War correspondents provide first-hand accounts of military conflict for dissemination to the public. The literature of war correspondents manifests a decidedly western focus. War correspondents originated during the imperial age, when British newspapers sought first-hand accounts of distant continental and colonial wars, and became an institution during major nineteenth- and twentieth-century wars. Newspapers originated the role of war correspondent. The Times of London hired barrister Henry Crabb Robinson to cover Napoleon’s campaign in Spain and later employed William Howard Russell to cover the Crimean and Franco-Prussian wars. Scholarship about conflicts and journalism practices in general focuses disproportionately on western sources.
Origins And Technology
Before the nineteenth century, reports from the front lines depended on accounts from travelers or letters from troops, who were untrained and poorly educated. Accounts of war in newspapers often served simply to promote nationalism. Two factors that influenced the role and function of war correspondents are social and ideological. Social changes, especially those involving technology, shortened the time required to get news from the front lines to the public, and ideological pressures created tension over whether war reports are independent accounts or government propaganda.
Early on, correspondents wrote their reports by hand and transmitted them to newspapers by horse or ship. Sometimes weeks or months passed before the public read about battles. The pattern began to change in the late nineteenth century. During the Mexican– American War, correspondents sent their reports first by steamship to New Orleans, then via telegraph to the east coast or by pony express to the US heartland. War reporting changed again when the US and European networks of telegraph lines expanded. The telegraph sped movement of news reports from the front lines. The number of war correspondents increased during the US Civil War: more than 500 from the north alone covered the early battles in Virginia and Maryland. Although coverage became more immediate, reports were often inaccurate, fabricated, partisan, and incendiary (Knightley 1975), largely because correspondents lacked education and training.
The Atlantic cable laid in 1866 meant that news of war on one continent no longer took weeks to reach readers on another. At first the flow of news was largely one-sided, with the US press depending heavily on foreign reports, especially from Britain. During the last half of the nineteenth century, British war correspondents dominated coverage. Europeans and Americans read news reports of the Crimean and Franco-Prussian wars by William Howard Russell of The Times of London and accounts of the Franco-Prussian, RussoTurkish, and Zulu wars by Archibald Forbes of the London Daily News. During the Spanish–American War, US correspondents dominated, including Richard Harding Davis of the New York Journal and Stephen Crane of the New York World, and the Associated Press emerged as a major source of war news.
The sharp rise in literacy and the development of economical printing increased the number of mass circulation newspapers and magazines in the late nineteenth century, enlarging audiences for war news. The expanding audience for news between the US Civil War and World War I produced a golden age for US and European war correspondents (Knightly 1975).
The next significant development was the dissemination of war news over the radio, which spread with mass production of radio receivers following World War I. The first radio networks formed in Great Britain and the United States in the 1920s. By the late 1930s, almost all urban (and a majority of rural) US residents relied on radio as their primary news source. On the eve of the outbreak of World War II in Europe, correspondents in London and Prague could narrate events for a widening audience. Radio remained a primary source of news during the Korean conflict. Following the outbreak of war, radio ratings jumped by more than half.
In the United States, only one in six homes had television when the Korean War began, but nine out of ten had TV sets by 1960, and most had a color TV by mid-decade. The Vietnam War was the first to enter US homes by television (Hallin 1989). The color film and video images were graphic and powerful (Allan & Zelizer 2004), but not live, because television news divisions had to transport film canisters from the front. Television war reporting shifted the structure of news reports from thematic frames, which include background and context, to episodic frames, which communicate stories in piecemeal fashion without context (Iyengar 1991).
Starting with the Gulf conflict in 1991, satellite transmission eliminated the lag from the time correspondents covered events in war to the time audiences witnessed those events in news reports. After CNN broadcast the US bombing of Baghdad live in January 1991, instantaneous coverage of war was dubbed the CNN effect. When an audience thousands of miles away can experience words and images from a war zone as they occur, journalists have less time to exercise news judgment.
War correspondents face tension because of their several roles in wartime. They may see themselves as a mirror, providing largely objective accounts of war with little or no interpretation; as a watchdog, counterbalancing the power of political and military officials; or as a cheerleader, serving as a conduit to disseminate government positions. Which role prevails depends, in part, on three factors: the attitudes of news publishers, editors, and reporters; whether the public is unified or divided in its support of war; and the access to the front lines that political and military officials permit.
Early war reports served more as propaganda. Before World War I, war correspondents were more likely to provide what audiences wanted to read, mainly patriotic accounts that contributed to the illusion of war as an adventure or thrilling story (Knightley 1975). Governments did not necessarily interfere. For example, during the US Civil War, the government in Washington made little effort to control correspondents, in part because President Abraham Lincoln valued a free press and in part because of the difficulty of enforcing restrictions.
