A Yugoslav Journalist's Advice to U.S. Media
How and when does journalism become propaganda? As a writer, broadcaster and media analyst from the former Yugoslavia, I have observed the process first-hand. It starts slowly, then spreads like a stain.
The transformation from objective journalism to propaganda begins with the addition of adjectives when referring to the other side. The "enemy" becomes "merciless" or "hate-filled". Then comes the shaping, cutting and editing reports to benefit one side. "Our" victims have names, faces and grieving families; they must be avenged. "Theirs" do not exist. When journalists say "we" to refer to "their" side's military force, they've crossed the decisive bright line into nonprofessional territory.
I analyzed both Serbian and Kosovo Albanian media for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting during the months of high violence in Kosovo in 1998-1999. Most striking was the similarity of language and models that the biased media of both sides were using to demonize and dehumanize the "others." "Murderers", "death squads", "terrorists" and "zlocinci" (evildoers) were always on the other side.
One of those media was Radio-Television of Serbia, which strongly supported the policy of former president Milosevic, and helped him remain in power by falsifying the news and manipulating public opinion. Their studios were bombed during the NATO air-strikes on Yugoslavia in 1999, and 16 young staffers died there. International organizations protested NATO's hitting this seemingly-civilian target. NATO's officials responded that Radio-Television of Serbia were a part of Milosevic's war propaganda machine, and as thus, a legitimate military target. One wonders how would NATO have reacted if Milosevic had the power to rocket Fox News or CNN.
We usually connect propaganda to totalitarian regimes and undemocratic societies. But recently, when major American broadcast networks decided to edit bin Laden's statements in response to a government request, I saw U.S. media abandoning the main principles of journalism. Until then, I had explained away the unprofessional mistakes I'd observed as understandable outbursts of emotion in the aftermath of September 11th. But then I read CBS president Andrew Heyward's explanation about the decision to censor bin Laden: "Given the historic events we are enmeshed in, it's appropriate to explore new ways of fulfilling our responsibilities to the public."
Farewell to the media responsibility to fully and impartially inform the public! Who really believes that the government instruction to reduce coverage of bin Laden was for the public benefit? I think the government's main concern was not that bin Laden might send "secret messages" through U.S. television, but that his arguments were more complex that the caricature they wished to sell to the public.
In times of turbulence and war, when passions and emotions prevail over reason, journalists are pressured from all sides, even by their own emotions. Slowly and imperceptibly, they can slide from professionalism into political marketing. Aware of that, I developed a set of simple reminders for myself, that might be useful to other colleagues when navigating in these choppy waters.
-Always remain a third party. No war is "your" war.
- Resist free advice from the government. Preserve your skepticism.
-Treat the victims on all sides with respect. All human beings have faces and families. No one should be dehumanized as "collateral damage."
-And, finally, in whatever ways you can manage to, observe propagandist media on the other side. Do you look like them? Have you become a soldier of your own propagandist army?
Jasmina Teodosijevic-Ryan is a broadcast journalist with an extensive background in Yugoslav media, and served as an analyst for the United Nations Liaison Office in Belgrade. Her critically-acclaimed first novel, "The Doll Hospital" was published in Belgrade last year.