War Correspondents

Michael S Sweeney. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

War correspondence emerged in Europe during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815) as British newspapers sought to speed information from the continent to growing lists of subscribers. The identity of the first war journalists is subject to debate, in part because questions have been raised since. Were they true reporters? Were they hired specifically to write about war?


Journalists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries rarely acted as field correspondents, relying instead on letters from soldiers, gossip, and other newspapers as means of collecting information. Furthermore, “war correspondence” implies a measure of substantial, purposeful coverage, yet early chroniclers included amateurs and victims of circumstance. Some historians nominate John Bell (1745-1831) of London’s Oracle and Public Advertiser, who witnessed cannonading from a Flemish tower in 1794, as the first war journalist. However, Bell was visiting the Continent intending to round up letter writers for the Oracle; it was only after he arrived that he decided to report on his own. The first journalist commissioned to cover war news probably was diarist and lawyer Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867). The London Times hired him in 1807 to write about Napoleon’s army on the Continent. Although Robinson described the Battle of Freidland and other military actions, he never witnessed combat. Instead, he gathered information from hotels and German-language newspapers. The first to report as an eyewitness from a war zone may have been Charles Lewis Gruneison (1806-79), who wrote about engagements of the Spanish civil war of the 1830s for the London Morning Post.

War correspondence became widely established by the middle of the nineteenth century, when American journalists observed the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and Irish-born correspondent William Howard Russell (1821-1907) helped topple the British government by exposing the barbarity and mismanagement of the Crimean War (1853-56) in the London Times.

Elements of the Job

War correspondence is widely considered one of the most significant forms of journalism. “War journalists are thought to do what all journalists do, only in a more heightened, vibrantly important fashion,” wrote professors Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer.

To cover a story will entail, more likely than not, encountering conditions of an entirely different order than anything ordinarily associated with newswork. Images of the war reporter as adventurer or risk-taker, in the optimum sense, or as daredevil, fortune-hunter, or rogue, in the negative, help to fuel their celebration in novels, films, plays, and other fictional treatments. (Allan and Zelizer 2004, 4)

The work can be rewarding. Top war correspondents have won many Pulitzer Prizes and other honors. However, journalists who report from war zones typically suffer higher casualty rates than actual combatants, as was the case in America’s wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. In addition, war correspondents suffer higher rates of divorce and substance abuse than their counterparts. According to a study by Canadian psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein, 29 percent of war journalists suffer post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their prolonged exposure to violence.

In addition to the physical and psychological toll, war’s horrors create difficult choices for journalists. The high drama of combat coverage can expand audiences for newspapers, radio, television, and Internet news sites. However, if journalists share detailed accounts of violence, they risk alienating the public as well as the armed forces and the government that typically provide them logistical support. Correspondents also must choose between the news industry’s norm of objectivity and their own pro- or antiwar attitudes. They often compromise by practicing a measure of self-censorship. “We edited ourselves much more than we were edited,” novelist John Steinbeck wrote of his time as a World War II correspondent. “We felt responsible to what was called the home front. There was a general feeling that unless the home front was carefully protected from whole account of what war was like, it might panic.” He concluded that war reporters who tried to tell the unvarnished truth faced expulsion by military authorities (Steinbeck 1986, xvii). New York Times war reporter Christopher Hedges (1956-), writing about the wars at the end of the twentieth century, similarly noted the anger war correspondents created among their audiences when their stories and pictures exploded popular myths. For example, journalists debunked initial reports of heroic resistance by Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch to avoid capture during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. A year later, journalists revealed that former National Football League star Pat Tillman, whom the Army had awarded a posthumous Silver Star for heroism in Afghanistan, had died from friendly fire. The delayed truth led to widespread public suspicion that the Pentagon had tried to manipulate the news for public relations purposes.

