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Media - Terror - War

New York, 11th of September 2001
Source: ORF

"Nothing would ever be the same anymore." This was the most frequently used comment in the media after September 11th. The attack on the World Trade Centre represented a new kind of terrorism, which severely shattered the self-perception of the western world. At the same time, the collapse of the Twin Towers created a new dimension of media events. An innumerable amount of viewers experienced live the dramatisation (exhibition, presentation) of horror, seemingly aligned to its media effect. Broadcast stations showed unbelievable images in endless repetition.

The media conveys terror and violence through moving pictures and reports. They determine the public climate of opinion and therefore even influence political decisions during wars and conflicts. Even in 1940 General Eisenhower told an assembly of US-publishers succinctly: "Public opinion wins war." (Mira Beham: Der Informationskrieg um das Kosovo, in: S+F. Vierteljahresschrift für Sicherheit und Frieden, 3/2002, p. 218).

From telegraphy to the internet: The history of new media's technological developments is similarly connected with military history and global war reports. Today, general media technologies coincide with military technologies, as the media historian Friedrich Kittler was able to show. Every game console imitates situations that a pilot in war had already experienced. The US-Army stopped their independent development programmes in the computer sector some time ago and therefore now buys from the free market (Friedrich Kittler: Das Bild des Krieges gibt es nicht nicht mehr, in: Konrad Paul Liessmann (Ed.): Der Vater aller Dinge. Philosphimcum Lech, Vienna 2001).

Whether it concerns television, radio, press or internet: Every medium has its own repertoire of forms of expressions as well as narrative and conveying techniques. They emphasise different aspects of reality and consequently cause various reactions. Besides that, economical, political and societal backgrounds influence the production of pictures of war and terror. The conditions of war coverage only become the focus of attention when reporters or cameramen are involved in highly dangerous situations, get hurt or even die. Media sometimes writes war history itself however, and develops into political publicity, as happened during the war in Vietnam.

Foreign policy is not made by the media, yet, in the age of information it can not be made without it, is the conclusion drawn by an American study. (Warren P. Strobel: The Media. Influencing Foreign Policy in the Information Age. USIA Electronic Journal, Vol. 5, no 1, March 2000). Comparative investigations could prove that armed conflicts, violent unrest and open wars are dominating topics in the media. Regions and countries constituting the "edge" of a globalised world, only arouse considerable media attention if – as cynical as it may sound – their political and ethnical conflicts turn into bloody battles. This conflict-orientated view shapes the common perception in a sustainable way and determines the duration of interest. It is a known fact that disputing parties harness these mechanism for conscious speculations and exploitations. Still, the assistance of PR-agencies and "spin-doctors" has generated a new kind of professionalism concerning military information management (as the conflict in Kosovo showed). Categories such as "good" and "evil", "winner" and "loser," "foe" and "friend" are determined or at least affected by those parties, who manage a more effective way of influencing (Mira Beham: Der Informationskrieg um das Kosovo, in: S+F. Vierteljahresschrift für Sicherheit und Frieden, 3/2002, p. 218).

Wars turn into media events. They even start to take place in the media and have their own rules of dramatisation. These are dramatisations for the media, and dramatisations in the media. Scientists of communication have been able to name several factors, which transform war into an exceptional media event: relevance to the current situation, vividness, approachability, various possibilities of personalisation and visualisation, astonishing shock effects and a crucial reduction of complexity such as "victory" and "defeat."

Depictions of war in media have always been more than simply reproductive or sensational. The media legitimises or condemns, conveys or criticises biased images and messages. It sells the horrors of war and is at the same time able to contain conflicts through publicity and deterrence (and at the same time, its publicity and deterrence might contain further conflicts). Although the media analyses backgrounds of "war machinery" - politics, economy and society - from outside, it is simultaneously a part of it. In times of increasing interest in war, armed conflicts advanced to one of the most important events of the media age. It was therefore inevitable that war coverage increasingly became an element of war itself.

The logic of war contradicts the criteria of objectivity that is postulated by modern journalism. War is always accompanied by propaganda and censorship and therefore it is impossible to impart truth to the best of one's knowledge and belief. Furthermore, journalists have to deal with a sophisticated "information management" of the army, which threatens to exploit their job (Hans J. Kleinsteuber: Kriegsberichterstatter: Phantasien und Realitäten, in: S+F, 3/2000).

Hence, the journalist's claim of being a critical "fourth power" has to be measured by their relationship to a construction of reality created by belligerent parties. Even when they succeed in penetrating propaganda, censorship and "military PR," they still have to cope with polarisation and stereotypes, through which political, religious and ethnical orientations try to implement their fundamental views. Images of danger as well as political interests may find their way into the coverage of war and terror. As a result they might either contribute to the legitimisation of conflicts or to the mobilisation of the public against it. Consequently, the importance of the media's function and purpose is increasingly valued highly. In this context one has to understand the preamble of the UNESCO's statutes: Because war is formed in people's minds, it is necessary to take precautions in order to steer these minds towards peace. (Mira Beham: Der Informationskrieg um das Kosovo, in: S+F. Vierteljahresschrift für Sicherheit und Frieden, 3/2002, p. 218).

Martin Bernhofer

This text was written for an international symposium, that took place on 9th September 2002 in the "RadioKulturhaus" in remembrance of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York.
Organised by: "Demokratiezentrum Vienna," editorial offices of social sciences of the ORF-radios and DER STANDARD as well as in co-operation with the Association of History and Society (Verein für Geschichte und Gesellschaft)

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