How Papers Are Covering Iraqi Civilian Casualties

By: Joe Strupp

It is one of the most emotional elements of any war, one of the hardest to report accurately, and one of the most controversial. Coverage of civilian casualties can spark both praise and anger from readers — and much internal discussion among editors, and front-page designers, directing coverage of the war in Iraq.

“We pay more attention to American deaths,” said Editor Anthony Marro of Newsday in Melville, N.Y., whose paper publishes few photos of dead bodies, even fewer if they are Iraqi. “It is easier to report on people we know, we put more faces on the Americans, we know who they are.”

But most editors who spoke with E&P believe civilian casualties need equal attention because they are an important effect of the war. “Our reporters are encouraged to cover everything they see,” said John Walcott, Washington bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers. “It is our responsibility to show the face of war — no matter what it looks like.”

Roy Peter Clark, an instructor at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., gives most papers high marks in this area. But Geneva Overholser, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and former editor of The Des Moines (Iowa) Register, said that strong civilian coverage had been lacking at newspapers. “I wish they were showing us more of that reality of war,” she said. “We have more than 600 reporters embedded, and we have better access, but we are not seeing much in the way of civilian casualties.”

Last week, after the shooting deaths of at least 11 civilians in a sport utility vehicle at a checkpoint near Karbala, initial military reports suggested the driver had been warned repeatedly to stop, an account disputed by an embedded reporter for The Washington Post. “We were fortunate to have good, on-the-spot reporting,” said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Post, who credited his reporter, William Branigin, for getting a truer account. “The embedded reporters have information and details well beyond the Pentagon.”

This and similar incidents underscore one of the problems in this area — finding definitive information when claims from Iraqi and U.S. officials differ so widely. In addition, the limited access reporters have to most areas of the country allows them to see only a glimpse of the civilian bloodshed.

“We have done stories on the difficulty of figuring that out,” Chicago Tribune Managing Editor James O’Shea said. “The best you can do is give readers a view of it in the context of the overall war.” Downie said his paper reports casualty figures from all official sources, but focuses “on those incidents we know about,” he said. (For a view from a Baghdad-based reporter, see our Q&A with Craig Nelson of Cox Newspapers.)

But what seems to be causing some of the most fierce discussion are photo images. “We have gotten some criticism that our coverage is too sympathetic to Iraqi civilians,” said Tim Connolly, international editor at The Dallas Morning News, who cited a Page One photo the paper ran of a Baghdad market bombing. “I’ve heard comments that we should pay more attention to our troops. Some people view coverage of the victims of war as being antiwar, but we think it is something we have got to report on.”

The Boston Globe received similar complaints after playing up a photo of an Iraqi civilian killed by a stray bullet. Paula Nelson, Globe deputy director of photography in charge of Page One, said the photo department debated using the image. “You got a lot from that photo,” she told E&P. “It showed a casualty, but it also showed the urban fighting involved. It was the first dead body we printed.” Nelson said the paper has declined to run other photos of the dead if they showed identifiable faces.

At least 60 readers wrote or called USA Today with complaints after it ran a picture of dead Iraqi soldiers on its front page March 28. Several asked why the paper did not replace it with an inside photo of a U.S. soldier walking with several smiling Iraqi children. “We looked at both photos,” recalled USA Today Executive Editor Brian Gallagher. “One showed a bloody scene, and the other was very benign.” Given the bloodshed that day, “We did not think it was very responsible to show the more benign photo [on Page One],” he said, adding that the paper had created a committee of five top editors who are reviewing all “questionable” photos.

See E&P‘s complete coverage of Iraq and the Press.

E&P welcomes letters to the editor: letters@editorandpublisher.com.

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