Telling the Real Stories

By: Lesley Messer

A suicide bombing in Fallujah on June 23 made national news because three women were among those killed, a rare event in the Iraq war. But the hometown newspapers of four of the victims of that attack ? in Louisiana, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York ? weren’t so concerned with gender distinctions. Rather, they looked to humanize the native sons and daughters who lost their lives serving their country.

In West Monroe, La., The News-Star immediately dispatched a reporter to the home of 22-year-old Cpl. Chad Powell’s family after hearing of his death. From interviews with his relatives, the newspaper presented Powell not just as a soldier, but also as a father and husband who loved to hunt and fish.

Most of all, he was devoted to his family and religion. His father, Jerry Powell, said in the story: “He didn’t care if his friends were standing there; he hugged and kissed us still.” The paper has since published several front-page stories about Powell, and a poem written by his father-in-law, outdoors writer Dan Chason. It also provided information on a fund established for Powell’s 3-year-old son, Elijah.

The News-Star’s Web site, meanwhile, featured three online photo albums: Powell in the Army and with his family; his body being returned to the United States as family members in T-shirts bearing his image salute him; and his funeral. An online forum gave readers a chance to share memories and send condolences.

“We wanted to make this something that would benefit the family and benefit the memory of Chad Powell,” says News-Star Managing Editor Ken Stickney. He also points to the paper’s stories offering psychological insights to help grieving members of the community.

The Providence (R.I.) Journal’s coverage of a Cranston local, Lance Cpl. Holly Charette, 21, was similar in many respects. Not unlike the News-Star, the Journal provided online readers the opportunity to share memories and express condolences in addition to publishing many photos of Charette and several articles. Reporters painted a picture of a well-liked, caring woman who devoted her time to helping others.

One story said she wanted to become a postal delivery woman after her enlistment ended, because, as she once said, “I never really thought too hard about being a mail person, but it’s really an important job and people depend on me.”

“There’s a real network here because Rhode Island is a very active state, militarily,” says Susan Areson, the paper’s metropolitan managing editor. “We have more than 500 deployed in military units supporting various war efforts, so there are a lot of people who are focused on this war.” Therefore, making her funeral the centerpiece of the Sunday paper ? the day before Independence Day ? was absolutely appropriate, she affirms.

The Chronicle, a daily in Centralia, Wash., also featured many front-page stories along with packages about Petty Officer First Class Regina R. Clark, a 43-year-old sailor and resident of the area.

“We focused on her family but also on her friends,” reports Gordon MacCracken, the paper’s assistant editor. “This is a relatively small community so there are a lot of people who knew her. It is a death that hit the community hard, but, being our first death in this particular conflict, it really put a face on it for people.”

To further personalize its coverage, the Chronicle also ran a variety of photographs provided by the Clarks’ loved ones. Many of the images were also used as part of an impromptu tribute at the Lewis County War Memorial. One photo of the funeral showed mourners who became close with Clark after playing softball together for years. It was visual proof of the effect her death has had on the community.

The Chronicle also featured in many stories Clark’s 18-year-old son Kerry, who may spread his mother’s ashes in Hawaii where he was born.

“Through our coverage we can help the community learn about this person and learn about the circumstances in which she was serving,” MacCracken explains. “And I think we served a purpose in that way.”

That also seems to be an effect achieved by the coverage of Cpl. Ramona M. Valdez’s death by New York’s competing tabloids, the Daily News and the New York Post.

The Daily News put 20-year-old Valdez’s photograph on the front page with a quote from her sister and the headline, “Death of a Bronx Marine.” Under it was a pointed story about President George W. Bush saying that the war in Iraq is “worth it.” The issue also featured a two-page spread with photos of Valdez, a picture of the recruiting center where she enlisted, and an image of her sister holding a framed portrait. The paper also ran a moving column by Michael Daly, a box profiling the other two women killed in the attack, and a two-column profile that portrayed the Marine as a hard worker and beloved daughter, sister, and fianc?e.

The Post, meanwhile, coupled the coverage of Valdez’s death with a larger package about the war in Iraq. This profile focused on an interview with Valdez’s mother, with sad undertones and family anecdotes. “We were going to put her cake on a table,” he mother said, “but now we have to put it up on an altar.”

The New York Times did not give Valdez front-page coverage, but did include a story about her (comparable to the ones in the tabloids) in the Region section. Unlike smaller papers elsewhere, the New York tabloids, with so much else to cover, did not stick with the story for days.

Whether the victim was from a rural town in Louisiana or a metropolitan area like New York, the focus of the coverage in every case sought to give an identity to someone who at first glance was just a name on an all-too-long list. Because of this type of coverage, readers learned that Holly Charette once literally gave a friend the shirt off her back. Readers also discovered that Regina Clark’s fellow sailors were so affected by their loss that they held an informal memorial service in her honor at their military compound’s chapel. And they learned that Ramona Valdez wanted to be a mother.

And readers shared in the sadness felt by Chad Powell’s father-in-law as he wrote, “I’ll take my daughter back with pride and joy, and each day we’ll see you in Elijah’s brown eyes.”

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