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Recent Wars Present New Challenges for Media Coverage - 2004-02-18


The war on terrorism and the war in Iraq have given the media new challenges and triggered conversations in the United States about the media's role in covering military action. Recently a group of five journalists with very different backgrounds discussed the issue in Atlanta. On the panel were two reporters who covered the war in Iraq, a CBS news veteran who covered World War II and Vietnam, a senior executive from CNN and the producer of a new documentary about war coverage called Reporters At War.

The session began with a screening of the documentary, which aired in the United States on the Discovery Times channel.

Producer Jon Blair told the audience that he wanted to show 'real war' as reporters see it, and had looked for some of the more horrific images from the first Gulf War. He found just two which he said had been used in the print media: a photograph of the charred body of an Iraqi soldier, and one of a charred skull. He put both images in his documentary and hoped his editors would not take them out. "I waited with bated breath," said Mr. Blair. "Because I wasn't part of their editing process here, as to whether they'd keep it in. I'm pleased to say they did."

"I think the impression which is being given is that people like me sit in dark rooms saying 'Out, out, in, in, and oh my God you couldn't possibly! Out! Out!' I'm afraid life's not like that," added panelist Chris Cramer, managing director of CNN International.

"The fact is, public tastes change over the years," he continued. "It is different to cover a war being prosecuted by your own nation. Whether you like it or you don't, that's a fact of war. I've seen the images you referred to. I was at the BBC when they were taken and I'm not ashamed to say I was one of the people who took it out at the time. They were completely disgusting. I would not have shown those in the middle of a war prosecuted by a nation I was working for at the time."

The relationship between a reporter and the government fighting the war came under new scrutiny last year when the Pentagon embedded journalists with U.S. military units in Iraq. Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Ron Martz traveled with the 3rd Infantry Division. Speaking on the panel, he said he reported whatever he saw and thought was relevant… with two exceptions laid out by his company commander.

"Don't tell 'em where we are and don't tell 'em where we're going," said Mr. Martz. "Because it's going to compromise their mission and what we're trying to do. And if we do put them in danger, to a certain extent, we're putting ourselves in danger. You can't do a very good job of reporting when you're dead."

Mr. Martz answered 'no" when asked if he at any point hold off on any reporting at all because he was concerned about how the United States could look.

But photographer Brent Sanderlin, who traveled with Ron Martz, said at one point someone in the military tried to interfere.

"Our company commander got word from a higher ranking official saying 'Could you ask these guys to cool it a little bit.' He asked exactly what rules we had broken. He couldn't name any. So he said 'Well, they're doing their job then,' said Mr. Sanderlin.

CNN's Chris Cramer told the audience he was pleased with the 'insider's view' reporters could give their audience.

"Embedding, I think, though I hate the word, worked extremely well under the circumstances," he said. "Had it been the only way we covered this particular conflict, it wouldn't have worked. But it wasn't the only way it was part of a very big jigsaw."

While the term "embedding" was not used for war coverage in the past, it was the kind of thing many reporters did. Panelist Richard C. Hottelet, a veteran CBS correspondent, covered both World War II and Vietnam, and spent time traveling with troops.

"To me, one thing that stands out in coverage of the Iraq war and the aftermath of the war is the amount of time legitimately and profitably devoted to the suffering of the individuals, the civilians in Iraq, also the position the soldiers are in," said Mr. Hottelet. "It's the job of the reporter to tell them all." Mr. Hottelet said the war on terrorism is changing the way reporters tell those stories.

"Casualties here are not only people but also societies," he continued. "A reporter is going to be more and more a political analyst and a political observer. The essential is going to be to explain what it is that goes into the war - not just in terms of the mechanics, soldiers, bullets, and corpses, but what goes into the war in terms of the political dynamic. And this is going to require people who are highly educated, who have their feet on the ground morally and emotionally. And it's going to require of their bosses a degree of support which we haven't yet begun to measure."

That kind of introspection could be more important than ever as reporters cover this new kind of war… a struggle, the panelists said, with no end in sight.

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