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Press struggles with its role in time of war

March 31, 2003|by Dick Fleming

There was some discussion among editors at a Herald-Mail news meeting recently over whether to give front page coverage to a small local peace rally alongside accounts of American troops newly at war in Iraq.

One opinion expressed was that, out of deference to the troops going into battle, the peace rally should be carried on an inside page. The editor who offered that opinion hastened to add that she agreed with the views of those who were rallying; they just didn't belong on Page 1 that day.

Such discussions - and much soul-searching - are taking place in newsrooms throughout the nation as editors wrestle with how to provide thorough coverage of the war without undermining the U.S. effort. It is a laudable intent that nevertheless poses inherent conflicts.

Among other things, those discussions raise anew long-standing questions about to what extent an independent press should concern itself with the unintended consequences of honest reporting.

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Some news people argue that the role of the press is to deliver the facts with modest regard for consequence. (Refraining from divulging military secrets that would aid the enemy is one widely embraced exception.) Their argument is that once the press starts to censor itself, it is on a slippery slope toward news being driven by politics and personal predilection rather than by events.

The discussion begs a question fundamental to the role of the press: Who are we to decide what the people have a right to know?

Many editors believe the press has a duty to provide citizens with all the information it can. An informed public, they argue, trumps all other concerns.

Others argue that the press has an obligation to self-restraint. They advocate making subjective judgments in the interest of a community's collective well-being, for instance, or perhaps citizen morale.

A case can be made that the extent and fervor of anti-war protests in the United States and abroad is one measure of the war's progress, and deserves equal coverage. The aftermath of the war may be largely determined by the United States' success at winning popular support for its goals, and status reports on that effort are as relevant as those on the war itself.

Another consideration confronting news organizations is what readers and viewers should be told - and, more importantly, shown - as casualties mount.

That consideration is twofold. One aspect takes into account how commentators and propagandists interpret casualty reports and the gruesome images of the war dead. The other has to do with compassion toward the families of U.S. troops who are killed or captured.

There is a strong argument to be made for sparing the feelings of loved ones, or of any citizens who might be traumatized by images of actual violent death - as opposed to the imitation carnage that Hollywood produces for our entertainment.

As disturbing as they may be, however, those images are a vivid reminder that war is waged at a terrible human cost. While our young warriors must be saluted for their courage and sacrifice, it is important we recognize it is in service to mankind's ultimate barbarism.

Sparing citizens an undiluted look at the human toll of war minimizes the horror of armed conflict and its cost in spilled blood. The alternate image - the solemn pageantry of flag-draped coffins whose contents are blessedly unseen - is only part of the story; the rest needs to be told as well.

Dick Fleming is weekend editor at The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, extension 2329, or by e-mail at dickf@herald-mail.com.

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