The Importance of Journalism
Length: 1296 words (3.7 double-spaced pages)
In wars, image assumes iconic status. The coverage of the bombing of Baghdad during the first Persian Gulf War put CNN on the media map. Today, the spread of digital technology means that an image can be distributed worldwide within seconds. But are we better informed?
You've got to see it to believe it' but should Americans really trust their eyes?
The complexity of war coverage in the news and press media - does America really get the full picture from American foreign reporting on the war with Iraq?
Images can end wars. At least that's the contention of Vietnam War veteran Larry Stimeling who says on his website "The United States ended the war in Vietnam, not because of defeat on the battlefield, but because of photographs that turned America's stomach". His message highlights the power of the picture, and indivertibly harks back to American coverage of the Vietnam War. So where in the press are the My Lai images from the war in Iraq?
Despite ongoing violence in Iraq, the American media does not fully report the civilian casualties or the deaths of US soldiers. Statistics are printed like test scores in press reports, but with no photo there is no meaning. Yet as the conflict continues the mood of the nation is changing, is America waking up to the reality of war? How has the American news and press media been giving a different representation on the war with Iraq? And what are the implications for news reporting and war journalism in the media?
War media has certainly changed in the past 40 years. Gone are the days when CNN was the only news channel able to dedicate 24 hour of news coverage to a live war. Thanks to deregulation and improvements in communication - satellite and cable channels the war against Iraq has received saturated coverage across all major networks. Despite this magnitude of information, America may not be any better informed.
The nature of war journalism has also changed; the Iraq war has introduced the concept of the embedded reporter' to the world. Journalists have unprecedented access, and with the aid of new technologies (such as the video phone, satellite and broadband) news reporters can air slices of the action from the front line within seconds of events unfolding.
The idea however comes from the PR industry and while it breeds closeness and understanding between the military and media, this bias is often reflected in press reports. It is therefore often referred to as propagandas journalism'.
An example of embedded reporting and the control of image through the media is shown in the documentary Control Room, about the Middle East news agency Al-Jazeera that has been accused repeatedly by U.S. officials of being "pro-Saddam".
For instance footage shows the fall of the Sadam statue, which has been presented in the US media as an iconic image of the war. Yet in reality even a quick glance of the long-shot photo shows something more akin to a carefully constructed media event tailored for the television cameras.
The senior producer Samir Khader, says that propaganda is an essential in war and the documentary shows how it is a weapon employed by both sides. Therefore neither the US nor the Arabic world are getting the same information about "the truth". The key difference is that Al-Jaazera reporters admit their biases, and do not claim to be balanced and fair'.
The real problem according to George Will political commentator at ABC "is live television from journalists with units engaged in Iraq is the problem of context". Further hindering this problem is the long term decline of foreign coverage in American newspapers, primarily due to the high cost of reporting and dwindling audience interest. A Pew survey reported by International Woman's Media Foundation in August 2002, shows that sixty-five percent of those with "moderate or low interest in international news" say they don't follow international news because they lack the necessary background information.
Control Room also shows how the media is controlled through non information. For instance the Jessica Lynch rescue, a human interest story and PR icon; and infamous deck of cards, both used as distractions from the leads of the massacre in Fallujah, and the taking of Bagdad. Press Officer for the US military Lt. Rushing therefore, thinks part of his mission is to educate the American public on the reality of war. "War in America has its own branding it's the American flag ... But Americans need to be aware of the consequences."
James Rainey author of the report, "Unseen Pictures, Untold Stories" in the LA Times conducted a review of six prominent U.S .newspapers during a six-month period. The study found almost no pictures from the war zone of Americans killed in action. During that time, 559 Americans and Western allies died.
Many editors in the mainstream American media argue that Americans would rather not be exposed to those difficult images of war. But by limiting what America sees about Iraq, the media prevents the Nation from feeling, its ability to act and to change. In Iraq, Kamal defends the channel's decision to screen footage of dead British soldiers, US prisoners of war and a badly mutilated Iraqi child. "Our duty is to tell the truth" he said. These images are important.
Other commentators argue the real reason such images are printed is fear. After the terrorists attacks, which were caught on video camera and aired repetitively in the Media, a repressive fear consumed the nation. The reason Rushing gives for wanted to leave the Marine Corps, is that his superior officers had forbidden him to speak to the press. He was torn between his loyalty to the Corps and his duty as a citizen. Unfortunately Rushing takes a perspective that most Americans won't share. By refusing to look at perspectives different from one's own is a denial of larger realities
As BBC Director-General Greg Dyke said "Personally I was shocked while in the United States by how unquestioning the broadcast news media was during this war," he told a conference at the University of London.
"If Iraq proved anything, it was that the BBC cannot afford to mix patriotism and journalism" Dyke added. "This is happening in the United States and if it continues, will undermine the credibility of the US news media,".
Yet since 9/11 the mood of the country has changed. Over time, the general level of anxiety has eased, and with the legacy of Katrina, it was no longer the nation against Iraq. With to no one to blame Americans have started to question their own government, and support for the war is declining.
Thus far, people following the war in US through newspapers and TV haven't been shown images of war, but rather visual shorthand for war. Without a deeper history and context, it is easier for political leaders to make claims that do not get analyzed and scrutinized, and ordinary Americans believe it. Perhaps therefore those of us who supported the war could not be justified, because they never had to face the terrible images of dead Americans or of dead Iraqi civilians.
Journalists therefore have an important social mission, but the question is whether news organizations will change, respond to the wake up call or revert to the patterns of localism and cost cutting, leaving most of the world uncovered by the US media. If the media doesn't provide readers and viewers with sound international reporting, how many will even know what they are missing?