‘Noisy’ emergencies and the media
by Nik Gowing August 2002

A large part of the momentum that propels a crisis onto the international agenda is generated by the media. But with new technology bringing wars, disasters and their humanitarian consequences to the attention of publics, governments and aid agencies more efficiently than ever, the question is not how much coverage there is, but what kind.

It is a self-perpetuating myth that increasingly there is less media coverage of humanitarian emergencies. The revolution in information technology and low-cost, lightweight means of recording and transmitting means there is now more reporting than ever from even the most remote and dangerous theatres of conflict and natural disaster. The question in today’s ‘noisy’ emergencies is, who are the ‘noise’ generators? There are now many more than most assume.

The pressures of real-time reporting may mean the reporting created by the new technology is not always as accurate and objective as most would want. Coverage of such terrifying events as in East Timor after the 1999 referendum or Goma as the volcano erupted, showed how the impact of the media coverage can be immediate and profound, but it might be skewed in the rush to establish even basic facts at speed. More worryingly, the evidence is that in some emergencies it can polarise, radicalise and destabilise.

This helps contribute significantly to the impression that more emergencies have become ‘noisy’ – if bearing witness and recording unfolding events are the yardstick. They are noisier because more people and audiences around the world can now get to know about them. In the recent violence in Nepal, Kashmir, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, for example, we have seen much more reported in a timely way, even from remote locations, than we have ever seen before. These days, almost no crises go unreported in one way or another.

New technology and new players

How has this happened? The new low-cost, go-anywhere, real-time technology is central to the often breathtaking changes – especially the mobile phone and hand-portable satellite phones. So too is the presence of a new, often self-taught cadre of ‘information doers’ or ‘bearers of witness’. They have shown that they create a whole new matrix of media in these emergencies. They don’t have to be journalists accredited to known news organisations or professionally trained. But the power of what they record and feed to a growing proliferation of publication or broadcast platforms can be as great.

Think, for example, of the impact and power of the anonymous sat-phone reports by the East Timor resistance from the hills above Dili in September 1999 during the post-referendum campaign of violence by the Indonesian-backed militias. The messages transmitted back via an office in Darwin in Australia described bodies piled high in the police station and walls stained with blood. Television images in the first post-referendum hours confirmed an appalling level of violence – a man was even hacked to pieces in front of a video camera. No one now disputes there was a significant death toll, especially among East Timorese who disappeared while being forcibly shipped out. Yet for whatever reason, whether malicious or emotional, the claims about the bodies and the police station were exaggerated and the Australian-led UN forces who eventually entered Dili found no evidence to support them.

This was noise. And while it can help achieve a political purpose of mobilising international concern, it is also worrying. On the other hand, the presence of TV satellite uplinks in Dili for the first two days of the post-referendum violence had a disturbing but positive impact. The failure of the Indonesian and/or militia commanders to think of shutting down these uplinks as their reign of terror began allowed the world to watch the horror unfold in almost real time. Two BBC correspondents described live how they had escaped being murdered by militiamen wielding machetes. The risks taken by four women journalists to stay and report by sat phone from the besieged UN compound highlighted the dangers and threats to large numbers of terrified East Timorese. The stark images and reporting had a profound effect in mobilising the UN Security Council to action, and it did so in a few days. By contrast, months of pre-referendum warnings from UNMET about the likely violence failed to galvanise a response.

Since 1999, much has changed. Now bearers of witness do not have to be household personalities or brand names around the world to have an impact. But they too are media – the new, less recognised, but increasingly powerful media, even if some would class them more as advocates than journalists.

This new spectrum of ‘information doers’ is vastly different from the traditional, one-dimensional idea of media as prime-time TV newscast or story in a leading broadsheet newspaper. As the media business fragments into numerous niche audiences, with intense pressures on commercial revenues, new low-cost delivery platforms such as websites, e-mail, mobile phones and text messages have rapidly generated new challenges to the more establish media. Recent BBC News research has confirmed that the median age for traditional forms of news consumption is rising significantly: twenty years ago, the peak age was 25; ten years ago is was 35; it is now 45. The avid news-consuming generation is the same one, getting older and, if the trend continues, will soon be a dying breed. Meanwhile younger generations get the information they want (if they want it) from a proliferation of different media sources.

The tyranny of real time

What, then, is the new media challenge in humanitarian emergencies? Conflict zone websites such as the ‘Electronic Intifada’ in the Middle East are a new part of the media matrix, with new perspectives, insights and ways of delivering. As the E-Intifada states on its homepage, they will ‘equip you to challenge myth, distortion and spin in the media in an informed way, enabling you to effect positive changes in media coverage of the Palestinians and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’.

The objectivity and balance of such sites may be challenged. At ‘noisy’ times in emergencies, such new media platforms can offer alternative perspectives but also sometimes inflammatory interpretations, challenging the coverage and perspectives of the traditional media organisations.

The power of this new, real-time information in emergencies is demonstrated in a terrible way. The International Press Institute (IPI) confirms that, more than ever, those who bear witness are being actively targeted by warring factions, guerrilla groups and national armies. Those who record images on their tiny digital cameras and send reports on mobile phones are considered an instant threat to operational security in a conflict zone. Warring parties try to neutralise and shut down the ‘information doers’ because of their power to observe and report. The price of pulling a digital camera from a pocket or rucksack can be very high, sometimes fatal. The murder by Israeli soldiers of Italian freelance picture journalist Raffaele Ciriello in Ramallah in March 2002 is just one example. He was shot dead as he stood in a street using a small camera to record a military operation. In conflict zones across the world there are many other examples, with fast-growing casualty numbers to prove it.

As I have often written and warned since the mid-1990s, the core issue for the media, the military, governments and humanitarians in these hypercharged environments of instant, noisy crises remains the need for skill, self-discipline, caution and public restraint when handling information. The price of impetuous, emotive language and assumptions can be very high in terms of credibility and integrity.

In contrast, self-restraint means that rumour, innuendo, accusations and the worst assumptions will fail to germinate in the swirl of immediate noise in an emergency. But in the emotion and passion of terrible events and amid the tyranny of real time, self-restraint is usually in short supply.

West Bank, spring 2002

An example of the new swirl of real-time reporting was provided by events in Jenin, Ramallah and Bethlehem on the West Bank in March and April 2002 during the Israeli operation to neutralise the Palestinians who engineered the wave of suicide bombs against Israeli targets. The purpose of this article is explicitly not the rights and wrongs of Israeli or Palestinian policy and action concerning the violence and bombing. It is to highlight the way information, rumours and exaggeration swiftly emerged in a very noisy crisis, then created the widespread belief that Israeli forces had carried out a ‘massacre’. The question is: why were perceptions distorted and all reasonable sense of reality destroyed.

Even as the chronology and scale of those events on the West Bank continue to be examined, there are profound lessons for all from the media noise in this emergency. By excluding radio, print and TV journalists using hostile means (including stun grenades, smoke and even targeted machine gun fire), the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) alienated both the media and humanitarian aid workers. This further encouraged journalists and humanitarians to assume the worst was taking place in the Israeli military operation.

When combined with an early IDF claim of ‘hundreds’ of Palestinians dead (a claim withdrawn within a few hours), the media felt justified in assuming that emotive claims from official Palestinian Authority voices of hundreds of casualties must be correct. There was no evidence and there were no independent reports, but almost no-one held back from assuming and reporting the worst.

Assumptions about the scale of violence inflicted by the IDF were further fuelled by the real-time stream of vivid, often uncorroborated ‘reporting’ by e-mail and on websites. The sources, details and timing of the many ‘reports’ were often unclear, questionable or non-existent. There was no way of checking claims about the number of deaths, the stories of bulldozers and tanks running over bodies, or whole families murdered in their homes.

