Journalism of attachment

“Journalism of Attachment: an approach to reporting, born of the war in former Yugoslavia, which argues that journalists should record the human and emotional costs of war rather than acting as ‘transmission vehicles’ for governmental or military sources” (Bell,( 1996) cited by (Nickel, 2009)

Martin Bell was a war reporter for the BBC for over 30 years, in that time he reported in over eighty countries from Ghana to Northern Ireland. In 1992 Bell was badly injured by shrapnel whilst reporting in Bosnia, it was this injury that lead to him arguing his case for a more attached journalism style when reporting on warfare. Brendan O’Neill phrased Martin Bells theory a little more brutally:

“Journalists, said Bell in the mid-1990s, had a new “moral obligation” to distinguish between “good” and “evil” in conflict zones, and if necessary to take sides. That is, they should ditch the pretence of neutrality and express an emotional “attachment” to the good guys in any given conflict” (O’Neill 2012).

In many ways this goes against or undermines the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) code of conduct rule three, which states a journalist “Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair”.

Bell said that he sees war reporting as no more than “‘transmission vehicles’ for governmental or military sources”. When we read about conflict in newspapers or hear about it on the radio, we only hear the facts. It is as if we are an army commander being told of the day’s events. What journalism of attachment brings to war reporting is a human aspect, a more emotional account of battles and skirmishes.

“If journalists spread the same antagonistic, reduced and distorted images of a conflict as do political and military elites, this is not a clue to a conspiracy between policymakers and the media but rather results from the mere fact that journalists are society members themselves.”(Herman & Chomsky, 1988)

The public rely on journalists to give honest accounts of events, when people read a story on anything they expect to have a better understanding of it then before. Would simply adding the emotion and fear that a journalist feels when they are reporting on a conflict really hinder the facts of warfare? If journalism of attachment was used it could just add a more human element to wars and battles we read about, and may even make for a better understanding by the public.

Not only do some journalists say that Journalism of attachment would aid the public in understanding the warfare they read about, but also that journalists have a moral obligation to stand by it. Christiane Amanpour of CNN said:

“I have come to believe that objectivity means giving all sides a fair hearing, but not treating all sides equally. Once you treat all sides the same in a case such as Bosnia, you are drawing a moral equivalence between victim and aggressor. And from here it is a short step to being neutral. And from here it’s an even shorter step to becoming an accessory to all manners of evil”. (from Quill (April, 1996) cited in Hume, 1997: 6)

Christiane Amanpour suggests that by not giving your true view on a conflict you are reporting on you could be taking a step towards supporting an aggressor or an act considered “evil”. She suggests that sometimes it is not only a right to choose sides but a must as sometimes in war there are regimes that do not deserve neutrality. The reports of Gaddafi’s death in Libya are prime examples of this, newspapers did not just report on the facts surrounding his death, they put their thoughts about his death on display for all to see. The Sun was the most prominent with a headline reading “That’s For Locerbie”, the Daily Mail’s headline was “No mercy for a merciless tyrant”.  These newspapers obviously believed that Gaddafi was not suspect for neutral reporting and did not make any attempt to disguise their feelings on Cornel Gaddafi’s death.

Marie Colvin was a leader in the use of journalism of attachment, in all her reports she chose sides and even aided some soldiers and civilians in war zones. She saw war as a human story, not a political one. Because of this she put herself in great danger to show the world the people of war and what they did for the ‘Good’ of their home lands. Whilst reporting in East Timor, she helped save the lives of up to 1,500 women and children who were besieged by Indonesian forces. When all the other journalists left, she stayed with UN forces to help. After the event she said:

“These are people who have no voice, I feel I have a moral responsibility towards them, that it would be cowardly to ignore them. If journalists have a chance to save their lives, they should do so.” (Greenslade, (2012) cited by O’Neill)

Colvin’s view on war reporting went hand in hand with Bells theory. Her work was truthful and thoughtful, all while helping who she believed to be the good people of the world. Others who believe in their moral obligation towards taking sides in warfare are Howard Tumber and Marina Prentoulis, they said:

“The rejection of journalistic neutrality is justified as a consequence of a moral imperative to stand up to wickedness which its proponents see as an indispensable aspect of good journalism.” (Tumber & Prentoulis, (2003) cited by Franklin, Hamer, Hanna, Kinsey & Richardson, 2005: 126)

They suggest that journalists are in a position to stand against the “Wickedness” in warfare by abandoning their neutrality. Why be fair and unbiased in your stories when there is a victim and a truly inhumane aggressor.

