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War Coverage is a Slippery Slope for News Outlets

Mar 31, 2003  •  Post A Comment

War is a serious and often brutal business. If there were ever any doubt, it was put to rest when images of fallen coalition fighters and captured U.S. soldiers were beamed home from Iraq-in some cases before the families of the dead and captured could be notified.
Those images are just one inevitable side effect of waging the most highly televised war in history. And those images represent one of the key challenges the war poses for the media.
The central question is what to show, how much to show, when to show it and how to present it. Should those decisions be based on ratings, good taste, competition, patriotism or the will of the government? Or should they be based purely on the traditional mandate of journalism to present the most accurate picture possible?
There are no easy answers. And the industry does not have the luxury of making its decisions in a vacuum; the public, the government and advertisers have plenty to say. The Pentagon, for example, has asked the media to refrain from running footage of war prisoners until after their families are informed. It has also placed numerous logistical restrictions on coverage. For the most part, those requests appear reasonable.
However, if the Pentagon had its way the media would present a sanitized version of the war, telling a story tailored to foster popular support rather than to put the whole ugly truth before the American people. Clearly the media must resist the temptation to yield that kind of control. Above all, it is the media’s responsibility to keep the public informed. The American people have a tremendous stake in this war. The idea that any facet of its conduct might be withheld from public view is instantly troubling. As unpleasant as war is, television has a duty to tell the story accurately and with appropriate context. One criticism of the program of “embedded” journalists is that too much time is spent showing scenes that are visually fascinating but don’t really tell the whole story. A battle provides indelible pictures, but we still need to hear from the Pentagon, politicians and other sources who can provide an overview.
When disturbing images are shown, the material must be handled responsibly. The most graphic pictures should be preceded by warnings, and certain material should not be shown when children are likely to be watching.
However, censoring the war in an effort to further its cause is an improper course of action for the media. Not only is it less patriotic than it might appear, compromising the principle of free speech that lies at the heart of democracy, but it also creates more problems than it solves. The public will quickly grasp any effort to turn the news into propaganda. If there is even a hint of suspicion, it could destroy the credibility of the media.
Despite the incredible pressures it faces-from official sources, competition and ratings-it is crucial that the media never lose sight of its vital role in the democratic process. If TV were to become little more than a propaganda arm of the government, we as a nation would surrender one of the most precious things we have fought for throughout our history: freedom of the press.