The Subjectivity of War Journalism

Charles Lane of Washington Post has written a thoughtful, commendably candid piece on war journalism in the wake of Brian Williams’ prevarications. Chuck points out that the typical life of a war correspondent – long, boring stretches interspersed by frightening, humiliating moments – contrasts starkly with the legends that can dominant the journalistic mind:

Alas, the notion that nearly getting killed confers some sort of extra reportorial credibility is a deeply ingrained cultural norm, among both producers and consumers of news. I don’t know who’s to blame for this; maybe it all goes back to Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and the civil war in Spain.

Ernie Pyle with Marines on Okinawa, 1945

Ernie Pyle with Marines on Okinawa, 1945

Personally, I think of the amazing Ernie Pyle as the ghost some war journalists are chasing, not just because he took tremendous risks and ultimately died in combat but also because the grunts accepted him as one of their own. To newsreaders who spend more on hair care products each year than the typical soldier’s salary, the thought that hanging out with G.I.s on camera will bring them some precious “down to earth, regular guy” cred is extremely tantalizing. Such journalists are just as tempted to manufacture that image as they are to gin up phony tales of combat like Williams did.

The Williams scandal is an instance of a more general challenge of war journalism in that by its nature, it offers less opportunity for editors to monitor and fact-check journalists’ work. A lot of the reporting relies on one person’s subjectivity, and if that person is dishonest, they can distort the story far more than they could ever get away with in a different setting. But in my observation, self-promoting embellishment is not the main found of subjectivity that can color how wars are covered by journalists.

I got to know a number of war correspondents through my Iraq work, and some of them I would rank among the most impressive people I have ever met. But I was also struck how many of them were depressed, were fleeing disastrous marital/family situations, drank too much and/or were terminal adrenaline junkies. Some had full-blown PTSD, a larger group had less serious but still significant problems of that sort (perhaps masking it as world-weary cynicism/bitterness).

Like our soldiers, a number of them had mental health problems when they came back. I tried to help those who asked for support as best as could, and at least some of them have pulled things together and are doing well stateside. But some continue to struggle, permanently altered for the worse by the events to which they were exposed in war zones.

These experiences changed the way I consume war-related news coverage. As I read, I weigh in my mind that the person writing it may well have some emotional scars that lead them to report events in a different way, most commonly tilted toward a bleaker take than objective events warrant. I don’t say this in criticism because I appreciate that, unlike Williams, they have an excuse when their personal psychology begins to dominate their reporting. But it does lead me to be unusually cautious in taking their reports at face value.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.