The Things They Carried: Reflections on War Coverage

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By: Greg Mitchell

It?s hard to know quite know what to make of a survey of 210 journalists involved in coverage of Iraq released on Friday by American University’s School of Communications. We?ve already summarized it in a news story, but drilling deeper into it over the weekend I found some very revealing, if buried, comments by some of the unnamed respondents.

Here?s one:

?Our one raging controversy was over an interview with members of a departing National Guard unit. Our reporter, a Navy veteran of the Gulf War, quoted some of the troops as expressing fear. That provoked enormous outrage from higher-ups — to the point where we were barred from even setting foot on armory grounds in our own town. Passions run high.?

No matter what you think of the war or coverage of it, this is a valuable study for anyone who ever pondered, ?I wonder what those reporters covering the war really think??

While those responding to the survey remain anonymous, the researchers revealed their backgrounds by noting that they came from both print (59%) and broadcast, that 35% said they had been in Iraq during the war or the aftermath and, of that group, about half had been embedded with U.S. troops. In this group: reporters, photographers and producers.

I want to get to their specific comments, but the report summarized the numerical findings this way: ?Many media outlets have self-censored their reporting on the conflict in Iraq because of concern about public reaction to graphic images and details about the war.? The raw results are difficult to interpret, and many respondents reported no problems, but most troubling was a finding that nearly one in six of those who covered the war ?said on one or more occasions their organizations edited material for publication and they did not believe the final version accurately represented the story.?

To get to the heart of the matter, I found and clicked down deep into the often pithy individual statements by (unnamed) respondents, who presumably felt they could speak frankly on the rare occasions in the survey where the researcher asked them if they wanted to ?Please add additional comments.?

So, from a list of specific incidents that set off a newsroom debate:

?We had a photo of a child who was horribly mangled by a land mine. The photographer argued that it was part of war and everyone should see what war looks like.?

?The bombing of civilian areas around Iraq.?

?There was a lot of debate about how to write about the case for war made by the Bush administration and how credible it was.?

?Publish pictures of dead GIs on war anniversary.?

Asking how certain disputes were resolved elicited these responses:

?In general, coverage downplayed civilian casulaites and promoted a pro-U.S. viewpoint. No U.S. media showed abuses by U.S. military carried out on regular basis.?

?Friendly fire incidents were to show only injured Americans, and no reference made to possible mistakes involving civilians.?

Among other telling comments:

?On some occasions, the reports were subtly edited to make them less negative and more in line with official views. This was not systematic, though.?

?The real damage of the war on the civilian population was uniformly omitted.?

?I think we sanitized the images too much so that people do not see the reality of war.?

?There was excessive pressure to show the ‘good news? in Iraq.?

Regarding the use of photos, one journo referred to ?plenty of Uday and Qusay after death — not American coffins.? Another referred to failure to publish images that ?indicate that Americans are in fact getting killed and maimed over there.? A third noted that his or her news outlet ?followed Pentagon wishes in not showing pictures of U.S. casualties.?

Asked why material was revised, harming the truth, one said the editors ?felt it was too negative toward the U.S. effort.? Another said it was ?toned down because our sources in the military wouldn?t be pleased with overly critical articles.?

But the most revealing and brutally honest opinions were expressed at the very end of survey, when respondents were asked, ?Are there any other comments you would like to make??

Here are a dozen or so of about 50 the reserachers received:

?I do believe the more graphic images of the war were covered up by many media outlets, which does everyone a disservice.?

?The human cost of the war has been routinely omitted from most U.S. broadcasts. The American people has definitely not gotten the entire picture of the war’s devastation and the infernal conditions in Iraq today as a result of the our invasion.?

“Yes, I think embedding is crucial, though it should of course be only a small part of the coverage.”

?We have heard, second-hand, that our corporate president has told producers to keep Iraq war coverage ?positive.?”

?I was fortunate to not be embedded during the war when I think of the most blatant cases of self-censorship. I have heard many stories, from colleagues who were embedded, of execution of prisoners (included the wounded), of abuse of civilians, or cruelty and brutality by U.S. forces that were never reported.?

?Where were journalists — print and broadcast — before war was declared? Why was there no civic discourse or rigorous debate??

?We didn’t get everything we wanted, i.e. flag draped coffins, but we were not limited, what we saw we reported.?

?Mass media coverage in the U.S. — particularly cable — is horrible. … [T]he consequences are (will be) horrible.”

?As long as you are not at the front, you can not trust anyone. Unless you cross-search foreign papers.?

?My main reason for filling out this survey is that I have been distressed at the way the ?big boys? have covered the war, the prelude to war and its aftermath. I think too many bought into the administration line. U.K. press has been considerably better in covering the humanitarian outcome and the mistakes and errors in judgment by U.S. forces. … But the lack of coverage of Iraqi war dead, etc., and the only recent questioning of the administration line is very disturbing.”

?It seems to me that the American TV network coverage of the war and its aftermath was pretty disgraceful. There was virtually no skepticism about official claims. Americans who relied on TV for their news would have been utterly surprised by the current turmoil. I don’t think that’s true of British viewers.?

?In general, according to my experiences and observations, the media’s flaws in covering Iraq come from: a) self-censorship of the reporters (often encouraged by the editors), b) failure to put stories into appropriate context, c) coverage of stories from a purely U.S. point of view (i.e., not providing much focus on Iraqi civilians, etc.). Our own newspaper has been guilty of each of these to some extent or other, whether on the news pages or editorial pages or both. U.S. coverage of the war in general is worse than I have seen in other countries (I regularly watch European and Asian news broadcasts). Especially during the early phases of the war, the U.S. media — including my newspaper — generally acted as cheerleaders. On the other hand, when reporters for my newspaper wrote articles that were critical of some aspects in the war (I wrote several articles critical of its economic implications, as well as the lack of planning), they were not censored or rewritten. I am not sure that is the experience of all U.S. reporters.?

?Our news organization failed to subject the administration?s various allegations to sufficient scrutiny and continues to do so. I believe this is primarily because it reflects — and does not challenge — the positions of those in power. The absence of opposition from elected officials in Washington created a vacuum and our organization, like many others, completely failed in its responsibility to challenge the assertions of the White House. In short, it was not an independent voice intelligently assessing charges that would lead to war but instead a megaphone for a misguided policy. This was done presumably because our editors saw the story this way themselves and also I believe because they edit stories for ‘Middle America’ and they assumed that this is what Middle America thought as well — a great failure of the U.S. media that will no doubt be repeated. ?

Only if we allow it.

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