” was live, but controlled. This was live and uncontrolled. David Chkhikvishvili’s video images of Georgian rockets being launched towards South Ossetia were live – and the first most people heard of the conflict.

But the war also seemed a little grittier, a post-Iraq kind of Balkans War – more indiscriminate, and more dangerous for reporters. Before the Russian suspension of hostilities, a Reuters reporter’s vehicle narrowly escaped bomb blasts near Gori. Jon Williams, an editor for BBC News, went so far as to call the safety situation during the conflict “catastrophic”.

As the prospect of state-to-state conflict seemed outdated before the Georgian War, so journalism seemed to be in a permanent post-Iraq state. Things have changed and it will be interesting to hear the progression reflect on these changes in the weeks to come.