UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 2 | Jan.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.