The Press and War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The notion of the fourth estate–the “press” (or the “media”)–has evolved over human history from oral recitation through the advent of print to the current digital age.


The notion of the fourth estate–the “press” (or the “media”)–has evolved over human history from oral recitation through the advent of print to the current digital age. The ability of the press to cover conflicts has also evolved, as have the objectives of those who announce and write history, including modern journalists and others who purport to report the “news.” Issues specifically attached to the media during wartime have included how to obtain and disseminate information to the public, the inevitable conflict between the media and the state, and their competing interests during wartime. The role of technology has had a particular impact–from the invention of the printing press (fifteenth century) to the modern era of the Internet–on how information is gathered and distributed by the media from the battlefield to people’s living rooms and how the public is influenced by the media’s coverage of war.Press and warfareMedia;war coverageJournalismPress and warfareMedia;war coverageJournalismNews coverage


The relationship between the media and the state during wartime has often blurred the distinction between information andPropaganda;and journalism[journalism]propaganda and created the conflict between Censorshipcensorship and the “right to know.” Both institutions have competing agendas: the state’s desire to control the distribution of information, especially information that might be embarrassing or harmful to wartime objectives; and the media’s mission to obtain the truth and to inform the public. It is especially during the last 150 years, with the rise of democracies and the accelerating pace of technology, that the conflict between the media and the state during wartime has intensified.

History of the Press and WarAncient World

In Oral traditionsthe ancient world, all news was spread by word of mouth. Even with the advent of writing, the great majority of ancient peoples were Illiteracyilliterate, and thus all information was restricted to an elite of scribes and rulers. The stories behind the great epics of the Greece;news reportingGreeks, such as Homer’s Iliad (Homer) Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e. ; English translation, 1611), were originally told orally and retold through the generations. It was through trade that people were exposed to information and ideas. In ancient Greece, the agora of Athens and other cities served as a forum where all kinds of news was exchanged.

CNN’s Peter Arnett reports from Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991.

(Getty Images)

Ancient Romans;news reportingRomans received their daily news at the Forum through reading placards. The placards fed the Romans’ desire for news about life abroad. Most of all, the baths were a favorite gathering place for Romans of all classes, where they could exchange news and the daily gossip. The Acta Senatus Acta Senatus and the Acta Diurna Acta Diurna served as the means by which Romans could learn about their government and their empire. Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e. ) had written treatises on the Germanic tribes he encountered in his campaigns in Gaul, but they did not have the current feel of a modern newspaper. Unlike the modern newspaper, however, placards reported facts only randomly, without any kind of editorial oversight. There was no criticism of government policies during peace or war.

Medieval World

The collapse of the Roman Empire meant a total breakdown of society. Because of the collapse of the political order, the infrastructure and security that made an urban and cosmopolitan way of life possible simply disappeared. In Western Europe, people were reduced to a far simpler way of living. Between 500 and 1000 c.e., invasions by Barbarians;invasions of Rome“barbarian” tribes made the world of the Dark Ages“Dark Ages” unpredictable. Life was more isolated, and information much harder to come by. Knowledge of the first few centuries of the Middle Ages survived only through the work of a handful of monks and chroniclers.

By the Middle Ages;HighHigh Middle AgesHigh Middle Ages, between about 1000 and 1300, Western Europe had recovered a degree of civilization with the rise of towns, but nowhere near the same level of sophistication that had thrived under the Romans. Tales of war, courtly love, and Chivalrychivalry became popular as Minstrelsminstrels and Troubadourstroubadours spread news about far-off lands through verse and song.

Modern World

The emergence of the modern Newspapersnewspaper can be traced to the seventeenth century. Prior to this, town criers and heralds announced royal proclamations. Eventually, they would be replaced by circulars and printed journals. The precursors of the newspaper were the Nouvellistesnouvellistes, who scoured the country for the most recent news, which included news about politics, literature, the arts, and the mundane. The nouvellistes also recorded the wars of Louis XIV.

