War Reporting: How Should Civilian Casualties Be Reported? A Veteran Journalist Looks at Other Wars to Help Journalists Understand the Value of This Reporting and How Best to Cover Them. (Coverage of War)

By Zelnick, Bob | Nieman Reports, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

War Reporting: How Should Civilian Casualties Be Reported? A Veteran Journalist Looks at Other Wars to Help Journalists Understand the Value of This Reporting and How Best to Cover Them. (Coverage of War)


Zelnick, Bob, Nieman Reports


Less than a month after U.S. forces began military operations in Afghanistan, Walter Isaacson, then the editorial boss at CNN, issued a memo warning against overly credulous, simplistic reporting of civilian casualties. As reported by Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, Isaacson wrote: "As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage and perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 people." As Isaacson later explained to The New York Times, "It seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan."

Reaction to Isaacson's directive drew comment along more or less predictable philosophical lines. Brit Hume, the Fox News anchor, supported the notion that such casualties should not be overplayed, because "Civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war." On the same Fox program, National Public Radio White House correspondent Mara Liasson agreed, saying, "War is about killing people; civilian casualties are unavoidable."

Opponents of military intervention in Afghanistan did not share the equanimity about civilian deaths of their more hawkish colleagues. The very fact that such deaths are inevitable, argued a young Canadian journalist who uses the pen name Dru Oja JAY on the leftist Weblog, "Monkeyfist," makes it imperative for journalists to assign them some weight before a country decides to do battle. "Very few commentators publicly considered whether starvation, ruined lives, increased infant mortality, depressed economies, and the more countable civilian deaths were an acceptable part of war," he complained.

Journalism's Tensions in War Reporting

Isaacson's move reflected the general state of confusion among the news media following September 11th regarding their proper role as potential molders of public opinion. The New York Times that November reported that, "television images of Afghan bombing victims are fleeting, cushioned between anchors or American officials explaining that such sights are only one side of the story." During the same period, the White House successfully lobbied the networks against playing unedited Osama bin Laden tapes because it might inspire his followers, or even covertly trigger new al-Qaeda acts of terrorism. And for months following the attack one could rarely see a local news anchor's lapel unadorned by an American flag.

Now, as the combat phase of the Afghanistan operation has wound down, the United States is building its forces in the Persian Gulf for what has the makings of round two with Saddam Hussein. This time--rather than the desert campaign of 1991--the objective is "regime change," with the consequent risk of urban warfare and high civilian casualties. Reporters are already flooding Baghdad at the regime's invitation, covering the work of United Nations' arms inspectors to be sure, but also serving as carriers for whatever message Saddam seeks to convey.

During the first Gulf War, Western reporters in Baghdad found themselves accused of doing Saddam's bidding by paying excessive attention to the few incidents involving significant civilian casualties, while most residents of Iraq's capital went routinely about their business confident that the highly accurate U.S. missiles and bombs were not targeted at them. Will reporters in the next Gulf War, or subsequent conflicts, face the same dilemma? Will they be forced to choose between coverage that is perceived as aiding the "enemy" vs. injecting a mechanical "balance" in response to domestic political pressure or the dictates of editors far from the scene?

This should not happen if reporters and correspondents resist demands that detract from their professionalism and instead apply the principles and techniques of sound journalism to their work in the field. …

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War Reporting: How Should Civilian Casualties Be Reported? A Veteran Journalist Looks at Other Wars to Help Journalists Understand the Value of This Reporting and How Best to Cover Them. (Coverage of War)
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