Correspondents of the nineteenth century favored patriotic, subjective views of war. Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner (1821-82), for example, captioned a photograph of dead Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg with reference to death as the “price of their treason,” and reporter Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916) confessed that he wanted to cheer as he watched Colonel Theodore Roosevelt lead a charge in the Spanish-American War. The tone of coverage changed in the twentieth century as the news industry moved toward standards that included balance and emotional distance. Journalists wrote more critically about war, including American tactical defeats during World War II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars. Journalists’ clashes with the military and the government grew notably during the Vietnam War, when correspondents in South Vietnam reported discrepancies between what they saw and what official sources told them. The American government and military attempted to shape (“spin”) more supportive coverage during later wars by expanding restrictions on accredited journalists in war zones. Many journalists countered by avoiding accreditation or traveling in territory not under American military control, becoming “unilateral” reporters.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, war correspondence took on added difficulties as America fought new kinds of enemies. The so-called War on Terror, launched after the attacks of September 11, 2001, shifted military operations from the clash of armies to widespread, small-scale actions targeting bands of guerrillas. Skilled journalists reported on pacification campaigns that included elements of economics, religion, public opinion, and politics, expanding the definition of “war correspondent” to its broadest limits.

Some Noted American War Correspondents

Christiane Amanpour (1958-)

Amanpour had much of her life shaped by conflict. Born in London to a British mother and Iranian father, she grew up in Iran and fled with her family after the Islamic Revolution toppled the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. She worked briefly for a Rhode Island radio station before moving in 1983 to CNN, the fledgling, 24-hour cable TV news network created by Ted Turner (1938-). As a CNN international correspondent, Amanpour reported from virtually every major conflict of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. She achieved fame filing stories with Peter Arnett from Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, helping establish CNN as a serious outlet for war coverage and drawing criticism from some conservatives for reporting from an enemy capital during wartime. Similar criticisms arose during the 2003 invasion of Iraq by American, British, and allied forces. Amanpour said the administration of President George W. Bush and its supporters among conservative media outlets created a “climate of fear and self-censorship” to distort news of the war. The conservative Fox News replied by calling her a “spokeswoman” for the terrorist al-Qaeda organization. With her outspoken advocacy of civilian victims, particularly during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, Amanpour focused attention on whether war correspondents should remain emotionally detached from the news they report. “There are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice. Objectivity doesn’t mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing,” she said after the ethnic clashes in Sarajevo, Bosnia (Schmitt 1996).

Peter Arnett (1934-)

Arnett, a native of New Zealand, covered the Vietnam War from 1962 to its end in 1975 as a print reporter and moved on to a series of subsequent wars. He won a Pulitzer Prize for the Associated Press in 1966. His stories captured the confusion and chaos that became a hallmark of the Vietnam War. During the 1968 Tet offensive, when Viet Cong guerrillas surprised U.S. forces by carrying out numerous coordinated attacks across South Vietnam, Arnett published a statement from a U.S. officer that became widely quoted by the war’s opponents: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” After joining CNN in 1981, Arnett helped push the cable network to its highest ratings by reporting live from Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War a decade later. Along with colleagues Earl Holliman (1948-98) and Bernard Shaw (1940-), Arnett reported live, via telephone, from a hotel room as an American-led coalition began bombing Baghdad. Later reports featured live television broadcasts from the hotel and city streets. Arnett’s stories about the bombing of buildings he identified as a civilian air raid shelter and a baby milk factory, recording significant non-military casualties, prompted a sharp response from the White House and dozens of members of Congress. However, after CNN aired video of civilian casualties, the rate of American missile attacks on Baghdad declined. General Norman Schwarzkopf, the architect of the assault that liberated Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War, questioned whether the public needed to see news from the enemy’s point of view. A Gallup poll on that issue, taken shortly after the bombings depicted in Arnett’s reports, reported 69 percent of Americans in favor of journalists reporting for the U.S. media from Baghdad. He had narrated a CNN-Time magazine news story alleging American use of poison gas in the Vietnam War. The Pentagon vigorously protested the story as false, and CNN issued a retraction. CNN reprimanded Arnett in 1998 and fired him in 1999. Arnett reported later wars for other networks.

Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916)

Davis, an immensely popular reporter and novelist, portrayed warfare as a masculine adventure in the 1890s, but within two decades turned toward a more negative view of war’s tragedy and bloodshed. Davis first found fame writing newspaper stories about New York City theaters and slums. Newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) hired Davis in 1897 to cover the Cuban rebellion against Spain. Davis developed a detail-driven narrative style that attracted readers. Two of his stories from Cuba stoked anti-Spanish opinion during the months leading to the Spanish-American War. The first portrayed a young Cuban guerrilla as steadfast and heroic while awaiting execution by a Spanish firing squad. The second described Spanish authorities boarding an American steamship, where Davis said they undressed and searched a Cuban woman suspected of smuggling rebel documents. An illustration in Hearst’s New York Journal exaggerated the details and portrayed the woman as being stripped naked in front of a group of Spanish men. Davis subsequently covered virtually every major armed conflict until his death, including the Greco-Turkish War (1897), the Spanish-American War (1898), the Boer War (1899-1902), the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), and the opening weeks (1914) of World War I. Davis’s accounts of the Rough Riders, an American volunteer unit in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, helped establish the reputation of Theodore Roosevelt as a colorful and active leader. Although Davis witnessed many problems that hampered the American invasion of Cuba, he did not publicize them. He rationalized that they would do little but raise an outcry from soldiers’ families. Davis filed his final war dispatches in 1914, reporting as a neutral observer during the German invasion of Belgium. Captured by the Germans and accused of being a British spy, Davis barely managed to avoid execution.

Floyd Gibbons (1887-1939)

Gibbons, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, covered General John “Black Jack” Pershing’s pursuit of Mexican insurgent and border raider Pancho Villa in 1916. A few months later, when Germany declared its intention to fight a World War I naval blockade by resuming unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic, Gibbons deliberately sought to book passage to Europe aboard a nonmilitary ship likely to be targeted. A U-boat sank the Laconia in February 1917, providing Gibbons with a first-person account of German naval combat. Gibbons, who survived in a lifeboat, said the submarine surfaced and its captain called out to ask the ship’s identification. Gibbons’s story fueled anti-German sentiment in the United States, as the captain apparently did not know he had targeted a transport carrying civilians. After America entered the war, Gibbons renewed his contacts with General Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force. Pershing forbade correspondents from mentioning specific military units in their dispatches, but Gibbons circumvented the rule’s intent by publicizing the relatively small contingent of Marines on the Western Front. Gibbons lost an eye to a German sniper’s bullet while witnessing the Marines advance into Belleau Wood in 1918. France awarded Gibbons the Croix de Guerre. Gibbons’s eyepatch became a central part of his later public image.

Marguerite Higgins (1920-66)

Higgins covered World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War for New York City newspapers. Her exceptional ability to gather information as well as her knack for being in the right place at the right time made her one of the top correspondents of the twentieth century. She demonstrated women could cover combat effectively and shared a Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1951. Higgins reported on the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in 1945 and the postwar Nuremberg war crimes trials for the New York Herald Tribune. She complained about the paper transferring her to its Far East bureau in spring 1950; the Korean War broke out three weeks later. Her initial eyewitness dispatches accurately described the rout of American and South Korean troops by better-equipped North Korean invaders. She saw soldiers killed in close fighting and survived repeated shellings. General Walton Walker banned her and other women from the front lines on the pretense of a lack of toilets, but General Douglas MacArthur rescinded the order and expressed his confidence in Higgins. She and another Herald Tribune reporter, the veteran combat correspondent Homer Bigart (1907-91), developed a hostile rivalry, pushing each other to take ever-greater risks. Higgins waded ashore during the pivotal invasion of Inchon in September 1950. She and Bigart survived the Korean War and reported the early stages of American involvement in South Vietnam. Higgins, reporting for Newsday, remained supportive of the American military presence in South Vietnam and the rationale for intervention, while Bigart grew increasingly skeptical of America’s strategy and tactics. Higgins died of leishmaniasis, a tropical disease she contracted on assignment in South Vietnam, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

George Wilkins Kendall (1809-67)

Kendall, co-founder of the New Orleans Picayune, fought as a volunteer in the Mexican-American War and became one of the first American war correspondents when he filed dispatches from the Rio Grande Valley, Veracruz, and Monterrey. Along with about ten other journalists, Kendall moved freely among the American lines and believed mixing civilian and military responsibilities did not compromise his role as a journalist. He helped capture a Mexican flag, served as an aide-de-camp, and answered to the title “Major.” Kendall established a communication system linking the Mexican interior with New Orleans, the closest American city, by horse and steamship. It proved more reliable than the military dispatch system and earned the nickname “Mr. Kendall’s Express.” Typesetters aboard the Picayune‘s ships prepared stories for the press while steaming toward port. From New Orleans, the accounts reached cities along the East Coast via railroads and the first telegraph lines. The system resulted in a series of scoops for Kendall, including the news of war’s end. The Picayune sped the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to New Orleans, printed an “extra” edition, and sent copies to the East Coast. The Baltimore Sun reprinted the news and forwarded copies to the White House before official accounts had arrived from the War Department.