In 1631, a physician namedRenaudot, ThéophrasteRenaudot, ThéophrasteThéophraste Renaudot (1586-1653) founded the Gazette de France Gazette de France, the first modern newspaper. His goal was “to get at the truth.” The earliest examples of wartime correspondence were letters, called Corantos corantos, that dated from the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648);newspapers Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), mixed with personal stories and travelogues. These letters were duplicated through the printing press and were distributed to a larger public. The prototype of the wartime correspondent was an anonymous writer for the Swedish Intelligencer (newspaper) Swedish Intelligencer who reported the accounts of King Gustavus Adolphus. Like modern newspapers, the Swedish Intelligencer had a bureau in London, but unlike modern journalists, the writers of the Swedish Intelligencer did not go out to the field to get firsthand information; instead, they depended on the word of gentlemen of high rank and on other secondary sources.

After the Thirty Years’ War, newspapers began acquiring their present characteristics. Newspapers began establishing Foreign news bureausforeign bureaus where people would pass on firsthand accounts. By the eighteenth century, newspapers were becoming the dominant source of information. English newspapers could freely publish without censorship, while French and other European newspapers were kept under political scrutiny. When it came to wartime, however, all newspapers were under tight government restrictions and were almost entirely dependent on the government for information.

The wars of the French Revolution (1789-1793);news reportingFrench Revolution (1789-1793) and the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815);news reportingNapoleonic Wars (1793-1815) opened an opportunity for the development of war correspondence. The events of the French Revolution attracted British journalists, who reported as “our Correspondent in Paris.” One prominent example is that of Robert Cutler Fergusson, who was in Paris between 1792 and 1793 to report, firsthand, history-making events such as the massacre of the Swiss Guards by the women of Paris, the attempted flight of the royal family, and the meetings of the Legislative Assembly, which ultimately convicted Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. French newspapers recorded the activities of Napoleon’s armies, based on the information provided them by the official bulletins posted by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821). These dispatches were also printed in English newspapers, with the caveat that they might be unreliable, since they came from French sources. English journalists countered French bulletins by pointing out their inconsistencies; however, any other sources beyond those of Napoleon’s armies proved very difficult to obtain.

A pedestrian passes by a television screen in Seoul during a report about a North Korean missile launch on July 4, 2009.

(AFP/Getty Images)

Official information from generals and admirals did not make for exciting reading to the larger public. For example, during the Peninsular War (1808-1815)Peninsular War (1808-1815), Wellington, duke ofWellington, duke of (Arthur Wellesley)Arthur Wellesley, the the duke of Wellington (1769-1852), provided such dull and uninspiring dispatches that they gave the impression of defeat, when in fact the British were successful in hampering Napoleon’s objectives in Spain. Another challenge to war correspondents was the slow pace of mail couriers. Newspapers had to be mindful of placating postal officials, both foreign and domestic, or risk missing a “scoop.” The Continental SystemContinental System established by Napoleon had the unintended effect of making British newspapers prized on the Continent. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, British newspapers such as The Times had refined their information-gathering methods and themselves became the source of information for the British government when it sought updated information on Napoleon’s forces.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the modern newspaper was undergoing an evolution: The formerly haphazard means of gathering information were becoming more structured and standardized, leading to the sophisticated media organizations recognized today. American journalists such as Curtis, George WilliamCurtis, George WilliamGeorge William Curtis for The New York Times, Fuller, MargaretFuller, Margaret Margaret Fuller for The New-York Tribune, Dana, Charles A.Dana, Charles A. Charles A. Dana,Bryant, William CullenBryant, William CullenWilliam Cullen Bryant, andSedgwick, TheodoreSedgwick, TheodoreTheodore Sedgwick competed with their European counterparts for breaking news on the battlefield. Correspondence on the Mexican War (1846-1848);news reporting Mexican War (1846-1848) showed that American journalism had come of age. First, the new technology of Photography of warfare photography allowed this conflict to be the first to be photographed. American war correspondents–unlike their dignified and restrained European counterparts–reported directly from the battlefield and even fought on the battlefield. Kendall, George WilkinsKendall, George Wilkins George Wilkins Kendall of the New Orleans Daily Picayune captured a Mexican flag and acquired the title of major. American newspapers jostled with each other to get the first scoop on the latest fighting. The telegraph, which had just been invented at the outset of the war, had not yet realized its potential. Thus, newspaper agencies still depended on courier services. Coverage of the Mexican War suited every appetite for news, describing everything from the tactical and strategic aspects of the conflict to human-interest stories and letters to home.

