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As I’ve discussed before, I’ve been rethinking my ideas about the publication of graphic photographs of natural disaster aftermaths. The devastating earthquake in Haiti this month has raised the issue again, as photos of dead bodies have made it to the print and virtual front pages of most major news organizations. In the last month, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, Washington Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander, NPR’s Ombudsman Alicia Shepard, and newly appointed LA Times Readers’ Representative Deidre Edgar have all written columns about graphic images in their publications, addressing some of the complex questions that the use of such photos raises.

Most of the ombuds approve of their publications’ use of graphic photos of dead people, though Shepard’s column is devoted to one particular image featured on NPR’s home page that she thinks lacked the context necessary to make it editorially useful. Overall, the feeling among people who think full time about journalism seems to be that the enormity of the earthquake’s devastation could not be communicated without graphic photos.

I think it’s almost definitely true that the enormity of the earthquake’s devastation could not be communicated in the current media environment without graphic photos (though I do sometimes wonder if we undervalue the power of language to communicate tragedy). But one question that none of the ombuds addressed was whether there are problematic messages communicated by the photos that might outweigh the imperative to communicate this specific story to its fullest. I wonder if it’s possible that these images, while helping us wrap our minds around the earthquake and its impact on a poor and historically disadvantaged nation, could imperil our broader understanding of Haiti or its people.

One of the most troubling elements of graphic photographs of distant tragedies is inadvertently emphasized in Alexander’s January 24 Post column, which explains almost in passing that some newspapers (no mention of whether the Post was among them) “shy from running explicit photos of deaths in their circulation area because many readers may be connected to the deceased.” Alexander goes on, “In the case of Haiti, [director of the School of Visual Communication at Ohio University Terry] Eiler said, ‘Distance allows some to feel as if it’s happening away from us.’ ” The idea that such images  are more likely to be used when the reader feels distance from the subjects lends credence to critiques that graphic depictions of death create (or exacerbate) a sense of “otherness” about the victims they portray. If audiences are only exposed to photos of dead bodies when the people pictured can be classified as somehow “different” (geographically, racially or socioeconomically) from the majority of the publication’s readership, then the photos themselves become a marker of difference. They might actually create emotional distance from victims, even as they accentuate the visceral horror of the event they are representing.*

Hoyt’s January 23 New York Times column includes a photo editor’s assertion that the paper would publish similarly gruesome photos of a natural disaster in the U.S. if it could obtain the photos. Hoyt, citing Kenneth Irby, the head of the visual journalism center at the Poynter Institute, points out that U.S. officials are quick to cordon off the scenes of disasters, keeping photojournalists out. So even a publication that treated domestic and international disasters with similar sensibilities would likely create the appearance of difference by publishing more, and more graphic, photos of dead people from distant disasters than from nearby ones. From the audience’s perspective, the media organizations have still established a division between people who are allowed to be photographed in death and people who are not.

It’s impossible for me to consider the question of graphic photos of natural disasters without thinking about the relative absence of dead bodies in war reporting. War photography invites the the same concerns as disaster photography about creating distance from victims portrayed in graphic photos (especially since the U.S. media strictly controls photography of its own dead and dying soldiers, making it much easier for journalists to display dead people from other countries). But I think there are reasons to publicize the horror of death and dying in wars that simply don’t exist for natural disasters. It seems obvious that the destruction of human bodies is the most important story when a natural disaster occurs. But it is easier to forget (particularly with the complicity of a squeamish news media) that war is about destroying human bodies, too. The way we talk about war often makes it seem more about ideas—national security, sovereignty, regime change—than about the death and dying that are war’s central building blocks.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry discusses how torture and war are similar in that, in both, “the incontestable reality of the body—the body in pain, the body maimed, the body dead and hard to dispose of—is separated from its source and conferred on an ideology or issue or instance of political authority impatient of, or deserted by, benign sources of substantiation.” Graphically violent war photography is worth publishing, despite the considerable risks of doing so, if it helps remind audiences of the centrality of death and dying in war, independent of ideology.