Edward R. Murrow (1908-65)

Murrow (born Egbert Murrow) helped establish broadcasting as the pre-eminent news medium with a series of reports for CBS News from Europe during World War II and from East Asia during the Korean War. Murrow majored in speech in college and learned how to write and speak for the ear instead of the eye, a difference that made his radio broadcasts dramatic yet accessible to a mass audience. Broadcasting live from the streets and rooftops of London during the Nazi Blitz of 1940, Murrow evoked sympathy for the British from listeners in the United States. His broadcasts contributed to a shift in public opinion to favor sending more military assistance to Britain while the United States remained technically neutral. After America entered the war, Murrow reported about bombing raids on the continent and from the newly liberated Buchenwald concentration camp, lending his credibility to stories about the Holocaust. Murrow pioneered television documentaries at CBS and briefly returned to war correspondence during the Korean War. One of his initial reports, filed during the first weeks of fighting on the Korean Peninsula in 1950, accurately portrayed the rout of South Korean and American forces and raised questions about military decisions. Murrow’s report said, “When we start moving up through dead valleys, through villages to which we have put the torch by retreating, what then of the people who live there? Will our reoccupation of that flea-bitten land lessen or increase the attraction of communism?” CBS, fearing the story could raise North Korean morale and put the network’s broadcasting license in jeopardy, refused to air the story (Persico 1998, 292). Murrow protested but failed to overturn the decision. Like those of Ernie Pyle, Murrow’s later stories from South Korea depicted the lives of common soldiers, a less controversial subject than his hard-edged commentaries. A Murrow documentary, Christmas in Korea, portrayed United Nations troops during the year-end holiday and contributed to Murrow’s reputation as a master storyteller in the new medium of television.

Ernest Taylor “Ernie” Pyle (1900-45)

Pyle set a much-emulated standard for detailed observation of ordinary people and events, which he called “the worm’s-eye view” of war, in syndicated newspaper columns during World War II. Born on a sharecropper’s farm, Pyle discovered journalism while attending Indiana University. After leaving school, he took jobs as a copy editor and aviation columnist in Washington, D.C., before beginning a seven-year assignment as a traveling correspondent for the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain. After the beginning of World War II in Europe, he filed stories from London during the German air raids of 1940. He became an accredited reporter with the U.S. Army after America joined the Allies. Pyle reported from North Africa in 1942, Sicily and the Italian mainland in 1943, France in 1944, and the Pacific in 1945. He typically spent weeks with troops near the front lines before retreating to write a series of columns. Pyle repeatedly suffered depression and physical breakdowns after long exposure to combat. He vowed to make the Okinawa campaign of spring 1945 his final tour before retirement, but a Japanese sniper killed him on Ie Shima. Pyle’s folksy columns, written like plain speech, read like letters from the front, endearing him to civilians and soldiers alike. His most famous column described a group of soldiers quietly saying goodbye to the body of their captain, killed during combat in the Italian mountains. The Washington Daily News set the column in large type as the only story on its front page, and a Hollywood filmmaker re-created the scene from Pyle’s description as the climax of the 1945 movie The Story of G.I. Joe.


Shadow, a remarkably reliable and insightful newspaper reporter for the Confederacy during the Civil War, hid his identity behind a pseudonym. Civil War correspondents often used colorful pen names to shield themselves from military reprisals and to circumvent their editors’ ban on earning extra pay by filing for multiple papers. Shadow distinguished himself by writing clearly and honestly as the Confederacy suffered a series of setbacks. He reported from the Western front from June 1863 to January 1865, first for the Memphis Daily Appeal and later for the Mobile Advertiser and Register. Historians have tried to identify Shadow through comparing his movements with those of Confederate reporters, by searching historical archives, and by performing computer-assisted analyses of writing samples. Autobiographical details are sparse in Shadow’s dispatches, but he volunteered that he had served as “captain of a company of Confederate pikemen [infantrymen] at Nashville after the fall of Fort Donelson in February 1862.” Opinion about Shadow’s identity primarily has settled on either John H. Linebaugh, a Daily Appeal reporter known to have used the pen name Ashantee, or Henry Watterson, who became editor of the Louisville Courier Journal in 1868.

