How war correspondents help to shape the narrative during times of conflict

How war correspondents help to shape the narrative during times of conflict

The Hong Kong’s Coastal Defence Museum’s new exhibition shows the role journalists play in recording history and runs until January 31


Chinese photojournalist Sha Fei's coverage of the Second Sino-Japanese War captured moments of both pain and hope.
Photo: Leisure and Cultural Services Department

WARNING: Graphic images featured in this story

We all consume news every day, but may not always think about how it gets from the source to our newspapers or mobile apps, especially when it comes to stories about global conflict or natural disasters. Journalists regularly risk their lives to report from war zones or countries under authoritarian rule, because it’s their job to inform the rest of the world what’s going on.

However, while we would expect that news to be as accurate and truthful as possible, journalists also have the power to choose how they present that truth. Sometimes, it’s enough to sway popular opinion in one direction or another. In this way, journalists not only inform people about events; they build a narrative around these events too.

The Braving Untold Dangers: War Correspondents exhibition at the Hong Kong’s Coastal Defence Museum illustrates how news stories can become useful artefacts, giving us an insight into the past — both the events, and how people responded to them.

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Located on the eighth floor of the museum — itself built on a former British fort — the War Correspondents exhibition explores life in Asia in the 19th, 20th and 21st Century through the eyes of the journalists who witnessed some of the biggest conflicts of that period.

William Howard Russell was a 19th century Irish war correspondent for English newspaper The Times. He covered many of the major wars of the second half of the century, including the Indian Rebellion (1857), American Civil War (1861-65), Crimean War (1853-56) and Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). His writing on the Crimean War focuses on conditions for the soldiers.

Sometimes journalists were sent to front lines to produce propaganda.
Photo: LCSD

“Russell’s reporting informed British commanders about the troops’ disorganisation, low morale and their insufficient medical support which led to soldiers dying from the lack of proper treatment. His stories encouraged Nurse Florence Nightingale to organise a rescue group to assist in medical care on the front lines,” Coastal Museum’s Assistant Curator, Lee Ka-lok told Young Post.

“Russell’s reports also changed Britain’s military strategy by constructing a military rail network, improvement of logistics support – all of which contributed to Britain’s final victory against the Russians,” added Lee.

Advances in technology made it possible for photojournalists to capture images much more quickly and easily. One of the exhibition’s main objects, explained Lee, is a German Leica 35mm camera made in 1925. It was particularly useful during the Second World War (1939-1945) to have a device which allowed photographers to be fast and mobile, taking action shots as instead of static ones.

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Elsewhere in the exhibition you’ll find the work of Chinese humanist photojournalist Sha Fei. Sha covered the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), taking more than a thousand photographs. His photos capture very human moments of both pain and optimism. Some of the black-and-white photos show children running around playing games, while others show soldiers setting up camps, sharpening weapons and preparing for battle.

Both Chinese and Japanese news publications played a role in justifying the war and garnering public support. “During the war, journalists and illustrators from more than 60 news agencies in Japan were sent to the frontline to report on the war’s progress and to serve as the country’s propaganda mouthpiece,” said Lee.

This history-defining image was take by Huynh Cong ‘Nick’ Ut, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for this photo.
Photo: Huynh Cong ‘Nick’ Ut/AP

More recently, photojournalism completely changed the course of the Vietnam War (1955-1975) by exposing its horrors and human rights abuses to the American public. One of the most defining images of the war is “The Terror of War” taken by photojournalist Huynh Cong ‘Nick’ Ut’s on June 8 1972. It shows a naked 9-year-old girl, Pham Thi Kim Phuc, running from a napalm attack.

For a long time, Americans didn’t know about their troops’ progress in the war and the level of brutality being used: napalm bombs, execution, rape of the local people and destruction of land. The image, explained Lee, was a shocking revelation, and became an anti-war symbol in the United States.

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The Vietnam War set the tone for depicting conflicts at a much more human, personal level. One video in the exhibition features Susanna Cheung Chui-yung, a former BBC World Service and Hong Kong TVB war correspondent who covered more recent wars in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia. She and reporters like her took a holistic approach to their coverage, visiting hospitals and refugee zones to detail how war affects ordinary citizens.

“The war correspondents inspired the public to consider the horror of war and the value of peace. As shown in the exhibition, a set of custom-made protective suit, army boots, mask, first aid kit were used by a Hong Kong reporter. Portable satellite phones with foldable panel antenna for voice communication are also on display,” said Lee.

If you’re interested, check out Hong Kong Coastal Defence Museum’s War Correspondent exhibition at 175 Tung Hei Road, Shau Kei Wan. It is open every day 10am to 5pm (except Thursdays), with free admission and runs until January 31.

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

Depiction of Chinese and Japanese soldiers fighting in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95).
Photo: Leisure and Cultural Services Department



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