Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Civilian Coverage

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Civilian Coverage

Article excerpt

The collateral damage in Iraq

It is one of the most emotional elements of any war, one of the hardest to report accurately, and one of the most controversial. Coverage of civilian casualties can spark both praise and anger from readers -- and much internal discussion among editors, and front-page designers, directing coverage of the war in Iraq.

"We pay more attention to American deaths," said Editor Anthony Marro of Newsday in Melville, N.Y., whose paper publishes few photos of dead bodies, even fewer if they are Iraqi. "It is easier to report on people we know, we put more faces on the Americans, we know who they are."

But most editors who spoke with E&P believe civilian casualties need equal attention because they are an important effect of the war. "Our reporters are encouraged to cover everything they see," said John Walcott, Washington bureau chief for Knight Ridder Newspapers. "It is our responsibility to show the face of war -- no matter what it looks like."

Roy Peter Clark, an instructor at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., gives most papers high marks in this area. But Geneva Overholser, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and former editor of The Des Moines (Iowa) Register, said that strong civilian coverage had been lacking at newspapers. "I wish they were showing us more of that reality of war," she said. "We have more than 600 reporters embedded, and we have better access, but we are not seeing much in the way of civilian casualties."

Last week, after the shooting deaths of at least 11 civilians in a sport utility vehicle at a checkpoint near Karbala, initial military reports suggested the driver had been warned repeatedly to stop, an account disputed by an embedded reporter for The Washington Post. "We were fortunate to have good, on-the-spot reporting," said Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Post, who credited his reporter, William Branigin, for getting a truer account. "The embedded reporters have information and details well beyond the Pentagon."

This and similar incidents underscore one of the problems in this area -- finding definitive information when claims from Iraqi and U. …

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