Military Reporters Conference Will Look At Hurricane Coverage as Combat Duty

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By: Joe Strupp

Reporters who have compared the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to reporting in a war zone, take heart. Military Reporters and Editors (MRE) agrees with you. That’s why the four-year-old association of military affairs writers has added a special session on Katrina coverage to its upcoming conference next month.

The fourth annual MRE gathering, slated for Oct. 20-22 in Arlington, Va., will include a panel discussion entitled, “Hurricane Katrina: Journalists as First Responders.” The event will feature Felicity Barringer of The New York Times, Mira Oberman of AFP, and Chris Bury of ABC News.

“We thought it was very timely,” said Sig Christenson, MRE president and a military affairs reporter for the San Antonio Express-News, who spent five days covering the post-Katrina story in New Orleans. “You see very quickly that there is a cross-applicability between covering a war and Katrina.”

Christenson, who served three stints as a correspondent in Iraq since the war began, said the session will look at the similarities in covering the largest natural disaster in U.S. history and the ongoing war. “There are all kinds of similarities between New Orleans and Baghdad,” he said. “Reporters on the ground are risking their lives, roving bands of armed gangs are around, and they have both been reduced to no civil authority.”

Another key session will focus on how the continued criticism of the media for allegedly not reporting enough good news about Iraq has hurt coverage. “Shooting The Messenger – Is the media telling the whole story in Iraq?” will look at the dangers of allowing pro-war factions to dictate coverage by making the public believe it is unfair.

“This is a problem that goes back to the beginning,” Christenson said. “When I got back from Iraq after my first trip, I got e-mails from people saying, ‘why aren’t they telling any good news?’ It started as a whispering campaign that became very loud and now is raging at a decibel level of a Who concert.”

That panel discussion will include; F. Whitten Peters, former U.S. Air Force secretary; Hannah Allam, former Knight Ridder Baghdad bureau chief; Bryan Whitman, deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs; and Jamie McIntyre, CNN Pentagon correspondent.

Christenson said the subject is important at a time when the war is gaining more opposition and reporters need to be able to give a true picture. “I am worried about how this debate has affected news coverage,” Christenson said. “I’m sure there are newspapers, because they’ve got conservative readers they are trying to placate, who have held back. That is dangerous.”

Other panels and workshops will look at how the media shapes public perception of Iraq veterans, specific stories from veteran war correspondents, coping with post-combat stress, visual war images, technology in military reporting, and covering the ongoing base realignment and closure story.

In addition, the conference will have keynote speaker David Halbersam, the legendary war correspondent, Pulitzer Prize winner, and author; and presentations of MRE’s first Joseph L. Galloway Award for Distinguished Service, and the inaugural Baghdad Press Corp Award.

“We are trying to find the hottest issues of the day and break those down and talk about them,” Christenson said. “And to give ideas and practical stuff for people who work our beat everyday.”

MRE has about 150 members, Christenson said. But he hopes to double that number during the next year by reaching out to reporters who may only cover such beats part-time. “There are an awful lot of people who do this work occasionally,” he explained. “We want to include them.”

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