Seeking Balance in Iraq Atrocity Stories

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By: Sarah Weber

For towns that host military bases, the war in Iraq hits home in a way that other communities simply can’t comprehend ? and many local newspapers have adapted their coverage accordingly, offering strong support for U.S. troops and their families. But now those papers face a daunting challenge in the wake of disturbing charges being brought against several soldiers.

On June 20, the military announced it was charging three soldiers from Company C of the 101st Airborne Division with premeditated murder, among other crimes, concerning the deaths of three Iraqi prisoners who were in the soldiers’ care. On June 21, a fourth member of that unit was charged in the same incident. The 101st is based at Ft. Campbell, Ky., which is served by The Leaf-Chronicle of Clarksville, Tenn.

That same day, seven Marines and one Navy corpsman were charged with murder and kidnapping, among other charges, regarding the death of Hashin Ibrahim Awad, a 52-year-old disabled Iraqi man. The men would later become known as the “Pendleton Eight,” in reference to their military base, Camp Pendleton, which is covered by the North County (Calif.) Times. Just weeks earlier, Marines also based at Camp Pendleton became the center of an official probe into the killing of some two dozen civilians in the Iraqi hotbed of Haditha.

Then on June 26, two Pennsylvania National Guardsmen were charged with voluntary manslaughter, obstruction of justice, and conspiracy. The men were alleged to have shot an unarmed Iraqi civilian and then to have planted an AK-47 next to the body. The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., broke the news of the investigations leading up to the charges, and has continued to cover the story since.

On June 29, another allegation surfaced against the 101st Airborne, and on July 3, the Army announced that a recently discharged soldier named Steven D. Green was being charged with raping and killing a young Iraqi girl and three members of her family. A few days later, five others in Green’s unit also faced charges. Once again, the Leaf-Chronicle became the “home” paper tasked with covering a local story that quickly gained national attention.

E&P spoke to staff members at the three newspapers. One theme that seemed to echo during each interview was journalistic integrity, and its importance while reporting on allegations against the troops.

The pressures that fall upon these local papers are more nuanced than they may seem, especially during times of war. Newspapers are, after all, a business, and to ignore the interests and opinions of readers would be self-defeating. As such, the knowledge of how a wide military audience may react to coverage of atrocities can affect the decisions made in the newsroom.

“This is a town of warriors,” says Richard Stevens, the Leaf-Chronicle’s executive editor. “This is an above-average patriotic community because of Ft. Campbell’s influence. The 101st has historically been on the front lines of conflicts. … Our news judgments are based on our audience, obviously.”

Stevens acknowledges the difficulties such a fervently patriotic community may present when dealing with potential war crimes: “People tend to not want to alienate the military community. There’s a natural muting. We may not have a vigorous debate with the left because that’s the self-correcting dynamic of the community,” he adds. “But I think the newspaper is right down the middle. We try to be.”

Some readers have voiced their disapproval of the coverage of the accused in the national media, claiming the men are being convicted in the press. Staffers at the three newspapers reiterated their desire for the facts to be printed, while maintaining the rights of the soldiers to be considered innocent until proven guilty. And so far, the response from the readers has been mostly supportive.

“We haven’t had a large outcry or a large e-mail trail of complaints saying that we’re tilted or out of balance,” says Stevens. “We tend to take a very measured approach. But we haven’t left stuff out just so we won’t be criticized.”

The Leaf-Chronicle also struck a difficult balance when it decided to print an interview with a mother of one of the accused soldiers. Stevens spoke of the slippery slope that accompanies testimony of loved ones: “[The mother] is making the appeal that, ‘My son couldn’t do that.’ You have to be careful with that ? mothers are going to defend their sons.”

Patriot-News Executive Editor David Newhouse says even greater sensitivity than usual is needed when reporting such stories: “We really bend over backward to report it very straight, because we recognize it’s highly charged. We’re even more vigilant than usual to verify the facts.”

One factor that has allowed these papers to cover more controversial topics has been the foundation of trust that their war coverage has built within their communities.

“We have a lot of [National] Guard in Iraq,” notes Newhouse, “and we give a lot of positive coverage in the sense of talking about what these men and women do, the impact [their deployment has] on the families. I think we’ve built up that credibility with our readers.”

Though the newspapers agreed on their intent to produce the facts while still serving their specific audience, some noted frustration with the elusive balance that must be struck when dealing with these heinous alleged crimes.

“It’s real hard,” admits Rusty Harris, managing editor of the North County (Calif.) Times. “The Marines are ‘our guys.’ All the troops in Iraq are our guys and gals.” But Harris also expressed discontent with certain trends in the national media. “There’s been a tendency to only report the ‘bomb a day’ story, as other people put it.”

Chantal Escoto, a military reporter for the Leaf-Chronicle and a former embed, concurs: “[I’ve had] a lot of soldiers say, ‘Well, we understand that you have to write about these things that are going on. ? But we don’t hear the other side of what people are doing that is good; repairing bridges, building schools, that sort of thing.'”

Escoto writes a blog for her newspaper titled “101st Notebook,” which has expressed strong support for the troops. She experienced the ire of some readers who felt she misspoke in a column that ran in late June. “I had said something to the effect of, ‘The war crimes are stacking up against the 101st,'” she recalled.

Mark Walker, a veteran reporter who writes for the North County Times, is candid when asked about the potential fallout newspapers face when dealing with such controversial charges while serving a military community. He denies that the alleged war crimes were any harder to report than the usual stories: “You just need to make sure you know the ins and outs of the military justice system.”

He adds that it was hyperbolic to claim the men were being tried in the media: “When people say, ‘They’re being convicted in the press, it’s all political’, I say, ‘What do you mean by ‘convicted in the press’? What do you mean by ‘it’s all political’? You have to look back and say, ‘Why did [the military] put these guys in custody so early if these charges couldn’t be substantiated?'”

Walker is equally blunt with regard to conspiracy theorists who claim the press is playing politics by reporting all of these alleged atrocities at once: “I just don’t think it’s true. There have been incidents over alleged war crimes from 2003 to date.”

As the nation awaits the results of these various investigations, the local newspapers are continuing to grapple with balancing factual coverage with consideration for their audiences. The dual role of patriot and reporter may provoke controversy in such a polarized political environment, but Walker was clear in his ambition to rise above such pigeonholing. “The greatest patriotism,” he says, is for the press “to continue to report what it knows and hears in a responsible way. [The] reporting of alleged war crimes in Iraq has nothing to do with patriotism. It’s reporting.”

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