[Column] How war is waged in war reporting

Posted on : 2023-11-03 17:04 KST Modified on : 2023-11-03 17:04 KST
Efforts to maintain objectivity during exceptional circumstances like war should be protected
Smoke billows in the Gazan sky on Oct. 29 amid continued war between Israel and Hamas there. (AFP/Yonhap)
Smoke billows in the Gazan sky on Oct. 29 amid continued war between Israel and Hamas there. (AFP/Yonhap)

By Shin Gi-sub, senior international news writer

“We could not independently verify this claim.”

This is the sentence I’ve encountered the most in foreign news reports ever since late last February, when I began covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s an expression customarily used when conveying one-sided claims made by parties directly involved in war while reminding readers that they haven’t been objectively substantiated.

Two thoughts cross my mind whenever I read this sentence. First, I wonder if the writer is using it as a cheat to absolve them of their responsibility while conveying unverified information. But on the other hand, I think it may be the product of a commitment to maintaining objectivity even during circumstances as exceptional as war, when one-sided claims become rampant. Ultimately, my thoughts lean more toward the latter. This is due to my personal experience contemplating how to write the news after checking in on the situation in Ukraine every morning as soon as I wake up.

This sentence has been cropping up without fail in foreign news articles covering the war between Israel and Hamas after the latter conducted a surprise attack against the former on Oct. 7. However, unlike with coverage of the war in Ukraine, this objectivity tactic wasn’t enough to avoid stirring controversy. This is due to the fact that the conflict between Palestine and Israel is so deep-rooted, and many in countries of the West such as the US and the UK consider it a matter close to their hearts. Plus, the ruling class in these countries is very pro-Israel, so media showing even the slightest anti-Israel or anti-Semitic tendencies become the target of fierce attacks.

One of the pressures Western media these days are under is the pressure to describe Hamas as “terrorists.” From the war’s earliest days, British politicians took issue with the fact that the BBC didn’t describe Hamas as terrorists. On Oct. 16, the spokesperson of the UK Prime Minister’s Office applied pressure on BBC, remarking that many media outlets “accurately described” Hamas as a terrorist organization. Regarding this, BBC countered that its responsibility is to explain what is happening so the public make judgments for themselves. As a matter of fact, BBC has often been criticized for being pro-Israel.

AFP of France is also under similar pressure. When this matter stirred debate within French political circles, AFP shared its views on the issue in the form of a press release on Saturday. The agency wrote, “In line with its mission to report the facts without passing judgment, AFP does not describe movements, groups, or individuals as terrorists unless it is in direct quotes or within attribution,” adding, “This is a long-standing policy at the agency and is in line with the editorial policies of other news agencies and major media.”

It continued, “As a term, terrorist is highly politicised and emotive. Many governments brand their domestic resistance or opposition movements as terrorist organisations. Many resistance movements and individuals that were branded as terrorist went on to be embraced internationally and became part of their countries’ mainstream political landscape.” Next, the agency referenced human rights activist and former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela, who fought against apartheid, as a prime example.

No matter how much media outlets try to maintain objectivity, it’s easy for readers to view them as biased. Still, efforts to maintain objectivity should be protected at the very least. These efforts will ultimately contribute to readers’ right to know.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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