George Washburn Smalley (1833-1916)

Smalley reported for the New York Tribune on the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War and later formed a European news bureau to telegraph news to the United States via the newly laid transatlantic cable. Trained as a lawyer, Smalley switched to journalism at the start of the Civil War. In September 1862, he demonstrated resourcefulness in covering the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American military history. Smalley ran errands for Union General Joseph Hooker during the battle, allowing him close observation of the fighting. After dark, Smalley rode for six consecutive hours to reach the nearest telegraph office only to find it shuttered. When the office opened an hour later, Smalley sent a short dispatch about the Union victory, then journeyed by train to Baltimore and New York. He wrote his account while en route, handing it to printers at the Tribune when he arrived more than a day after the battle. Having avoided Union military censorship, Smalley produced the first detailed account of the battle, recounting the fierce fighting that turned back the Confederate invasion of Maryland yet blaming Union generals for errors that blunted the victory. Fourteen hundred newspapers reprinted Smalley’s report. Two years after the war’s end, in 1867, Smalley traveled to Europe to organize an overseas network of reporters for the Tribune. He set up a partnership with the London Daily News to pool resources. Reporters, including Moncure D. Conway (1832-1907), sent the syndicate news of the opening battles of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Another syndicate reporter delivered to Smalley’s London office the most important news of the war: an account of the collapse of the French army at Sedan and the capture of Emperor Napoleon III. White had attempted to cable the news from Belgium, but telegraph operators refused to believe the story or to wire it to England.


The role of correspondents in wartime has evolved over nearly two centuries and, for a segment of the American news media, has come full circle. Journalists who covered the wars of the nineteenth century practiced advocacy and in some cases assisted in the battles they covered. A more detached, objective approach arose in the wars of the mid-twentieth century as correspondents attempted to portray more of warfare’s violence and create more nuanced accounts of the origins, strategy, tactics, and costs of battle. As television grew to dominate the news media coverage of war in the late twentieth century, television images from war zones gave viewers the most detailed view of war. Warzone television broadcasters drew record television ratings, becoming visibly associated with the combat they covered. With greater exposure came greater public scrutiny of their motives and attitudes. Journalists such as Christiane Amanpour and Peter Arnett did not merely report on war; their opinions also became news in ways that earlier correspondents could not have imagined. Conservative, prowar media outlets such as Fox News recognized the immediate economic benefits of having correspondents and commentators provide patriotic coverage. They mixed nineteenth-century advocacy with straight reportage to attract large audiences during the rally-’round-the-flag effect of America’s entry into war with Iraq in 2003.

News media pundits debated the significance of war correspondents’ personal views, as well as the use of nationalistic appeals to build audiences. The central question, left unresolved at the start of the twenty-first century, was whether a war correspondent could be simultaneously patriotic and objective. While the debate sparked caustic exchanges between conservative cable TV networks and their competitors, the ability of war correspondents to actually influence short-term public opinion remained in doubt. “Does the media shape public opinion?” war correspondent Christopher Hedges asked rhetorically. “Not in war. When everyone’s waving a flag, the media waves a flag. When middle-class families start wondering why their boy is coming home in a rubber bag, then the media starts asking questions, too” (Ferrari 2003, 204). Amanpour said she believed war journalism cannot have a significant impact on public policy unless the government has failed to create and execute its own policy.

Army studies charting changes in public opinion during the Vietnam and Korean wars suggest media opinion about wars lags behind public opinion. Public support for those wars fell 15 percentage points with every tenfold increase in casualties, independent of the content and tone of news coverage. For example, when American casualties rose from 100 to 1,000, public support dropped 15 percentage points. Future war planners likely will emphasize the need to fight swift, high-tech wars—not to manage media coverage as much as to directly influence public opinion by minimizing casualties. Finding ways to cover swift, conventional wars as well as unconventional engagements with terrorists and guerrillas likely will remain issues for war correspondents, as will finding the proper balancing point between objectivity and advocacy.