The overwhelming majority of U.S. journalists have taken a more subdued position on the war, identifying with Ukraine against the aggressor Russians, but stopping just short of cheerleading. Even so, journalists can’t hide the seductive draw of the bloodworks. They can’t help themselves. They love war.
That’s a strong charge, so let’s quickly qualify. Accusing journalists of loving war is a little like accusing windshield wipers of loving rain. War, like rain, is inevitable. Journalists exist to report on bloody conflict just as wiper blades were invented to protect our vision from inclement precipitation. This isn’t to imply that the profession’s love of combat causes war. There were wars, you’ll note, long before there were reporters. All those claims that a war-mongering William Randolph Hearst and his New York Journal promised to “furnish” the Spanish-American War if his photographer would only provide the pictures are pure myth.
Still, that love of war is back in full bloom now thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as the press fills its front pages and newscasts with the latest from Kyiv, Odesa, Lviv and Mariupol. But what drives that love? A few thumbnail explanations on that question.
War Sells. The news business has learned from experience that when war arrives, news interest spikes. Because it deals with life and death, war finds a pre-sold audience, and as long as combat lasts, the audience sticks around. The weekly audience for the BBC’s English-language website in Russia soared 252 percent during the first week of the war. Combined prime-time ratings for Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNN increased by almost 50 percent during the first week of the war. NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt gained 8 percent. Even when there’s no new news to view, as I can attest, the war audience leaves the TV on in the background in case something new does happen. During the early days of the Gulf War, the fear of missing out on some new bulletin inspired me to get up every night at 2 a.m. to watch the latest.
War Exploits Journalism’s Negativity Bias. Journalists are well-known for their negativity bias, their editorial predilection for misery and disaster. Journos love floods and hurricanes; plane crashes and oil spills; and human stampedes and mass starvation. For your average journalist, a love of war is simply the highest expression of their negativity bias. Negativity bias makes destruction easier to write about than creation. Any editor will tell you the audience for mayhem is always bigger than the audience for kindness.
War Reporting Is Easy. Don’t get me wrong. Rushing to the front lines and reporting takes immense courage. Just look at the daring of The Associated Press’ reporters capturing the slaughter that is Mariupol. At least three journalists have been killed and another seriously injured, and those who have read or watched the news owe them an unpayable debt. But war rewards these daring men and women for their valor. Like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, war supplies reporters with an endless bounty of can’t-look-away stories, and that story is always changing. War offers scenes of raw human emotion, battlefield cliffhangers, tales about warring technologies and unbelievable visuals. (There’s a reason so many Hollywood blockbusters depict large, orange explosions.) The reporter who files eyewitness reports of tank battles or sniper exchanges can expect his copy to be painted Day-Glo orange by his editor and printed in prime space.
War Coverage Triggers the “Do Something” Response in Some Reporters. Journalists have a tendency to propose “solutions” to problems they don’t always fully understand. Enforce the law more strictly! Pass a new law! Levy a new tax! When the “problem” is an invasion, some journalists adopt the same problem-response framework: The leader must do the things he’s not doing, damn the consequences. This happens to some reporters, who begin to think they can out-strategize General George Patton. That comes close to describing the Engel example. Luckily for us, President Joe Biden has logged several lifetimes of experience dodging demands that he do the things he’s not doing. There’s a place for this kind of reporting, but it’s in the op-ed page or a magazine of opinion.
War Advances Careers. After surviving a tour of duty with honor, especially TV duty, a reporter can expect the career boost of a promotion or job dangles from competing outlets. Newspapers that previously declined to return your emails will now discover new interest in you. This is not to suggest reckless careerism on the part of war reporters, only to state the obvious.
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. That subject head is also the title of a book by former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges, which eloquently describes how war seduces not just journalists but the public. The hardest job in journalism is to make the audience care. War has a way of blotting out other stories and becoming the only story. Some nights there are so many TV anchors and TV correspondents reporting from Ukraine they could start a new network all by themselves. Nobody should doubt the genuine anguish on the newscasters’ faces, but the war is providing them with standout career highlights, highlights they’ll be recounting for decades. A reporter might regret having covered city hall for two years or having put in his time covering zoning hearings, but he’ll never regret covering a high-stakes war. Even the stories adjacent to combat reporting fill reporters with glory: the refugee story; the accounts of reunified families; the reports on the latest in war technology; and the giving of witness to the lost lives of innocents.
But journalists aren’t war’s only lovers. As prefigured here a couple of times, there’s a demand side to the love equation that requires balancing. Readers and viewers covet “good news” stories about generosity and forgiveness. But few topics outside of war can attract a large, loyal audience for long, especially if the lines between good and evil have been drawn. Part of the appeal of the Ukraine war for both journalists and the news audience is that those lines are stark, allowing the audience to respond emotionally to the depiction of heroes and villains the clash creates. Journalists may love war, but so does the audience.
Check out this report in the Guardian about a Chinese journalist who has embedded with the Russians. Send notes to [email protected]. My email alerts were 4-F during the Vietnam War. My Twitter feed thinks Twitter is the best venue for news. My RSS feed is stuck in the mud.