However, when journalists start speaking of wickedness and evil, they are producing some extremely bias reports. Reports that many people will accept blindly as truth, these reports are coming from the people who see the war first hand after all. If two journalists reporting on the same war both use journalism of attachment in their work but both have contrasting views, readers will not know what to depict as truth. Attached journalism has the strong ability to confuse the news.

“Yet we know that an information environment that abandons commitment to accuracy or fairness is not helpful in guiding citizens to greater understanding.” ( Carpini, 2004:1)

Being Bias is taking sides and taking sides goes against what every journalist is taught. Howard Tumber, Marina Prentoulis and Christiane Amanpour may argue that it is morally right to go against the ‘Bad guys’ in war, but it is also easy to argue it is morally right to retain neutrality. The rules and codes that journalism of attachment brakes are the same that uphold our Societarian lifestyle. A journalist “Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair” (NUJ)

Taking sides is one thing but adding opinion to a report is another. Journalists have an acute relationship with their audience, the public expect to read truth and facts written in an objective way, yet while practising journalism of attachment this can be compromised.

“In emphasising attachment over neutrality, and emotionalism over objectivity, the new breed of attached reporter became more like an activist, an international campaigner, rather than a dispassionate recorder of fact and truth.” (O’Neill 2012)

Attachment can turn stories into something other than news reports; they can become an appeal for help, or an attack on a government. They can be used to breed activism or demonstrations, something most people do not want printed in our national newspapers. Marie Colvin still has a ‘convoy’ that holds demonstrations in North America for issues relating to Syria (where she was killed in 2012). She also called for the west to aid Tamil Tigers, anti-governmental forces in Shi Lanka in the early 2000’s.

Marie Colvin gained a lot of support for her way of reporting, she believed that where there is an obvious right and wrong, people should always support the righteous. When it is spelt out like that her augment seems just. If journalists see wrong doings in the world they should call for western intervention.

“…the kind of post-objective, attached journalism practised by Bell, Colvin and many others in the post-Bosnia generation of war reporters was used, both by journalists themselves and also by politicians, to try to coax Western forces, usually NATO or the UN, to intervene in bloody civil conflicts.” (O’Neill, 2012)

After all what is news? Telling people about the goings on in the world, informing people about events, bringing peoples attention to issues others face. When you use attachment to tell the public about the struggles of a people then it becomes a shout for help on their behalf. Colvin said she gives a voice to those without the ability to ask for help. O’Neill saw this:

“In other words, there is a direct line, in Bell’s view, between the new attached, emotional journalism and actual Western military interventions. So this really is “more than reporting” – it is frequently a rallying cry for external military support for those judged to be “good”, against those considered “evil”.” (O’Neill, 2012)

Politicians will always need public support before intervening or joining in warfare and attached journalism is much more effective in “rallying” that support then the “Transmission” journalism that ignores the emotions and tears behind war.

Many people will argue that attracting the attention of forces such as NETO to intervene against oppressors or dictators is a morally just and a worthy cause. However Mary Colvin is a prime example of how dangerous it can be to become such a journalist.

