Social Construction of Political Realities via Mass Media in the Kosovo War

by James Graham

Updated: January, 2022

How many people can place Kosovo on a map? Compare this to three years ago. The difference between then and now is that the mass media learned of the situation and turned Kosovo into a politically important part of the world. With such great interest the governments of the western world could not avoid becoming entangled in the conflict. Once actively involved they were able to count on their own mass media to produce supporting propaganda. Likewise the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's intervention allowed the Yugoslavian government to reconstruct the NATO countries as enemies of the Serbian people.

Political reality is socially constructed through a process of manipulation aided by the mass media. Social construction can include the socio-historical context, propaganda agents, media methods, a social network and a cultural rim of government, economy, events, ideology and myths. In this way enemies and friends are constructed out of countries the populace barely understands. Political reality is also dependent on perceptual relativity, based on past experiences and common beliefs. Social and political truth is relative and is often shared within a country or culture.

Television, print and radio together comprise the politically important mass media. All are controlled by a small elite group and cross ownership is common. A leader is inherently newsworthy so has easy access to mass media. They use this exposure to set the political agenda often by merely discussing certain topics. Being able to define an event or issue assures political power. The average person turns to the media for help in understanding events ensuring access to the media means control of public opinion. Politicians can manipulate the mass media by nature of their position.

America's mass media closely follows the government's agenda. Reporters like most people suffer from elemental patriotism which clouds their outlook. Their overwhelming wish to think positively of themselves, their institutions and their leaders is the foundation of their patriotism. It is indoctrinated in American citizens from childhood that the people rule strengthening their belief. Reporter's patriotism also contains an element of laziness; it is easier to accept the government line than research your own evidence. The government also rewards conformity through use of leaked information and exclusive stories. Such a restricted menu of sources strengthens the media's inclination to adopt a patriotic agenda. Market forces, internalised assumptions, self-censorship and a lack of outside coercion maintain the link between the media and the government. The end result is that if a story fits America's patriotic agenda it is given prominence, frequency and helps construct the contest between good and evil. America's media was always likely to support their government's actions in Kosovo.

No democratic western government can act in the face of substantial media condemnation and consequently overwhelming public opposition. Fortunately for NATO Kosovo presented the media with readily identifiable political symbols. The Kosovar Albanian refugees the helpless and suffering victims while the NATO pilots and Western politicians were the compassionate heroes. In Slobodan Milošević the media also had the perfect villain. Myths of Serb atrocities were common before and after the NATO bombardment and served to construct the Serbs as enemies. Through the use of such political symbols the western media aided NATO governments to gain the support of their citizens.

The western media's tendency to simplify, sensationalize and stereotype constructed a political reality of right and wrong in the Kosovo conflict. Instead of analysing the many and varied complexities and causes of the conflict the media largely ignored them. Kosovo has been disputed since the fourteenth century and has changed hands many times. However the media only analysed the recent history of the region concluding that the break up of Yugoslavia and its diverse ethnic groupings was to blame. It was not even the causes of the conflict that consumed the media's attention but its effects. These included the refugees, Serb atrocities and the NATO air strikes and resulting damage. All were more sensational and such had more intrinsic news value. This coverage failed to promote a critical discussion of the situation and what NATO or anyone else could do regarding it. Stereotyping is a favourite ploy of the media and the average Serb soldier and Kosovar Albanian got their share. The Serb Soldiers were described as ill disciplined, paranoid and drunk, the Albanians as innocent and helpless. Every picture of an Albanian refugee, mass grave or even the mention of the word genocide acted as justification of the war to the public. The weaknesses of the western media allowed a consensus of support to form in favour of NATO's Kosovo intervention.

Mainstream media criticism of NATO was reserved for its methods and results not the actions themselves. The bombing of the Chinese embassy received widespread condemnation. This correctly focussed on the harm done to international relations. The media also extensively analysed the harm done to US-Russian relations through NATO's intervention. Disagreements between the NATO allies were also keenly reported. These were somewhat exaggerated but did construct the question of NATO unity that previously was unheard of in the mass media. Only in journals like Insight on the News were comments like the "United States may be stepping into its greatest foreign-policy debacle since Vietnam" heard. Criticism of NATO's intervention in Kosovo only existed on non-core issues and on the fringes of the media.

NATO's bombing of Serbia allowed Slobodan Milošević to appeal to his people's nationalism and patriotism. Control of Serbia's mass media allowed him to gain popular support by promoting Kosovo as the cradle of Serb civilisation. This diverted attention from Serbia's woes. The creation of the Kosovar Albanians as internal enemies largely avoided history and reason. History was only touched on in the case of myths to justify the current resentments and aggression. Those who construct such an enemy have every reason to perpetuate and exaggerate the threat they pose. Hence the Kosovar Albanians had to be suppressed rather than be allowed to survive as a distinct culture within Yugoslavia. Milosevic was also able to paint the NATO countries as the root of all Serbia's problems. The NATO countries were characterised as imperialistic aggressors and intent on destroying the Serbian race. There are not many people who can ignore such intense symbolic calls to nationalism and the majority of the nation quickly supported Milosevic's policies. Milosevic used his own mass media to construct political reality as skilfully as the NATO governments.

The Kosovo conflict illustrates how two sides in a confrontation can manipulate the mass media to gain popular support for their causes. They both used symbols, myths and patriotism to socially construct their opponent as a mortal enemy. The mass media's power is such that they can and in the case of Kosovo did socially construct the course of history.


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The Breakup of Yugoslavia

The Violent Breakup of Yugoslavia
The Dayton Agreement
The Kosovo War