Bosnia by Television

James Gow

Richard Paterson

Alison Preston

Bosnia by Television, a collection of essays dealing with the coverage of the Bosnian war in Western media, was conceived at the 1994 "Troubled Europe" conference in London. The work on the volume, carried out by a truly international team of media scholars and practitioners, was co-ordinated by the Research and Education division of the British Film Institute. The study looks at quantitative and qualitative sides of media reporting on the conflict and reports on various efforts of Western journalists to provide detailed and timely information on the developments in former Yugoslavia.

In the early 1990s influential media scholars -- Everette Dennis, Douglas Kellner, George Gerbner, Hamid Mowlana, David Paletz, Herbert Schiller, and a dozen more -- published books exploring the impact of war journalism and media in the Persian Gulf war. These books showed that by the end of the twentieth century mass media are utilized as an adjunct to combat and that media behaviour has become a decisive element of warfare. These studies seemed to have provided a set of powerful tools for predicting media behaviour and influence in any other conflict. It was logical to expect that analyzing the role of media in the Bosnian war could just take off from where the analysis of the role of media in the Gulf War had quit. Interestingly, however, the contributors to Bosnia by Television cannot help pointing out that the conclusions offered by the authors who analyzed the Gulf War coverage just did not work for Bosnia (Gow & Tilsey, Gowing). The studies of the Gulf War and the media, for example, had stressed a powerful cause-and-effect relationship between reporting and policymaking. In the case of Bosnia, however, it was the intensive reporting that caused "policy panic" and convinced Western governments not to become involved rather than push them into action (Gowing).

There is a widely shared opinion that Western media covered the war in Bosnia in a superficial manner. The contributors to Bosnia by Television, however, provide abundant evidence to the contrary: they discuss numerous instances in which journalists and media managers demonstrated commitment to provide timely information and in-depth analysis. Such evidence, for example, is contained in the chapters discussing the "Bloody Bosnia" television season on Channel Four in 1993 (Brough-Williams) and the extensive news coverage, again on Channel Four (Gowing). Another report deals with the 1994 fortnight campaign "guerra al silenzio" during which the main studio of Berlusconi-controlled Italia Uno relocated from Milan to Sarajevo, a move that allowed reporters to acquire deeper insights in the conflict (Torchi). Another chapter contains an account on the production and reception of a number of Austrian television documentaries (Hipfl).

A secondary task of Bosnia by Television is to analyze the underlying mechanisms of successful nationalist propaganda exercised through the media in former Yugoslavia. The collection features some particularly interesting essays by Slovenian and Croatian scholars. In a coherent theoretical manner, Sandra Basic-Hrvatin explores three important levels in the shaping of a national /public memory in both Croatia and Serbia that began with the formation of a specific televisual perception of the nation in everyday life. It then went on by abolishing the autonomy of the public sphere and its subordination to an institutionalized exclusion of "the Other." Hrvoje Turkovic sets out to reveal the organizing force behind the Croatian war news. He compares wartime and peacetime reporting patterns and shows how a partiality norm takes over the news and turns the populace conformist. Jose Vogrinc discusses the distancing techniques used by Slovenian television coverage of the Bosnian war.

Two chapters deal with the relation of war/media studies and the international transmission of narratives and images. Gow & Tilsey analyze how "the various Yugoslavs used the mass media to disseminate images in the international community" (p. 110). Preston speaks of contrasting narratives that are traceable in international television reporting on the Bosnian conflict. She notes that the logistics of today's news-gathering technology that allows for emotional proximity changes the balance and makes the coverage focus more on suffering rather than on fighting. In his essay, John Burns, the Sarajevo-based New York Times correspondent, sets out to show how systematic international reporting has been simplifying the political scenario and demonizing the Serbs by playing down inconvenient facts.

The last part of the book reports on a content analysis of television news coverage on Bosnia for the third week in May 1994, which was conducted in 13 countries (Algeria, Austria, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Macedonia, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Turkey, the U.K., and the U.S.A.) and reflected the work of three major international networks (CNN, Sky, and Reuters). The week, while not too rich in events, has yielded some interesting opportunities to detect bias in reporting: international activities of Izetbegovic in the Muslim world, a visit by the Russian patriarch in former Yugoslavia, and a crisis involving French hostages. Alison Preston gives a concise overview and analyzes comparatively the most important points in the coverage, thus rendering the national reports somewhat redundant.

A shortcoming of the content analysis, and of the book as a whole, is the lack of adequate analysis of North American media coverage. Canada, for example, is notably absent from the list of the countries selected for the study. In such a context, the two-page content analysis of one week's worth of U.S. reporting cannot be deemed representative. The author of the U.S. report, Anantha Babbili, indicates that out of the 922 minutes news for the week, only 4.30 were devoted to Bosnia and that out of a total of 740 stories, only 5 covered the conflict (p. 177). Besides the quantitative data, Babbili does not offer any contextual assessment of the U.S. coverage. It is not part of her task, either. Such a contextual assessment, however, should have been provided in Alison Preston's overview, who should have tried to correct -- at least to some extent -- the Eurocentric slant of the study by at least mentioning the efforts of North American counterparts to appropriately cover the war. She has not done it and, as a result, the reader is left with the wrong impression of an outrageous lack of coverage on Bosnia in North America.

Leaving out of sight the North American efforts does not do justice to the many North American producers and reporters who have been no less committed to informing the public about Bosnia than their European colleagues. Channel Four in the U.K. can barely be deemed representative for the mainstream media in Western Europe either, but its workings have been covered in detail in two chapters in Bosnia by Television. There is no mention in the book, however, of the extensive work done by television stations such as PBS in the United States or TVO in Canada in covering the Bosnian war. The book is disproportionately Eurocentric.

The contributors to Bosnia by Television use various approaches to highlight important issues and problems. In spite of certain methodological dissonance and descriptiveness, this collection of essays is extremely rich in information. It directly addresses important issues of reporting versus reception and thought-provokingly compares clashing national and international news discourses and narratives.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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