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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 2 | Jan. 24, 2002

The fog of patriotism

In times of crisis, Assoc. Prof. Stephen Ward argues that the primary duty of journalists is to the public, not the state

by Assoc. Prof. Stephen Ward

In every crisis, in every war, journalists come under pressure to be "patriotic."

Patriotism, in this context, is not just a love of one's country. It is an extreme, emotion-driven patriotism that demands that all citizens "get on side" and support uncritically the government's actions.

The social pressure that such patriotism can exert on both the public and the news media has never been clearer than since the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington. Journalists, especially in the United States, have felt the pressure to suspend or water-down the standards of journalism: to root for the home team, to minimize dissent, to censor the "enemy" and to maintain morale.

Supporting the home effort becomes the primary aim, overriding other journalistic functions such as acting as a watchdog and providing a forum for diverse views. On this view, special times call for special measures.

I disagree.

The primary ethical duty of journalism, even in times of crisis, is not a patriotism of blind allegiance, or even a journalism of muted, careful criticism. The primary duty of journalists is not to the state, but to the public.

That public duty calls for hard-edged news, investigations, analysis and multiple perspectives on the most important issues. As Canadian journalists, we need to ask what our government is doing in Afghanistan and where the coalition might take us in the campaign to rid the world of Osama Bin Laden and his ilk.

Journalists need to help citizens to unearth the historical roots of their troubles and deepen their understanding of other religions, other cultures. News organizations need to help the public debate the difficult decisions ahead.

Journalists should maintain skepticism toward all sources, test facts, detect hoaxes, reject rumors, report controversial opinions. Most of all, journalists must avoid the temptation to write stories that portray the "war on terrorism" as reducible to a medieval engagement with "pure evil."

Journalists must deal with the stubborn complexity of the world, not shrink it down to digestible sound bites. What Sept. 11 shows clearly, although it was blatantly obvious before the attacks, is that our global news media must now explain events from a global perspective.

A global media in a pluralistic world takes on new ethical responsibilities for explaining ourselves to others and others to ourselves.

Only in recent weeks have I seen signs of a more critical perspective developing in the mainstream U.S. media toward the Bush strategy on terrorism.

Understandably, after Sept. 11, there was much pain and anger. However, these feelings solidified into intense, sometimes intolerant, feelings of patriotism. Recently, the editor of the Sacramento Bee newspaper was booed off the stage at a California university for suggesting that Americans should prevent an erosion of fundamental civil liberties.

Journalists serve their country best by being critical, independent journalists. In the current war, this means they must protect their independence in dealings with governments and military leaders. All avenues of influence, all forms of inducement will be used to shape the war coverage.

Journalists must remember their history. Too often, the patriotic jingoism of journalism has fed the public appetite for a bloodbath. At the turn of the 20th century, the Hearst and Pulitzer papers in New York whipped up opinion against Spain in the run up to the Spanish-American War. In Canada, newspapers accepted government censorship and portrayed the First World War as a bold and patriotic adventure -- even though the war had devolved into merciless trench warfare.

Accusing a reporter -- or anyone -- of being unpatriotic is often unhelpful and irrelevant, acting like an emotional circuit breaker on rational discussion. My own experience as a foreign reporter taught me to be wary of such accusations.

During the Gulf War, I was considered "unpatriotic" by some officials for reporting that Canadian soldiers were struggling with outdated equipment. I was, allegedly, lowering morale. In Bosnia, I was accused of not "rooting for the home team" because I reported that some Canadian soldiers wondered whether they were making any difference to the slaughter of people around Sarajevo.

Journalists cannot be indifferent to acts of terrorism or to the fate of their country. But knowing we have such feelings is all the more reason to be vigilant that no-one manipulates these honest emotions. In the fog of war, truth is the first casualty. Appeals to patriotism, if not challenged, only thicken the fog.

Before joining UBC, Journalism Assoc. Prof. Stephen Ward worked for 15 years as a journalist, including 10 years with the Canadian Press as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief. He has covered such events as the Gulf War, the Bosnian conflict and the troubles in Northern Ireland. An abridged version of this article appeared in the October 2001 issue of the UBC Journalism School's on-line magazine, The Thunderbird.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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