The Crimean War (1853-1856);news coverageCrimean War (1853-1856) marked a turning point in wartime correspondence. Newspaper organizations began the organized practice of using a civilian reporter to inform the general public. The age of the newspaper correspondent dawned with William Howard Russell (1820-1907). His journalistic career began when he was hired by The Times in 1841 to cover elections in Ireland. He first covered the Crimean War in 1854, when editor John Thaddeus Delane (1817-1879) of The Times assigned him to cover a British force in Malta. When Russell arrived at Gallipoli, he saw firsthand the conditions of the British army, which was supposed to be fighting the Russians. He was dumbfounded at the unsanitary conditions the injured soldiers had to endure and the incompetence of the officers, who came from the aristocracy. Upon observing these conditions, he faced the dilemma of whether to publish his findings to The Times. Delane encouraged Russell to continue reporting. As the editor, Delane selected which of Russell’s reports were fit for public consumption and which he would distribute privately to the government, which led to the collapse of an entire cabinet.

Another effect of Russell’s reports on the lot of the ordinary British soldier was that they inspired Florence Nightingale to lend her services, which in turn led to the modern nursing profession. While Russell was reporting on the conditions of the British army, the British government, perhaps instigated by Prince Albert, sent royal photographer Roger Fenton (1819-1869) to counter Russell’s reports on incompetence and suffering. Fenton portrayed British soldiers as happy and well dressed in order to maintain public support for the Crimean War. The Crimean War established the practice of the special correspondent, the role Russell most exemplified. His example would be emulated by future war correspondents throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, from the American Civil War (1861-1865);news coverageAmerican Civil War to the Boer Boer Wars (1880-1902)War.

World World War I (1914-1918)[World War 01];news coverageWar I (1914-1918) witnessed the maturation of the wartime correspondence, as well as the increasingly intertwined relationship between the state and the press. Initially, the Allied and Central Powers attempted to accommodate war correspondents by accrediting journalists and providing tours of the battlefields and military positions. However, as the war progressed, the governments of the Allies and the Central Powers reined in journalists by providing only the sort of information that was deemed suitable by the military censors. Propaganda was crucial in maintaining public support of the war. Casualties were downplayed, even fudged. Both the Allies and the Central Powers painted their respective causes in the most favorable light possible, while portraying the enemy as less than human. God was on everyone’s side, and the war was described as a war for civilization. The British were especially adept in demonizing the Germany;World War I[World War 01]Germans. The Financial Times reported on June 10, 1915, that the German army had put a bounty on the children of the Belgian king, Albert. The Bryce Commission Bryce Commission reported alleged German atrocities committed in Belgium. Among them included accounts of rape, butchery, and murder. Because the report bore the name of Lord Bryce, a scholar and former ambassador to the United States, the atrocities gained credibility among the British and American public, arousing anti-German sentiment. A decade later, many of the allegations were proved to be exaggerated or false.

World World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];news coverageWar II (1939-1945) proved to be far more destructive than the first, and the ability of the government to control information was even greater because of advances in technology in the twenty years since the guns had fallen silent at the western front. In response to the development of shortwave radio, the British Ministry of InformationBritish Ministry of Information established protocols for the control of information in 1936; its objective was to make the next war a “newsless” war. Correspondents’ movements would be restricted by the military. Censors would keep unflattering information away from the public view. The Germans took their cue from the example set by during British World War I, creating an elaborate propaganda machine directed by Propaganda;GermanGermany;propagandaGoebbels, JosephGoebbels, JosephJoseph Goebbels (1897-1945). The military establishment carefully screened all material written by correspondents and intimidated anyone who wrote unfavorable news about the German war effort.

The United States;propagandaUnited States also established measures to prevent the leaking of sensitive information. Despite its democratic institutions, the U.S. government resorted to propaganda as a means to bolster public morale. Such practices dated to the Creel CommissionCreel Commission during World War I. During the World War II Pacific campaign, for example, General MacArthur, DouglasMacArthur, DouglasDouglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines was publicized with photographers and newsreel cameras. At the same time, however, the news of the Holocaust;ignorance ofHolocaust found a skeptical audience. Having been raised on the German atrocity stories of World War I–subsequently discredited–the Allied public assumed that stories of the concentration camps were mere propaganda. As in World War I, journalists during World War II were their own Censorshipcensors, glorifying their own countries at the expense of the truth.

