- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2003

Death in Iraq

Like many people of you, I have the clock radio beside my bed set to come on each morning just before an hourly newscast. And like many of you, I have started all too many of my days these past few weeks listening to the words:

“An American soldier was killed in Iraq today.”

There are legitimate journalistic reasons why the radio editors choose to lead off their broadcasts with the latest attack on Americans each day, and equally legitimate reasons why we at The Washington Times have tended to play those deaths as a secondary element to other Iraq news.

But there is also an inevitable suspicion that reporters and news organizations who thought the war in Iraq was a bad idea from the beginning are tempted to stress any bad news that seems to vindicate their judgment. Those who supported the war, similarly, are tempted to play down the problems while stressing American successes that show the war was indeed justified.

Professional journalists should and do try to resist these temptations, but in a business where decisions about news have to be based in part on gut instinct, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference.

The daily deaths from attacks with mortars, grenades and land mines are ideally suited for the morning radio bulletins. They are dramatic, certain to catch the attention of groggy morning listeners, and easy to describe in two or three sentences — which often exhaust all the information that has been provided by the military.

Moreover, most of them occur — or at least are reported by the military — during hours in Washington when most of us are asleep. That gives the radio editors a unique item that was not on the previous evening’s television newscasts and that came along too late to be in the morning newspapers.

Those same factors make the killings much less interesting for a newspaper article, beginning with the timing. We are not able to get these attacks into the paper until full 24 hours after they have been reported on the radio, sharply reducing their news value.

Question of repetitiveness

The lack of detail available from the military is also a problem. One attack last week was reported in just these three sentences in an Associated Press roundup from Baghdad:

“A U.S. soldier, meanwhile, was killed south of Baghdad, the latest death in a spike of guerrilla attacks.

“The military said it had no further information on a pre-dawn attack that killed a U.S. soldier. There had been hope that the killings of Uday and Qusai [Hussein] might demoralize the resistance, but the attacks have if anything intensified.”

There is not much there to lead off a news story.

Finally, and most difficult, is the question of repetitiveness. The killings are certainly shocking, but even the most shocking developments lose news value when they are repeated over and over in similar circumstances.

Russian battlefield deaths in Chechnya, for instance, were once a big story but have become so commonplace that they go unreported unless they are in some way exceptional. The same is true of terrorist attacks in Kashmir, ferry sinkings in Bangladesh and crowded buses plunging over cliffs in remote Third World regions.

Deaths of American soldiers, of course, are different, and always have been.

These men and women, and those who fight alongside them, have families and friends here among us. They have the hopes and prayers of most of us. Our readers care very deeply about their welfare.

We have tried, therefore, not to obsess on these deaths but to report on them faithfully by including them prominently in articles that lead off on other subjects.

Take for example the AP article quoted above, which appeared on our front page Monday. It led with a paragraph about a U.S. raid on a farmhouse near Tikrit where Saddam Hussein had been thought to be hiding, and mentioned the attack that killed the American in the second paragraph.

Where possible, we try to mention the killings in the context of an article that seeks to explain who is behind the killings, why they are happening and what is being done about them — for instance a military operation to round up suspected militants.

The outcome, we hope, is balanced coverage that reports on the killings without exploiting them.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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