Truth is the first casualty in a conflict. Though ideally news media should help in finding out the truth, it often is part of the problem. Researchers use news media to collect relevant information about a conflict to arrive at a better understanding of its dynamics. From gathering of facts to their interpretation, scholars use media as a research tool to gain insight about conflicts. However, there are both advantages as well as disadvantages of using media sources for doing conflict analysis as Magnus Oberg and Margareta Sollenberg argue in their paper on the subject. The various actors of a conflict act as sources of information and this is where the problem lies. Such information is likely to be manipulated. The actors often contradict each other and for the lack of access to any independent confirmation, we oscillate between the two versions. Sometimes the parties may corroborate each other on some issues. For instance, both the parties agree that a battle has taken place. However, they may have completely different versions of what happened in the battle. In such a case, it may probably be safe to assume that a battle did take place, but not much else.
There is no dearth of information as far as conflicts like Kashmir is concerned. But just as too little information can be a handicap, too much of it can also hamper the pursuit of truth.
Relating their experience, Oberg and Sollenberg state that when students of conflict studies are overwhelmed by flood of information, they experience problems with contextualization and distinguishing the important information from the peripheral. “This often leads to a loss of focus and somewhat surprisingly to a reliance on too few sources. When you easily find thousands of news articles, you do not have time to go through them all and follow up on them to identify the original sources. Perhaps you do not feel a need to search for the harder-to-get sources when you can get thousands at the click of a mouse,” they write.
Realising that there is no point in pursuing information any further, they end up with few original sources. Selecting information and distinguishing important sources from the peripheral require experience and familiarity with the conflict. However, even familiarity has some inherent drawbacks. Scholars and journalists, for instance, who are closely familiar with a conflict, are liable to have bias, which may adversely affect their selection of sources and information, in subtle ways. Paradoxically, researchers and journalists who may not have the geographical or religious proximity to a conflict zone may end up analyzing it better with an open mind and without any prior conceptions.
Restrictions on media lie beyond the control of the journalists. The nature and extent of such restrictions has a bearing on the availability of reliable information. Censorship, most commonly imposed by the government, in both subtle or not so subtle ways makes it impossible for reporters to operate freely. When using media as a source in such a situation, it’s imperative to ask the question how this might affect the reporting. Like other conflict zones, it’s common for army and administration to impose censorship on reporting in some cases like military operations or to simply ban journalists from areas of combat. The censorship gives the government and security agencies the freedom to portray events the way they like while gagging the media.
As Oberg and Sollenberg argue, media is part of the battlefield. It is used by opposing sides to broadcast their views to garner support of their cause in the outside world while demonizing their opponent. They point to the need to be aware that some of the actions and events being reported are directed at an outside audience, rather than at the adversary.
For example, actions and events reported may have as their primary purpose to make a statement or convey a particular message to the news audience, the idea being that they damage their opponent or affect the outcome of the conflict indirectly by sending messages to outside parties. At least part of the stone throwing in the Israeli occupied areas in the West Bank and Gaza can be seen in this light. The primary purpose of the stone throwing may in some cases be to damage Israeli standing in the world community and its image in world opinion and to gain sympathy for the Palestinian cause, rather than to hurt Israeli soldiers by pelting them with stones. The stone throwing may thus have been intentionally designed for the cameras, to attract the world’s attention to the plight of the Palestinians. The lesson is that we need to ask ourselves if we are seeing actions between the parties to the conflict or between one of them and ourselves as the news consumers.
All this means that the parties often intentionally try to influence reporting in more subtle and manipulative ways than outright censorship or information blackouts.