War correspondent Walter Cronkite reporting from Vietnam during the Tet Offensive in 1968.

(Hulton ArchiveGetty Images)

AfterCold War (1945-1991);news coverageWorld War II, the Grand Alliance broke down into superpower tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. The witch hunts of McCarthyism[Maccarthyism]McCarthyism led Americans to fear the spread of Communism;witch huntscommunism throughout Eastern Europe and the Third World. Unlike World War II, in which the enemy was clearly established, wartime coverage of conflicts in Africa, Asia, and Latin America was ambiguous for journalists because of the nature of the client-state relationship of the Cold War. The Korean War (1950-1953);news coverageKorean War (1950-1953) was such a war. Journalists found it difficult to understand the objectives of this conflict, which killed 2 million Koreans and 300,000 troops under the United Nations. Military censorship hampered journalists’ ability to obtain facts, as in previous wars.

In the 1960’s, technology revolutionized the dissemination of information as television and satellite communication brought the war to people’s living rooms. The Vietnam War (1961-1975);news coverageVietnam War (1961-1975) was broadcast into the homes of Americans every evening. As the public watched, the reality of war–battles, casualties, maimed and dying children, and soldiers returned in body bags–mounted in the evening news. American public opinion turned against the war, and for the next decade and a half the experience of the Vietnam War, for both soldiers and civilians, made the United States reluctant to engage in any major conflict.

With the end of the Cold War came new conflicts. The Persian Gulf War (1990-1991);news coverageGulf War (1990-1991) marked a return of the United States to the field of war. Journalists once again were restricted by the military establishment and were fed information without the opportunity to investigate its veracity, though they were allowed to be present to report the impact of Saddam Hussein’s bombs falling as the U.S. troops entered Kuwait. This was the first major conflict the United States had been involved with since the advent of Cable news groups;news coveragetwenty-four-hour cable news organizations, such as CNN (Cable News Network)Cable News Network (CNN). Americans no longer had to wait for the evening news to know what was happening; now the newest developments were in front of the American public as they happened.

By the mid-1990’s, the World Wide Web;news coverageInternet;news coverageInternet was making the reporting of events even faster. This was clearly evident during the Iraq War (beg. 2003);news coverageAmerican invasion of Iraq in 2003, as journalists Journalism;embeddedEmbedded reporters“embedded” in military units reported their stories instantaneously. With the advent of embedded journalism, the objectivity of the reporting came into question, as the idea of an embedded journalist reporting negatively on the actions of the unit with which he was traveling was unthinkable. Regardless of the changes on the battlefield, the conflict between the military and the public’s right to know continues.Press and warfareMedia;war coverageJournalismNews coverage

Books and Articles
  • Aronson, James. The Press and the Cold War. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1970. Concentrates on the role played by radical journalists in raising public awareness during the Cold War, especially during the Vietnam War.
  • Badsey, Stephen, ed. The Media and International Security. Portland, Oreg.: Frank Cass, 2000. Presents the proceedings of a 1995 conference, including presentations by academic scholars, members of the media, and representatives of the armed forces.
  • Kennedy, William V. The Military and the Media: Why the Press Cannot Be Trusted to Cover a War. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993. Argues that American journalists have largely failed to acquire proper training to cover military matters, and that this failure was dramatically evident in their coverage of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
  • Knightly, Phillip. The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist, and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Probably the standard-bearer for historical examination of the media’s coverage of wars, this volume has been updated with nearly every significant conflict that has appeared since its first edition in 1975.
  • Matthews, Joseph. Reporting the Wars. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1957. The first book-length treatment of the history of the coverage of wars.
  • Salmon, Lucy Maynard. The Newspaper and the Historian. New York: Oxford University Press, 1923. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1976. This groundbreaking study examines the interaction between the philosophy of a particular newspaper and its coverage of various conflicts.
  • Sweeney, Michael. Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. A case study looking at the U.S. Office of Censorship’s role in how information was presented during World War II, in both formal and informal settings.

Civilian Labor and Warfare


Education, Textbooks, and War

Paramilitary Organizations


Revolt, Rebellion, and Insurgency

War’s Impact on Economies

Women, Children, and War

Categories: History