Covering conflict on the World Wide Web
BOSTON — Imagine if computers and the Internet had existed during World War II.
You would have sat in front of your computer, visited your favorite media site, entered a chat room or forum, and conversed with people in London living through the Battle of Britain. Or perhaps chatted to a neutral Swiss and learned what it was like to live surrounded by swastikas. You might even have chatted with a German.
What would that be like? To talk to the enemy without the intervention of propaganda or governments. Would they seem more human? Would you just yell at each other? Would it make a difference to how you - and they - felt about the war and about each other?
This kind of interaction is happening right now on many media sites - indeed, to many online journalists - as NATO continues to bomb the former Yugoslavia. According to one Web-site editor, it's changing the dynamic of how the media report on conflict.
While the NATO bombing campaign has affected much of the communication structure in Kosovo and the surrounding area, many Serbs online still want to talk about what is happening to their country.
"We've had an ongoing conversation with about three dozen Serbs," says Michael Moran, the international editor of the MSNBC.com site. "They have questions about what we're doing, the motivation behind our coverage. And it's not been angry nonsense. They actually made some really good points. It's been a revelation for me to see how it has given people on both sides of this struggle incredible access to news decisionmakers."
Mr. Moran, who previously worked for the BBC and also filed for The Christian Science Monitor, sees this interaction as giving online media an advantage over traditional media, where most reporters don't "bother to respond" to these kind of inquires.
"I try to reply to every single message," he says. "It has really created a new element of communication across battle lines." Moran says about 5 to 10 percent of the 7.5 million people who visit the MSNBC.com site per week communicate with either the staff or with each other in forums.
"When I worked for the BBC, we had an enormous audience, but we seldom received more than a letter or two a week. Here, we communicate with many of our visitors every day."
Judith Shulevitz, the New York editor of the online magazine Slate, agrees that the Web opens up communication during a conflict. Throughout the NATO campaign, Slate has been publishing the diary of "Anonymous," a Slate correspondent living in Belgrade. Anonymous, who is neither Serb nor American, has been filing a daily report, via the Internet, about what it's like to live through the bombing.
While Ms. Shulevitz supports the NATO campaign, she says it's been a real eye-opener to see how the bombing is viewed by the other side.
"Anonymous has been hanging out with the most fervent anti-Milosevic people in Belgrade - people opposed to him for years - and he cannot find a single person who approves of the NATO bombing. That was a shocking discovery for me, in fact, rather upsetting.
"It does change the terms of the engagement. It is very democratizing. It makes it much more difficult to demonize the enemy."
Shulevitz and Moran agree that editors and reporters are beginning to realize the Web offers other advantages.
"We've been able to be in the actual war zone, and reporting from that war zone, much more quickly," says Moran. "TV reporters have also seen the light. Normally, they only get a minute and a half to tell their story on the nightly news, but the stuff that doesn't make it on to the evening news is the guts of a great Internet story."
Shulevitz says the reach and speed of the Net is another real advantage. "Now, an enormous volume of diaristic information can travel worldwide. It's got to change the dynamic. Meanwhile, we can also generate a high-level serious discussion within minutes of the actual news event."
Not all journalists believe these changes are necessarily good. Brooke Shelby Biggs, news editor for Mother Jones magazine's online site, Mojo Wire, recently argued in the San Francisco Bay Guardian that e-mail dispatches from Kosovo compromise the news media's coverage of the war.
Online media are drawing traditional media into the unsettling arena of "he said, she said" as news, she wrote. "There are two factors at work here: the media's penchant for simplifying everything into good guy vs. bad guy, and the paucity of independent journalists in Yugoslavia. So in place of real reporting, we're offered a flood of unmediated dispatches from nonjournalists often with a personal interest in how the war is fought and how it ends."
So has the Web changed the dynamics of reporting on war and conflict? Perhaps. In reality, not enough of the planet is connected to the Internet to make a noticeable difference. But as the Web becomes truly worldwide, the interaction of media and public on both sides of a conflict is sure to grow more intense, and perhaps more complicated.
*Tom Regan is the associate editor of The Christian Science Monitor's Electronic Edition. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org