But hour by hour, an apparently terrifying picture emerged. Rumour and innuendo seized the information highground in ways that the IDF found themselves powerless to refute. Their task was made even more difficult by occasional streamed video and digital images of Palestinians apparently being murdered in cold blood by IDF soldiers. The impact was awful but, in the rush to provide information, the central question went unanswered: might these images and reporting be faked, or taken from another incident entirely?

In the supercharged atmosphere, the price for anyone attempting objective observation or cautious analysis was starkly illustrated by the experience of Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN’s Norwegian special envoy to the Middle East. His cool, horrified impressions as he first walked around the destruction in the Jenin refugee camp created immediate and adverse media ‘noise’. Israeli officials interpreted Larsen’s humanitarian observations as political and responded swiftly with a virtual character assassination of the envoy. One even likened him to Quisling, the Norwegian Defence Minister under the Nazis.

A crisis of journalism?

As I write, we have a far more precise picture, though not complete understanding of events in Jenin. Human Rights Watch concluded that 52 Palestinians and 23 Israeli soldiers died. There was no massacre, but the behaviour of some IDF soldiers raised the possibility that war crimes had been committed. HRW concluded that many of the 22 Palestinian civilians who died were killed ‘wilfully or unlawfully’. Several Israeli soldiers have since been arrested.

Although casualties on both sides were significant, on balance it can hardly be said that the media noise during the Israeli operation in Jenin conveyed a considered and qualified reality. Many of the emotional claims reported at the time did not stand up to subsequent examination.

At the end of May, the Editor-in-Chief of the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz described a ‘real crisis of values for journalism’, based on his experience covering 20 months of the intifada. At a media conference in Bruges in Belgium, he related the story of Abu Ali and his nine children who lived in the Jenin refugee camp. A few weeks earlier, Mr Ali had reportedly told a ‘very distinguished and influential’ European magazine: ‘all my nine children are buried beneath the ruins.’ His photograph was spread across a double page under the title: ‘The survivors tell their story’.

But reality was different. As the conference was told: ‘First, final numbers indicate that three children and four women were killed during the fighting in the Jenin refugee camp. Second, Abu Ali’s children were not among them. And third, the magazine did not bother to tell its readers of this relatively happy end to its story.’

This example, far from unique, highlighted the tension between reality and real-time reporting. It can create a great deal of such media noise in a crisis, and can be responsible for drowning out more balanced, accurate reporting.

Those who expect better will have to dream on. Those of us lucky enough to work for a massive, well-resourced news machine like the BBC, which seeks at all times to report accurately, objectively and impartially by double-checking and not rushing to judgement, face a major challenge as other players rush to report, rather than check. Those who provide humanitarian responses also need to understand the new and increasingly imperfect real-time journalistic reality. The noise will get louder and ever more disturbing. The priority for all is to realise this is happening, and that new, uncomfortable dynamics are being created.

Nik Gowing is a main presenter for BBC World, the BBC’s global news and information TV channel.

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References and further reading

Nik Gowing, ‘Outfoxed in the Information War’, TIME Europe, 12 November 2001. It can be found at http://www.time.com/time/europe/me/magazine/0,9868,182845,00.html.

Nik Gowing, New Challenges and Problems for Information Management in Complex Emergencies: Ominous Lessons from the Great Lakes and Eastern Zaire in Late 1996 and Early 1997. Paper for ‘Dispatches From Disaster Zones’ conference, London, 27–28 May 1998. Available on http://www.usip.org/oc/events/gowing.pdf.

Nik Gowing, ‘Media Coverage: Help or Hindrance in Conflict Prevention’. Available on the website of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict: http://www.ccpdc.org/pubs/media/mediaframe.htm.

Colin Scott, Larry Minear and Thomas G. Weiss, The News Media, Civil War, and Humanitarian Action (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1996).

Robert I. Rotberg and Thomas G. Weiss (eds), From Massacres to Genocide: The Media, Public Policy, and Humanitarian Crises (Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1996).

The Electronic Intifada website is at www.electronicintifada.net.