Howard Tumber and Frank Webster
Journalists Under Fire
Information War and Journalistic Practices
Sage Publications, 2006.
In 2006 several titles have been published that make theoretical claims about the changing relationship between news media, politics and military affairs. Dan Gillmor has argued that citizen journalism will fatally undermine the 'Big Media' landscape of large news organisations, reinforced by Brian McNair's support for Cultural Chaos as a global democratising force. Meanwhile Simon Cottle has offered a sophisticated account of today's Mediatized Conflicts and Martin Shaw suggests a New Western Way of War . Tumber and Webster's latest intervention offers an empirical contribution to these re-assessments, presenting data from a set of interviews with foreign correspondents and photographers who have worked at the frontline of recent conflicts.
In fact, Journalists Under Fire is two short books in one. We are first offered a broad diagnosis of post-Cold War global politics that stands as a backdrop to the interviews. The authors argue that a neoliberal world order and the uncertainties brought by migration, flexible labour and flexible identities lead in some cases to a reactionary fundamentalism that can take violent forms, whether in nationalist wars or transnational terrorist struggles. At the same time, global communications have created a burgeoning 'global consciousness' that constitutes a pressure on powerful states to ensure the universal achievement of human rights and democracy. Foreign correspondents assume a central position here, able to report human rights violations as well as cover Western pre-emptive interventions or reactions. At this fulcrum of the 'information war' stands the quasi-mythical frontline war correspondent, whose reporting may move governments and whose importance has made journalists targets for military and political manipulation or targeted elimination. What better subject for in-depth interviews?
Unfortunately, as with Tumber and Palmer's (2004) The Media at War , the reader is presented with a series of large quotations rather at the expense of analytical scrutiny and extended argument. Chapters cover topics such as 'who they are and why they do it', 'danger and safety', and 'coping with fear and protection'. The chapters draw few conclusions and fail to dwell upon any contradictions in the interviewees' accounts. In one chapter, 'working relations', we find extracts that suggest that sometimes journalists cooperate but sometimes competition in the field brings out the worst. One perhaps expects more from this potentially very rich corpus.
From the information presented in the book it is difficult to glean a rationale for the selection of extracts or for the selection of journalists who were interviewed (in terms of their gender, experience, nationality, media organisation and so on). Given the alternative approaches to treating qualitative material available to sociologists such as Tumber and Webster, the inclusion of a methodological discussion would have been illuminating, particularly given the challenges in undertaking interview work and gaining important access to frontline correspondents. Attention to method may in fact have helped the authors gain greater analytical leverage in their treatment of the interviews and led to more compelling arguments.
If the purpose of the book is simply to describe the daily working practices of journalists under fire, then - with the benefit of hindsight and a larger budget - the interviews may have been better presented as a documentary. Watching and listening to these experienced war-reporting veterans recount their tales and opinions would have both concentrated the material and brought it to life.
27 October 2006
© the war and media network, 2006