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Commentaries on this Media!

How TV News Presents War, Part 1

by Jeremy Butler

Please see "Network News Covers the Balkan War (NBC)" for CBS's coverage of the same incident.

Newscasts largely use an expository mode to present information collected from the historical world. That is, evidence is displayed to support a reporter’s or editor’s particular interpretation of events. Inevitably this evidence is arranged, ordered, into some form of conflict: Democrat versus Republican, individual versus institution, police versus killer. The basic logic of most news stories is an argument where the historical world is explained as a series of conflicts between two opposing forces. Conflict is normally most obvious and deadly in the case of international warfare—pitting one nation against another. NBC’s and CBS’s coverage of a particular international incident may illustrate the expository nature of TV news. The Balkan War of 1991–95 was a particularly difficult one for TV news to fit into a simple structure of “A versus B.” Battles raged among Serb, Croat, and Muslim factions in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (parts of the former Yugoslavia). Moreover, peace-keeping forces from NATO and the UN were thrown into the middle of this complicated situation. In September 1992 a UN plane flying relief supplies was shot down in Bosnia. CBS and NBC both featured Bosnian relief efforts in their nightly newscast—highlighting attempts to bring food and medicine to the town of Goražde. As in most incidents outside North America, CBS and NBC relied on exactly the same video footage from Bosnia. The only differences in the two stories were the editing and the voiceover added by CBS’s and NBC’s reporters based in London: Tom Fenton and Keith Miller, respectively. The CBS story includes footage of decaying Serb bodies that are excluded from the NBC story (Figure 4.15). And the CBS story ends with shots of Muslim fighters on a hilltop (which are also excluded from the NBC story), with Fenton commenting, “Now the main concern will be to keep a lifeline open for the newly liberated town. That will depend on if the Muslims can continue to hold on to the high ground around them” (Figure 4.16). In contrast, NBC chose to end with a shot of the deserted airport runway and the remark, “If the plane was shot down, then the UN will somehow have to eliminate the threat” (Figure 4.17). (See for a shotby-shot comparison, with frame grabs from each shot.) {move outside the password protection.} Remembering that reporters Fenton (CBS) and Miller (NBC) worked from the same video (identical images of historical reality), what differences can we observe in the “arguments” they present about that reality? NBC’s story argues that the main conflict in this incident is between UN relief workers and the forces that shot down the plane—forces that were not yet determined. CBS includes that conflict as a major part of the story, but Miller’s editing and voiceover add a different perspective. Miller argues that the Muslims are valiant freedom fighters by placing them literally and figuratively on the “high ground” (Figure 4.16). They are “liberating” the town, forcefully pushing back the Serb paramilitary forces (resulting in decomposing bodies in the road [Figure 4.15]). This incident occurred nine years before the World Trade Center attacks by radical Muslims on September 11, 2001. One wonders if NBC would represent Bosnian Muslims as freedom fighters today. Would NBC’s expository argument about Muslim social actors in the historical world be quite different now? Since none of CBS’s or NBC’s viewers were actually in Goražde that day, they have no way to authenticate either of these reports through personal experience. They have only these “stories,” told in an expository mode, upon which to make their judgments. However, by remaining alert to the connotations of terms like “liberated” and “high ground” viewers may better understand how news organizations are constructing their arguments about the historical world.

Network News Covers the Balkan War (CBS)

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CBS news presents a story about fighting near the town of Goražde in 1992.

from CBS Nightly News (1992)
Creator: CBS
Distributor: CBS
Posted by Jeremy Butler