*I do not mean to suggest that audiences of U.S. news publications are uniformly white or non-Haitian, only that most audience members will at least be physically distant from the victims, and many others will share one or more other markers of difference from the victims portrayed.

At work today, I encountered a question over whether the word “war” should be applied to the December 2008–January 2009 armed conflict in the Gaza Strip. My ensuing research and conversations about the issue haven’t really changed my mind—the high number of deaths and the fact that the episode involved a large-scale military invasion merit the description “war” to my mind—but they did raise a number of interesting questions. What characteristics transform fighting or armed conflict into a full-fledged “war”? Is it even useful to apply objective standards to such a determination? Does the word “war” create a meaningful distinction in readers’ minds, and if so, what are the consequences of filing a conflict into that category?

All of which lead, of course, to the big question of whether it matters what nouns journalists use to describe fighting. My tentative answer is “yes,” though other elements of reporting almost certainly matter more. Because I am accustomed to seeing the Gaza fighting described as a “war” (and most mainstream print media outlets do describe it that way, at least some of the time), it feels different, set apart from the decades of violence that surround it. “War” confers a sense of historical importance, which I think can be useful to recognize in a conflict that’s ongoing or in the recent past. But I think sense of scale is the main reason that the “war”/not “war” question feels significant—the word “war” offers an immediate idea of deadliness, which words like “fighting,” “violence,” and especially “conflict” lack. Even words like “offensive” and “incursion,” which are useful in the case of the war in Gaza because they provide an extra piece of information, don’t carry the same immediate connotation of death on a large scale.

Of course, an ideal piece of journalism will give lots of information and detail that takes the pressure of conveying the scale of violence off of a single noun. But I still wonder whether there isn’t a meaningful nuance separating the sentences “the three-week-long war killed up to 1400 Palestinian people and 13 Israeli people” and “the three-week-long conflict killed up to 1400 Palestinian people and 13 Israeli people.”

But the idea that the word “war” conveys historical importance raises a separate set of questions—if we distinguish a group of violent struggles by declaring them “wars,” and use that word to convey their importance, are we contributing to the chronic neglect of conflicts that don’t fit our definition of war but that deserve more media attention? After all, high human tolls distinguish many forms of armed conflict that aren’t likely to fit anyone’s criteria for “war.”

I just wanted to point to this short meditation of Megan Garber’s at on the tone of news coverage in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. She very succinctly gets to a point that struck me at the time, and that partly inspired my interest in the political and moral consequences of journalistic language.

It is so important to remember that war wasn’t an inevitable response, and to explore the question of whether news coverage in the  immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks might have created a sense of inevitability as it shaped our collective understanding of a complex event.

I just wanted to point to this interesting conversation between Megan Carpentier of Jezebel and Latoya Peterson of Racialicious about the relationship between race and the way disaster deaths are covered, pegged to the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. And I wanted especially to point to Peterson’s blog post at Racialicious in which she discusses the earlier conversation (Racialicious, by the way, is always publishing interesting perspectives on race in the media). The original and meta discussions (and the comments attached to both) shed interesting light on the issues I looked at here. I still think language about and images of violence are necessary reminders of our responsibilities to the events being described. But it’s definitely important to remember how problematic that dynamic is when the current reality seems to be that the deaths of people considered “other” are treated more graphically than the deaths of white people in the U.S. and Europe.

The whole question makes me wonder if we should be thinking about the manner in which horrors are described, rather than the extent to which they are described or avoided. Is there a way to show violent death in all its horror without making it into “disaster porn”? To avoid the tabloidy, “house of horrors” approach and treat deaths with real gravity but without sanitizing violence? If that were possible, it seems like it would be the way to achieve the more complex understanding of “respect for the dead” briefly broached by Megan in the Jezebel conversation.

