What’s at Stake: the Ethics of War and Conflict Journalism in the Digital Era

Urooba Jamal
Reporting From the Rubble
4 min readNov 14, 2020

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France 24 was embroiled in a scandal concerning the murder of a man in Mali in February 2020. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier this year, Sadou Yehia, a farmer from the Gourma region of Mali, was brutally murdered by terrorist groups. Just a month before his death, he had given a televised interview to France 24, appearing in their report with his face on camera and his full name spelled out. The French outlet faced a storm of criticism: why had they opted to blur the faces of the French troops in the region, and not Yehia’s, a villager who paid the ultimate price for the news report? His family pinned the blame on his murder squarely on France 24.

The incident sheds light on the need for a code of ethics for war and conflict reporting in the era of digital technology. How might such work be carried out when there exists a 24-hour news cycle alongside social media communication networks that stream endlessly and unfiltered, in an age where most conflict is tied to non-state terror groups?

A 2018 study in Women’s Studies International Forum found that among the 90 Yazidi women who had faced attacks by ISIS, 85% had dealt with journalists who engaged in unethical practices. Often this included pressuring them to speak or failing to protect their identity.

These instances illustrate how the protection of sources becomes all that much more paramount when reporting from a conflict zone, where care must be taken to minimize harm. A code of ethics for war and conflict reporting must take this factor into account.

The Ethical Journalism Network states plainly:

“And one of the cardinal principles of journalists — protection of sources — becomes ever more important when lives are at risk. Journalists have obligations to the people they report about. They must not reveal the identity of their sources if they are at risk. People will not tell journalists important news if they fear they will be revealed.”

The Poynter Institute, a non-profit journalism training center, first published their handbook, Doing Ethics in Journalism in 1995. It included minimizing harm as one of the principles journalists should abide by. As the above situations demonstrate, this need is just as vital today.

Another widely-agreed principle of ethical journalism is acting independently. In conflict reporting, this principle is especially important, writes Denis Muller, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, given “the interest in knowing as full a story as possible about decisions by governments that commit their societies to grave undertakings, such as war.”

Journalists grappled with this principle in the early 2010s when deciding whether to publish and report on the U.S.-government classified documents concerning the War on Terror, leaked by Wikileaks. The information was obtained illegally, but there was grounds for the argument that reporting about its content was in the public’s interest. Interestingly, this same conflict saw the flipside of this principle in action: journalists embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. This at times led to one-sided coverage of the U.S. invasion there and a failure in providing accounts of all sides.*

The Ethical Journalism Network advises journalists with the following:

“Provide inclusive story-telling and seek out voices from all sides. Exploring the social reality of the lives of others helps to provide a nuanced understanding that may pave the way to realistic ways of resolving conflict. Avoid stereotypes that reinforce ignorance, prejudice and fear. Above all, the ethical journalist will humanise the conflict process — putting names to faces; talking to the victims of war on all sides; allowing people to grieve and express their anger; focusing on the human tragedy that is being endured by all the communities involved.”

Finally, another key principle in the ethics of conflict reporting is truth-telling. Respect for facts is even more paramount in a digital era where there is swathes of unverified information. When reporting from the battlefield, the stakes are arguably even higher.

Long-time conflict reporter Janine di Giovanni, who’s been on the frontlines for the last three decades, recalls an incident from 2001. During the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, a group of young boys were herded out from a cave, accused of being Taliban militants. International press crowded them, snapping photos of the bewildered boys. They were not fighters, but cooks, cleaners, and delivery boys. When di Giovanni attempted to intervene, she was told to “shut up” by the camera operator of “one famous American journalist”, she writes. Their evening news report, recounts di Giovanni, stood threatened.

Relatedly, reporters also need to be able to sift through propaganda, and when it comes to reporting on terrorism specifically, they need to examine when something is worth relaying to a mass audience without the harmful effects of amplifying violent messaging.

The Ethical Journalism Network calls on reporters to do the following:

“Ask hard questions and seek to explain the real meanings behind statements and claims of political leaders who may express outrageous and controversial opinions which are designed to generate intense hatred and hate speech.”

*See: “Embedding the Truth: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Objectivity and Television Coverage of the Iraq War” by Sean Aday, Steven Livingston, and Maeve Hebert in The International Journal of Press/Politics.

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Urooba Jamal
Reporting From the Rubble

Globally-minded journalist and Erasmus Mundus Journalism scholar specializing in war and conflict.