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IR & Politics programme
University of Sussex

Martin Shaw

The Media of Conflict: 

War Reporting and Representations of Ethnic Violence

Tim Allen and Jean Seaton, eds., London: Zed, 1999, 312 pp

The main title of this book is a misnomer; the subtitle expresses its real focus. Herein lies its problem, however. While the contributors provide an unremitting critique of the media representation of wars as ‘ethnic’ violence, they nevertheless contribute to maintaining two major misconceptions. The first is that war today is typically a matter of those kinds frequently labelled ‘ethnic’. The second is that the principal problem in media coverage of contemporary wars is its ethnicization.

These limitations lead to accounts of war and of media which are one-sided - albeit in different ways from the kind of one-sidedness which the contributors critique in news reporting itself. Thus Allen, ‘Perceiving Contemporary Wars’, sees them as involving ‘the weakening of state institutions’. Certainly many wars, especially in Africa (a major focus of this book), result from what has been called ‘state failure’, in the sense of breakdown. But at the centre of the major wars of the last decade, from the Gulf to Kosova, there have also been powerful, terroristic, genocidal states (Iraq, Serbia) as well as the internationalized Western state centred on the USA, which has used military power in overwhelming ways. In the account of war given here, little emphasis is placed on these key forces.

The account of media is similarly inadequate. Seaton’s attempt to situate media coverage of recent wars starts from the assumption that ‘ethnicity’ is at the heart of the coverage. Although some other elements get passing mention, there is little of the larger framework in which this particular element, in reality by no means simply dominant, could be contextualized. Most of the other contributors, focussed on accounts of particular wars, have no way of escaping the highly questionable framing of media/war issues in terms of ethnic discourse.

The strength and weakness of this book is that many of the contributors, Seaton and Fred Halliday (whose account of the Gulf war is a different kind of study from the rest) apart, take their cue from anthropology. The small-scale bias produces some interesting work – I found Marcus Banks’ and Monica Wolfe Murray’s discussion of ethnic language in Bosnia particularly illuminating, while the chapters on Uganda (Mark Leopold) and Zimbabwe (Jocelyn Alexander and JoAnn McGregor) discuss wars and media which are little documented. Mel McNulty’s work on ‘media ethnicization’ in Rwanda is a good exemplification of the major theme.

The weakness of the inputs from both war and media specialists, with rather hit-and-miss approach to the general literatures in both fields (no reference to Mary Kaldor’s account of ‘new wars’, for example) left me thinking, however, that in many ways this was an opportunity missed.


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