A friend alerted me to this post on Juan Cole’s Informed Comment blog, and I wanted to share a CBS News video that Cole points to. It features Army Times reporter and former soldier Kelly Kennedy discussing in gruesome detail the horrible things that she witnessed as an embedded reporter in Iraq. She has a really interesting perspective on the question of whether to report physically graphic details of war, and discusses how her desire to communicate her growing understanding of soldiers’ experiences sometimes conflicted with concerns about burdening her audience with the harrowing details. She catalogs some of the reasons that war reporters don’t report the worst of what they encounter.

Something I’ve been interested in for a long time is the way war reports describe the deaths that happen in war. War deaths are mentioned in some capacity in almost every day’s newspaper and television newscast and I would argue that the way reporters describe those deaths significantly impacts the way we think about the war being described.

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry points to how peripheral death, injury, and the destruction of homes can seem in published accounts of war: “one can read many pages of a historic or strategic account of a particular military campaign, or listen to many successive installments in a newscast narrative of events in a contemporary war, without encountering the acknowledgment that the purpose of the event described is to alter (to burn, to blast, to shell, to cut) human tissue, as well as to alter the surface, shape, and deep entirety of the objects that human beings recognize as extensions of themselves.”

I find that even when death is mentioned—even when it is central to a news story about, for example, the current U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—it is described in ways that obscure its terrible physical realities. (And I just want to mention that I don’t believe that journalists set out to obscure this reality, and I recognize that there are dozens of legitimate reasons for writing brief, succinct accounts of this particular kind of violence. What interests me, though—and what I think is more relevant to the ethical value of the story—is the effect of these descriptions on the reader’s understanding of events.)

In “Is Nothing Sacred? The Ethics of Television,” (I keep mentioning this essay, but only because it’s great), Michael Ignatieff, speaking of television, says that “in a culture overwhelmed by the volume of promiscuous representation, there must be some practice by which the real—the instant when a real body is struck, abused, or violated—is given a place of special attention, a demarcation that insists that it be seen.

Of course, the “instant when a real body is struck, abused, or violated” would be unbearable to a reader if language could perfectly communicate its physical violence and “make real” its terror. No representation could. But physically graphic language, like graphic television images, can force us to experience—in some real but infinitely and necessarily circumscribed way—the physical horror of war.

I collected all the discussions of Iraq war deaths that I could find from New York Times stories (including Reuters and AP stories that appeared on the New York Times website) dated April 10th. I found eight articles that referred to injury and several articles, like this one, that discussed war strategy but didn’t mention injury. The descriptions of death tended to use stereotyped language like “The U.S. military says an American soldier has been killed by a roadside bomb in central Baghdad.” and “U.S. air strikes killed 10 people in a Baghdad slum where dozens of people died in clashes this week,” phrases that communicate the fact of death but don’t evoke its physical reality.

One article that listed soldiers who had died recently twice referred to soldiers dying of wounds sustained during a particular event: “Army Staff Sgt. Jeffery L. Hartley, 25, Hempstead, Texas; died Tuesday in Kharguliah, Iraq, of wounds suffered when his vehicle struck an explosive” and “Army Sgt. Shaun P. Tousha, 30, Hull, Texas; died Wednesday in Baghdad of wounds when his vehicle struck an explosive.” This description was the only one I could find that mentioned any physical aspect of deadly injuries (wounds).

Here are links to the articles that mentioned death or injury in Iraq:

Roadside Bomb Kills US Soldier in Iraq

Family Honors Son’s Memory With Iraq Aid

Bush to Halt Iraq Troop Cuts

U.S. Military Deaths in Iraq at 4,030

A Dozen Iraqis Die in Continuing Fighting in Sadr City, and Bombs Kill Three Americans

Colonel is 9th of Rank to Die in Iraq

Bush Suspends Summer Troop Pullouts in Iraq

Letters: The Iraq Hearings, and the Skeptics