Conveying the war in human terms

The Net provides an alternative channel for finding out what’s happening in Serbia

This column appeared in the June 1999 issue of The American Journalism Review.

Within a week of the first NATO bomb dropping on Serbia, the conflict in Kosovo had been dubbed the first Internet war. While that overstates the case, it’s not far from the truth.

Night after night the network news has offered a narrow prism of views along with those ubiquitous aerial photos of NATO’s bombing campaign. The Internet, conversely, has provided an alternative channel that offered deeper coverage, more interactivity and, most significantly, greater diversity of voices and viewpoints.

Internet users have tapped into the war in a number of ways:

• Web news outlets such as MSNBC, and offered breaking news stories, comprehensive background material, and compelling photos, video and audio from both Serbia and the refugee camps along the Kosovo border, along with reader chats and bulletin boards.

• Yugoslav and ethnic Albanian journalists broadcast breaking news from the scene, as the Internet turned small local radio stations into global beacons of information.

• Organizations that once served as news sources, such as Human Rights Watch, set up their own Web pages and e-mail dispatches, sending reports directly to readers.

• Citizens from all sides in the conflict became correspondents, posting heart-wrenching first-person accounts of killings, atrocities and their own unbridled fears.

Merrill Brown, editor in chief of MSNBC’s online division, said the Internet has forever shattered the conventions of war coverage. “Instead of turning to the 6:30 news or having to wait for the morning New York Times to get comprehensive coverage of an international conflict, people are now turning to the Internet for the latest developments. We had people on the scene filing stories, video and photos that captured the horror and scale of what was happening in utterly real time.”

Despite the efforts by Serbian authorities to clamp down on journalists, Brown said, “There’s no bottling this thing up by authorities on either side. The Internet has dramatically increased the speed with which information flows across borders, and it’s also increased the amount of information being received by the people of Yugoslavia, the generals, the governments and the citizens of all the nations involved in the conflict.”

One of the seminal moments in the war’s coverage came March 30 when Arkan, the notorious Serbian paramilitary leader, participated in an online chat, during which the MSNBC chat host sifted through more than 1,000 questions sent in by a global audience. The appearance generated a raft of angry e-mails, but Brown, who green-lighted the decision, was on solid journalistic ground. “He’s a figure of considerable stature in his country. It wasn’t much different than putting him on a TV interview show via satellite.”

In the heart of the war zone, Belgrade’s Radio B92, one of the few voices of independent journalism in Serbia, continued to transmit audio reports over the Internet for days after the government shut down its radio transmitter. Shortly before the Net feed was cut off, senior editor Steve Agnew told me by e-mail: “I’m afraid we’re a little overstretched in this situation. We’ve had roughly eight million hits on our Web site in the past five days, and I’m getting 700 to 800 e-mails in English a day from the public, the vast majority of which are supportive.”

The war’s most compelling coverage, however, came from ordinary people who, equipped with a computer and telephone line, gave eyewitness accounts of burning houses in Kosovo and the sounds of bombs falling on Belgrade.

Adona, a 16-year-old ethnic Albanian girl in Kosovo, began an e-mail correspondence with a 16-year-old reporter for Youth Radio in California. In one dispatch, Adona reported, “From my balcony, I see people running with suitcases and I can hear some gunshots.” and posted the running exchange, and they received e-mail from young people around the world who wanted to contact this Anne Frank with a laptop.

Robert Leavitt, editor of a small online international news service, said, “For us, deciding what to publish was often problematic because it’s so hard to gauge the credibility of the reports. It’s one thing for a credulous reader to believe whatever pops up on his computer screen. But news organizations have to wrestle with how to remain responsible while capturing the reality and pathos of war.” His Global Beat Syndicate provided riveting first-hand views of the war from a range of viewpoints, including ethnic Albanian journalists caught up in their countrymen’s exodus.

In some ways, these eyewitness accounts hark back to coverage of World War II: Ernie Pyle’s dispatches from the South Pacific, Edward R. Murrow’s reports from London during the blitzkreig.

Too often, in today’s sanitized press briefings, we forget that this is not about military targets and “collateral damage.” People on both sides are dying, and it’s our job to convey that truth in simple human terms. The Net has done that magnificently.

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT