War Stories by Mark Pedelty Book Review

Journalism plays a pivotal role in war. During the Vietnam War, the American public became disillusioned with the war after foreign correspondents exposed the human rights violations and human cost of the war through reporting and photojournalism. As a result, war grown into a battle of public relations due to the influence of public opinion by war reporting. The war in El Salvador lasted about 12 years, and the government sought to control the flow of information from foreign correspondents in El Salvador through a system of salvoconducto (safe conduct) that prevented journalists from entering into areas the government deemed “unsafe.” This was one of the many obstacles that foreign correspondents in El Salvador faced as they tried to report the truth as accurately as possible. In War Stories, Mark Pedelty, an anthropologist, studied the practices and methods of foreign correspondents in El Salvador and provided a critical commentary on the shortcomings of the reporting done in El Salvador during the war.

Somewhat ironically Mark Pedelty comes to very many definitive conclusions throughout the book. Pedelty is an anthropologist, but as an anthropologist, one is suppose to observe without judgement. He often labeled or categorized different aspects of the culture of foreign correspondents throughout the book which prevents the readers from drawing their own conclusions from his observations. Instead Pedelty asserts this is what happened. This is what it means. Also this is somewhat ironic because the American journalists that he is studying draw no conclusions in their stories in order to remain objective, one of the prevalent guiding goals of American journalism. 

In the opening chapter of the book, Pedelty mocks foreign correspondents who have written “false” autobiographies about their experiences in war reporting. Pedelty asserts that because he studied foreign correspondents during the second half of the war in El Salvador that foreign correspondents’ autobiographies often exaggerate their experiences making them sound more dangerous than they really are: “rather than living lives of constant danger, the journalists’ experience is fairly routinized and relatively safe” (Pedelty 58). This assertion in the first chapter seeks to discredit foreign correspondents. Pedelty also seeks to categorize the “anxiety” that foreign correspondents feel as a “decentered sense of terror” (Pedelty 59), rather than Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which many war reporters experience due to the graphic nature of their work. He paints foreign correspondents with a broad brush making them seem as if they are egotistical and confused.

One of the first aspects of reporting that Pedelty took issue with in the book is whom foreign correspondents choose for their sources. Pedelty said that the foreign correspondents were divided into two teams in El Salvador. The “A Team” made of staff writers, and the “B Team” made of stringers. Pedelty asserts that American journalists in El Salvador, particularly members of the “A Team,” relied too heavily on quotes and information from the Embassy. The way that he discusses foreign correspondents relationship with the Embassy makes it seem as if foreign correspondents regurgitate the information that the Embassy gives them without any thought. Pedelty fails to recognize the active relationship that a journalist has with the person who he or she is interviewing. If the information that the Embassy is feeding to a journalist seems to support a certain agenda or just untrue, the journalist has the ability to express doubt, ask more questions, seek the truth.

Pedelty defines The Embassy as “the mouthpiece of U.S. policy” (Pedelty 70). Because of the United States’ role in the El Salvador war, The Embassy had an unusually major influence on the foreign correspondents, which Pedelty fails to emphasize. The only other place that foreign correspondents were so heavily influenced by The Embassy was Haiti at the time of the war. Pedelty thus makes foreign correspondent’s reliance on The Embassy seem like a universal problem with foreign correspondents when in actuality the problem is much more concentrated than he made it out to seem.

Pedelty asserted that many events went unreported on not because they lacked newsworthiness or the public’s general indifference for foreign affairs, but much news failed to be reported due to the “New York Times disease.” Pedelty asserts that if the New York Times reports an event, it’s new. If the New York Times doesn’t report an event, other journalists think that the event then must “lack intrinsic news value” (Pedelty 73). Pedelty made it seem that foreign correspondents follow the New York Times’ lead, never getting away from the stories that the New York Times is writing. He believed that editors will be upset with their foreign correspondent if they don’t produce the same story as the New York Times because it will make it seem like their newspaper has missed something. From my experience reading international news, there is much diversity in different newspapers’ coverage of international news, and the events happening. The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the LA Times, (all newspapers mentioned in the book) do not report on the exact same events as the New York Times because these newspapers want to beat the New York Times on a story. Newspapers actually want to report on something that the New York Times misses. Pedelty oversimplifies the situation. If there was a major event (an event that causes much change or an event that affects the United States in some way), editors would obviously want their foreign correspondents to cover the event, but editors would much rather prefer an exclusive, new story that the New York Times missed rather than something that everyone else is reporting about.

Pedelty also takes issue with parachute journalism that becomes somewhat popular in El Salvador as the war came to an end. Pedelty’s commentary on parachute journalism, although still exaggerated like the rest of his book, is still important to note. Pedelty noted that many parachute journalists are uninformed about the area that they are moved to report in, and as a result provide an inaccurate depiction of a country that perpetuates an ethnocentric conceptions through news. This causes inaccuracies because parachute journalists do not understand the area they are reporting in, which inhibits them. I agree with Pedelty’s criticism of parachute journalism, and it is something that should be taken into account when reading news. Does the journalist live in the area that he or she is reporting in, so he or she can have a better understanding of the area? If not, it is important to read the article with a grain of salt.

Another interesting criticism that Pedelty had was of the American journalism ideal—objectivity. Pedelty argued that emotion, politics and values are alienated through objectivity in American journalism. He believed that this causes the news to be very lacking. I disagree. There are many alternative news sources like Human Rights Watch that publish stories that don’t aim to be objective. The mainstream news should strive for objectivity, even if it is a utopian ideal because that ideal guides journalists to find the truth.

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