“The thing is, however, if journalists allow themselves to become moral combatants, crusaders against “evil” rather than mere reporters of fact, is there not a danger that they will be treated as combatants? … “More to the point, is it also possible that in making themselves attached, in turning themselves into “players” in a conflict, these journalists risk making themselves into targets?” (O’Neill 2012)

While reporting in Homs, Syria, the house Marie Colvin was stationed in was shelled by the Syrian army, she died next to the French photographer Rémi Ochlik. If they were targeted or if the shell hit her position by chance is still an unanswered question. With what had happened the previous year with the west aiding the Libyan uprising and with Colvin known to attract attention to the world’s conflicts, it would not be a surprise if she had been the target.

British journalist Mick Hume wrote a book called “Who’s war is it anyway” in 1997. The book highly condemned the use attached journalism saying:

“It is ultimately a moral crusade for Western governments, through the United Nations and Nato, to take forceful action against those accused of genocide and war crimes around the world.” (Hume 1997)

He says if you take sides in warfare you are taking liberties with the responsibilities as a journalist, he also says that the only point in the attached journalism style is to attract governmental attention, not to report the news in an efficient way. Despite having journalists that support Martin Bells journalism of attachment, there is a huge queue of journalists that would agree with Hume.

If a journalist brings it upon themselves to try and assist those who are ‘good’ against those accused of being ‘evil’ they are not only endangering themselves but also risk making a war worse than if they had just left it to run its course. Throughout researching and gathering quotes for this essay I have come across two words that stand out; ‘good’ and ‘evil’. I previously quoted Brendan O’Neill in saying:

“it is frequently a rallying cry for external military support for those judged to be “good”, against those considered “evil”. (O’Neill, 2012)

Nothing is ever as black and white as good vs. evil, every dictator or general has their supporters, despite how much the west may disagree with them. Attached journalism can really blow things out of perspective. Fidel Castro and more recently Muammar al-Gaddafi are people that have been described as being evil in western journalism yet they both did some great things for their people. Would we have supported the rebels in Libya as much if the press were reminding us of how he transformed Libya through bringing them water and raising their living conditions?

In many cases attached journalism just serves to raise aggression against whom ever the journalist decides they don’t like. Who has given journalists the right to decide who in the world is evil and who is good? We have always trusted journalists to give us facts on the events they report on but we should not trust their judgment on what they perceive as evil.

“The movement has not been without its critics. First, ‘attached reporting’ depends upon conflicts being depicted as battles between the ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’, and calls upon journalists to appoint themselves as judges of who to cast in these two polarised roles.” (Nickel, 2009)

In my opinion, there has never been a battle between good and evil. In conflict, inhumane acts are committed on both sides. One side’s wrong doings should not be ignored just because a journalist sees them as the good guys and their oppositions actions should not be blown out of proportion because their on the wrong side.

It is easy to argue for and against the use of attached journalism in warfare. It has the ability to give reports a more personal, human feel but at the risk of miss-leading or confusing its readers. It can assist in pulling the military’s of NATO and the UN to help those in need of support but at the risk of endangering the journalist themselves. It gives a journalist more freedom while piling on more responsibility onto their judgement. Ultimately it does come down to responsibility when using attached journalism, if you’re going to support someone in a conflict you have to be sure you’re on the right side otherwise you may end up aiding the death many people who had a just cause. This is why in most cases I would be against its use, sticking to journalistic principles will, most of the time, be the way to write the news, fighting against them should be reserved for unique occasions. However if journalism of attachment can shed the idea of good vs. evil and maintain a certain level of neutrality I think it is more acceptable. Journalists should not be able to “appoint themselves as judges of who to cast in these two polarised roles.” They’re in no position to judge anyone as evil.

J. Arthur Garrett


Bob, Hamer, Martin, Hanna, Mark Kinsey, Marie, Richardson, John (2005: 126) Key Concepts in Journalism Studies

Carpini, Michael X. Delli (2004:1) The Tasks in Creating a New Journalism

Herman, Edward and Chomsky, Noam (1988) The propaganda model

Hume, Mick (1997: 6) Whose war is it anyway

Nickel (2009) journalism of attachment –

NUJ (2011) Code of conduct –

O’Neill, Brendon (2012) Dangers of the “journalism of attachment” –


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