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Military and the Media:
Ignorance on Both Sides

The Military and the Media
By Alan Hooper, Gower, 247 pages, $38

Reviewed by Murray MacAdam

 

It was estimated that in March, 1982, 700 million people — one-sixth of the entire world — were involved in some kind of war. No wonder military matters have assumed an important place in the news, as a casual glance at any newspaper will affirm.

Yet research indicates that misunderstanding and mutual ignorance between military officers and journalists is widespread. Relations have been strained between the military and the media from the outset of war reporting early in the 19th century to the present day.

The Military and the Media studies the relationship between the military and the media, the first book specifically on this topic. Author Alan Hooper, a veteran British naval officer, shows how this relationship has been affected by rapid change in the technology of communications, and by changes in society and the military.

The study, based on first-hand research, is certainly a detailed one. It includes personal observation by Hooper of the news process in the press, radio and television, interviews with military and media personalities, and visits to military establishments to see what they teach regarding the media. An outline of media fundamentals provides a sound foundation for case studies which follow on the wars in Vietnam, Northern Ireland and the Falklands.

Much of the book discusses the problems inherent in reporting generally and war reporting in particular. War reporting is often distorted from the start due to the problem of access; reporters can only report what they can see. Another limitation today is that most reporters have not had direct experience themselves of military life.

Television news can be limiting due to the lack of time for reporting anything other than the bare facts, resulting in "headline" news. It can also distort an issue due to the sensationalism of a particular event, such as the famous television footage from the Vietnam War of a child burned by napalm screaming in pain.

The desire to use the media for propaganda purposes can be particularly troublesome during wars. A section on Northern Ireland is most revealing in this regard. Biased reporters in Northern Ireland can always find someone to tell them what they want to hear to reinforce their prejudices.

Media tactics used by both sides in this conflict make the task of establishing the facts of an incident difficult. After a rebel has been killed by British troops, IRA supporters have been known to remove his weapon and present reporters with well-briefed "eye witnesses" to affirm that the man was murdered by the British Army.

During the Vietnam War, the world's first experience of a television war, few reporters had any experience of the military and thus many of them were not well qualified to cover the war. The press corps did include some experienced war correspondents who exposed the "news" manufactured in Saigon.

At times Hooper's conservative bias detracts from an otherwise well-argued analysis. He claims that the media believed the American public had no heart for the Vietnam War and so tried to interpret the war according to what they thought the public felt. While the claim that "the war was lost on the television screens of the United States" may contain some truth, Hooper adds nothing about other reasons behind the massive anti-war movement that arose.

Hooper is also on shaky ground with a comparison made several times in his book on similarities between the military and the media. Both fields do share some characteristics, such as professionalism, teamwork, and a need to make decisions under the pressure of time. Yet while media operations certainly have their chains of command, how accurate is it to liken them to the British armed forces, with their rigid hierarchies and secrecy?

Despite these shortcomings, The Military and the Media is a useful book. As Hooper notes, the link between the military and the media is more important than ever, especially since technological advances have dramatically altered the influence of TV. Yet most journalists remain ignorant of the armed forces and how they operate. And the failure of military colleges to include instruction about the mechanics of journalism has meant that military people have never really understood the media or their position in society.

The solution is education, through such means as a standard education program for the military about the media, and instruction for journalism students on the role of the military in society. Both sides have a lot to gain by learning more about the other's work and about the realities of war reporting.

This book could be quite valuable in educating military personnel regarding the facts of life about the media, and in particular about the restraints and problems associated with producing newspapers and radio and TV broadcasts. Sections in which Hooper takes us into the newsrooms of British newspapers, television and radio stations go a long way to demystify the news process. For seasoned journalists this sort of material will be old hat, but there are still some helpful insights and interesting tidbits of information.

One drawback for Canadian readers is the book's British orientation, which makes much of the material irrelevant for Canadians. It would be interesting to read an analysis of the military-media relationship in Canada, especially by an analyst more critical of the military than Hooper.

 

Published in SOURCES Summer 83

 



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