Reporting War: Lessons From Iraq
At Berkeley's conference on The Media at War, speakers raised tough questions about press freedom and independence, about the relationship between media and military, and about the ethics of presenting, or withholding, graphic and disturbing details to mainstream audiences.
Through American news media, we often see a sanitized illusion of war, itself embedded with more mythology of nation, self and patriotism than with the raw truth of combat’s trauma. We see the triumph of technology, but usually not the human cost. We see the limitations of reporting, but not always the hard, good work of the journalists in the field.
As Ambassador Joseph Wilson said last week during an address in Berkeley, we have seen, through visual media, “great views of shock and awe” in Iraq.
“What we didn’t get,” Wilson continued, “was the shocked and the awed.”
Wilson, along with other speakers at Berkeley's conference on The Media at War, raised tough questions central to journalism — questions about press freedom and independence, about the relationship between media and military, and about the ethics of presenting, or withholding, graphic and disturbing details to mainstream audiences.
Is it possible to report a truth independent of nationalism or patriotism from the battlefield? Or to balance this truth with sensitivity to those who are suffering?
I believe so. But doing this means rejecting easy answers, flat and inflexible newsroom policies, and it means admitting mistakes and working to do better.
It means rejecting extreme “demands” from influential, and perhaps well-meaning, media critics and audience members. It makes no sense to institute a blanket “no violence, no bodies” policy to avoid offending viewers. But a show-it-all policy in the name of press freedom is also unthinking and insensitive.
As we work to retain press freedoms and report war as accurately as possible, we need to listen to — and respect — a variety of viewpoints. We need to accept the complexity of the issues surrounding media coverage of war and avoid looking for easy answers or pat policies.
We need to keep talking, promoting press freedom as well as sensitivity to human suffering. We need to promote media literacy education so individuals know when and how to turn away from images or messages that might be personally hurtful.
We need to hear what journalists say about their hard work in war zones and the limitations they face in reporting freely. And, we need to listen to the academics, in fact encourage more research, on both the content of war reporting and effects on individual and collective psyches.
Speaking at Berkeley, Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas expressed hope that human rights ethics will be part of our media culture as journalists continue to report from war zones. At the Dart Center, we share that hope. But it will require a great deal of attention, self-reflection, and respect for others from all of us.