The flaw in war reporting from Afghanistan

On Wednesday evening I went to a Frontline Club event titled Who is winning the media war in Afghanistan? and was reminded of the way what journalists call “the kinetic stuff” (that is soldiers and shooting to you and me) dominates mainstream TV footage. The set of clips shown to set the scene at the start of the event were all of the kinetic kind and although during the event some journalists made the point that other types of footage is also used – they also conceded that those other reports are not the ones which grab the public attention and stay in the memory.

To get this sort of footage of fighting on the frontlines, journalists sign up (and in fact pay up) to be embedded with the British military. The US and other countries follow similar arrangements. Embedding has had its controversies, particularly the fear that by living, sleeping, eating and going to the toilet with the military journalists can end up too close to them and lose their independence of mind; a variant of the Stockholm syndrome if you like.

Yet the big problem with such footage of frontline fighting dominating is that the situation in Afghanistan is about much more than only the frontline fighting. It is a wider military, economic, social, diplomatic and political issue.

So having reporting about Afghanistan in mainstream TV dominated by the kinetic stuff provided by journalists embedded on the front line for a couple of weeks is rather like trying to cover the economy by embedding Robert Peston in a Manchester McDonald’s for a fortnight.

That may be interesting; that may be illuminating; but as a way of finding out and reporting on whether the whole UK economy is going to continue recovering or suffer a double-dip recession, it would be woefully inadequate on its own. The same lesson too should be applied more widely to reporting of Afghanistan.

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