Conflicts are endemic to the known social world and can be defined straightforwardly as struggles between opposing interests and outlooks. How the media report and represent conflicts have been questions throughout the history of media and communications research. From early studies of propaganda in World War I to the latest research into the media’s role in propagating, post-9/11, the US-led “global war on terror,” media researchers have analyzed and theorized the multiple roles, dimensions, determinants, and impacts of media conflict reporting. In addition to studies of war reporting, countless others have examined, for example, how minority groups and protesters have been labeled and stereotyped in the media and how new social movements and cultural identities seek media access and symbolic recognition; how moral panics, public crises, and political scandals are performed and conditioned on the media stage; how some conflicts become forgotten or hidden in dominant news agendas and how in others the media become involved in forwarding peace processes; how natural disasters and humanitarian emergencies are signaled around the world and how global risks, such as the fallout from nuclear accidents, migrating health pandemics, or climate change, become periodically symbolized and dramatized, discussed and debated.
Everyone, it seems, from elected presidents to eco-warriors, now looks to the media to advance strategic aims and symbolic claims. Some protagonists have considerable institutional advantages over their opponents and unashamedly use them to manipulate media agendas to insure that their preferred message gets across (or, equally, that damaging information never finds its way into the media sphere). The resource-poor and institutionally powerless, for their part, are apt to resort to creative tactics or turn to new media in their bid to gain media space and symbolically counter structural imbalances of power.
Environmentalists and antiwar protestors, for example, have become adept at deploying symbols and cultural myths or at staging stunning media events – “dissent events” – to attract the media spotlight. Whether pursued strategically by powerful corporate and government interests, or more tactically by diffuse cultural identities, the media have become a prized arena for the waging of conflict.
The discourses, symbols, and themes of media representations serve to variously define and legitimize or deny and delegitimize conflict aims. Conflict protagonists can be humanized, heroized, and held in high moral esteem or publicly dehumanized, denigrated, and even demonized. And conflicts can also be presented in historical context, discussed in terms of perceived or real injustices, and portrayed as politically dynamic and culturally meaningful, or they can be depicted as random violent events, seemingly without context or cause, perpetrated by criminals, pathological crowds, and bloodthirsty states or reified in Manichean terms as a “clash of cultures.” It is in and through the array of contending voices and views that manage to access the media and thus have the opportunity to publicly “put their case” that the state of democracy in today’s societies is revealed and publicly constituted.
The voluminous research into media conflict has also helped to recover the complex interactions between media and conflict processes as they unfold through time and in relation to political and other contingencies (Cottle 2006). Researchers are increasingly cognizant of the dynamic nature of media conflicts and how representations of the same are often contested within and outside the media and how and why these can change across time (Wolfsfeld 1997). Critical sights are prematurely narrowed if media conflict representations are presumed to remain constant or invariant across different fields of conflict, say war, environment, crime, or political scandal, or when ideas of “media bias,” “distortion,” or even “propaganda” are uncritically assumed. These concepts often do not have the necessary analytical precision and overlook epistemological issues surrounding media representations and analysis. Enemies and opposing parties, by definition, are likely to hold to different beliefs, values, and historical accounts, so recourse to notions of “nonbiased” media representations based, say, on “experts” and “evidence,” “history” and “truth,” can often simply compound, not reconcile, contending world outlooks. With few notable exceptions (Herman & Chomsky 1988), researchers today distance themselves from earlier monolithic views of mainstream media as instruments of “propaganda” working at the behest of dominant political and corporate elites. Nonetheless, most acknowledge the continuing structural imbalances, market imperatives, and political alignments of western mainstream media and how conflicts involving state interests such as war, terrorism, and foreign policy continue to summon government and military attempts at media control and censorship (Allan & Zelizer 2004). These, however, are often opposed by media professionals, and other shaping factors of media conflict are also at work. Deep-seated news values (“violence,” “deviance,” “drama,” “elite orientation,” “human interest,” and “spectacular images”), as well as the known “event orientation” of news and journalism’s reliance on key institutional sources and their definitions of events are all key explanatory factors in media conflict studies (Gitlin 2003/1980; Murdock 1981).
Today’s media ecology includes traditional media of mass publicity, press, and broadcasting as well as new digital and interactive media such as the Internet. Here top-down, vertical communication flows from the “few to the many” by national elites are rapidly being supplemented by wider networks of bottom-up and horizontal communication flows conveyed by diverse groups and individuals around the world in “many-to-many” mode (Bennett 2003). This complex of media forms and flows makes attempts at censorship and control of conflict representations increasingly difficult. Globalizing communications and “contraflows” of alternative and oppositional views and voices render national borders and political cultures increasingly porous and contribute also to the historical “transformation of visibility” (Thompson 2000). Here powerful elites and their misdeeds are more readily exposed in the media than hitherto and they can often become subject to public censure in media-led scandals.
- Allan, S., & Zelizer, B. (2004). Reporting war: Journalism in wartime. London: Routledge.
- Bennett, L. (2003). New media power: The Internet and global activism. In N. Couldry and J. Curran (eds.), Contesting media power: Alternative media in a networked world. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 17–38.
- Cottle, S. (2006). Mediatized conflict: Developments in media and conflict studies. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Cottle, S. (in press). Global crisis reporting. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Gitlin, T. (2003/1980). The whole world is watching: Mass media in the making and unmaking of the new left. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Herman, E., & Chomsky, N. (1988). Manufacturing consent: The political economy of the mass media. New York: Pantheon.
- Murdock, G. (1981). Political deviance: The press presentation of a militant mass demonstration. In S. Cohen and J. Young (eds.), The manufacture of news: Deviance, social problems and the mass media. London: Constable, pp. 206 –225.
- Thompson, J. B. (2000). Political scandal: Power and visibility in the media age. Cambridge: Polity.
- Wolfsfeld, G. (1997). Media and political conflict. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.