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Editorial: The High Price of War Coverage

Apr 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Amid the military casualties of a bitterly fought war, it is easy to forget the dangers that hundreds of journalists also face in trying to cover the conflict. In the past two weeks, however, the deaths of celebrated 39-year-old NBC correspondent David Bloom and several other journalists brought home the point that bullets and bombs aren’t the only hazards the media must be prepared to confront in a war zone.
In the competition to cover the most heavily reported military action in history, news operations and their representatives in the battle zone have at times pushed the limits of common sense. Correspondents trying to keep up with U.S. military forces, especially those embedded within specific units, sometimes seem to forget that they’re not really soldiers. Many are older than the typical soldier, and most are not in as good shape, but they still feel they must keep up. The reality is that despite their brief stint in media “boot camp,” they are not as prepared as the military personnel for the almost unimaginable pressures of war.
The conditions under which combat journalists have been forced to work go beyond stressful. Correspondents typically recount stories of dust, heat, noise, bombardments, artillery, sleepless nights and long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of fear. Like the soldiers, journalists have been expected to travel all night and then be ready to do their job all day, for days on end.
And those extreme conditions merely form the backdrop for an already tough job: trying to get the story from a U.S. military more accustomed to secrecy and propaganda than to revealing the truth about what it’s up to-and trying to maintain a sense of objectivity despite being caught in a situation where one’s very survival depends on that same military’s every move. Meanwhile there’s the constant uncertainty and anxiety over what lethal surprises the enemy might have up his sleeve.
Covering the war under those conditions can be an almost impossible assignment, and a few glitches have occurred. High-profile lapses of judgment by Geraldo Rivera and Peter Arnett immediately come to mind. But by and large, the journalists covering the action in Iraq have accounted for themselves with remarkable professionalism and have provided an impressive record of the war.
Unfortunately, the cost of that record has been high, including the lives of David Bloom and other journalists lost in action.
We have to wonder whether in some cases those losses might have and should have been prevented. Mr. Bloom went to a military doctor to complain about a pain behind his knee that turned out to be a blood clot. The doctor told him to take it easy. Instead, he climbed back into his cramped vehicle and went back to work. It is unclear whether his bosses knew about his medical condition. In the 24 hours before his death, Mr. Bloom filed about 13 televised reports for NBC and MSNBC. That meant he was working nearly around the clock.
NBC is a responsible organization and has an outstanding record of taking care of its own. We are not suggesting that what happened to Mr. Bloom was the network’s fault. Indeed, we share in NBC’s grief over this terrible loss.
But we do question the system that put him at risk. What all news organizations need to recognize is that sending reporters into the field under harsh and dangerous conditions requires special management attention. There are times, as with Mr. Bloom, when the reporter’s natural tendency to keep going, no matter what, does need to be checked. The reporter, who may feel his career path is at stake, is often too close to the action to recognize the need to observe common sense rules about his or her own health and safety.
Despite competitive pressures, the demands of competition must be balanced against the human cost of getting the story.