Competition between news outlets in reporting war news has been present since the mid-nineteenth century, when The Times and Daily News of London sent their own war correspondents to cover the Crimean, Franco-Prussian, and Russo-Turkish wars. In time, however, competition spurred overzealous newspaper owners to use sensational coverage to build circulation. That motive helped trigger US entry into the Spanish–American War, as William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World competed for readers.
In war, the first casualty is truth. At the start of the twentieth century, Great Britain in the Boer War and Japan during the Russo-Japanese War were the first governments to censor war correspondents. All major belligerents during World War I employed strict censorship of war news. Government and military officials reasoned that total war requires sacrifices, not just from soldiers but also from civilians.
Governments used two approaches to foment hatred of the enemy in order to sustain public support for war. First, they controlled press access to the front. The military provided reports of battles and subjected any correspondents found on the battlefield to arrest and expulsion. Second, governments created vehicles for their own propaganda by manipulating information. When these efforts were revealed following World War I, the press experienced a sharp decline in credibility.
During World War II the degree of censorship ranged from moderate control of the press among democratic nations to total control among totalitarian nations. US president Franklin Roosevelt sought to balance the conflicting goals of secrecy and candor, first through the Office of Censorship, formed after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and then through the Office of War Information, under Elmer Davis, formed in June 1942. US officials rationed pictures of American dead on the basis of public relations needs. They banned photographs of casualties early in the war but encouraged them later, fearing that US battlefield successes might result in overconfidence and reduce willingness to accept domestic hardships. Military officials in Britain and France intended to treat the press much as they had in World War I, but were instead more relaxed toward the press during World War II. US and British militaries considered correspondents part of the armed forces, a view that many correspondents shared (Knightley 1975). The press–military relationship, often contentious in previous wars, was cooperative during World War II, the Korean War, and the start of the Vietnam War.
At the outset of the latter two wars, news reports from the front were highly supportive. Occasional tension with the military arose over personalities or over the requirement to send stories from Korea through controls in Tokyo. By contrast, US journalists operated in Vietnam with complete freedom. After the Tet offensive in 1968, some political and military officials claimed that negative war coverage influenced public opinion. They blamed press access to the front lines for the reporting of casualties and atrocities. The reporting on bad news coverage would remain contentious in future wars.
In Korea and Vietnam, the US press was supportive of war early on, relying heavily on political and military officials for reports about progress. Later, as elite and public opinion began to divide, news reports reflected the divisions, and public support for limited war fell as casualties rose (Hallin 1989). News coverage tends to be critical in the late stages of longer wars.
Some political and military officials, believing that the news media undermined public opinion during Vietnam, devised strategies to control press access during combat. The US invasion of Granada occurred in secret, absent press coverage. By the time of the invasion of Panama and the Gulf War, the US military employed a pool system that restricted battlefield access to a few reporters. Initial pools in the Gulf War consisted of 150 journalists out of more than 1,400 located in the region. The press corps strongly opposed the pool system.
During the Falklands War against Argentina, the British embedded journalists in combat units, which fostered an esprit de corps between press and military that, some claim, slanted coverage toward the military. The US Department of Defense adopted a policy of embedding journalists in combat units during the Iraq War, partly in response to criticism of the pool system. The US government also wanted to showcase American military forces and simultaneously pre-empt misinformation anticipated from the Iraqi regime. The more than 600 journalists embedded in combat units during the Iraq War produced newspaper and television news reports that were structurally different from unilateral (non-embedded) reports. Embedded reports in the first two years featured greater episodic framing and, as a result, greater affect, and embedded reports were more favorable toward the military (Pfau et al. 2005).
Governments also continued creating new vehicles to influence war coverage. Following World War II, the US military used its own public affairs (once called “public information”) practitioners to work with civilian journalists covering war news. Since the Gulf conflict, governments also have used multinational public relations firms to influence public opinion. For example, the Hill and Knowlton firm represented the government of Kuwait at the time Iraq invaded the country. The firm helped shape US public opinion in favor of military intervention, in part by using the longstanding technique of claiming atrocities. During the Iraq War, the US government turned to public relations agencies to influence world opinion.
- Allan, S., & Zelizer, B. (eds.) (2004). Reporting war: Journalism in wartime. New York: Routledge.
- Emery, M. (1995). On the front lines: Following America’s foreign correspondents across the twentieth century. Washington, DC: American University Press.
- Hallin, D. C. (1989). The uncensored war: The media and Vietnam. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Hammond, W. M. (1998). Reporting Vietnam: Media and military at war. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.
- Iyengar, S. (1991). Is anyone responsible? How television frames political issues. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Knightley, P. (1975). The first casualty: The war correspondent as hero and myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Lande, N. (1996). Dispatches from the front: A history of the American war correspondent. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Mermin, J. (1999). Debating war and peace: Media coverage of U.S. intervention in the post-Vietnam era. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Pfau, M., Haigh, M. M., Logsdon, L. et al. (2005). Embedded reporting during the invasion and occupation of Iraq: How the embedding of journalists affects television news reports. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 49, 468–487.