- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006

Counting bodies

The death toll from the monthlong war in Lebanon was inching toward the 1,000 mark at week’s end, with relief and rescue workers pulling the last few dozen bodies from beneath the rubble of towns and villages across that country’s south.

That’s a little more than half the 1,815 bodies that were delivered to the city morgue in Baghdad during the month of July. Yet the Lebanon war was on the front page of this and every other major newspaper throughout the war, while the continuing mayhem in Iraq was relegated to relatively minor articles on the inside pages.

This was a source of frustration to some critics of the Iraq war, who would like to see the public reminded daily of the disappointments and broken promises of that conflict.

But does it mean that we in the press simply pursue the latest horror, cravenly seeking to titillate our readers with fresh sensations every day? Or does it mean that the definition of news is a lot more complicated than just counting bodies?

There is a truism, often repeated in our trade, that the first three letters in “news” are n-e-w. It reflects the reality that every news organization tries to attract the largest possible audience, and that we believe people are more likely to read about something new.

The situation in Iraq is unquestionably grim, and it remains grim day after day. But it has been grim for a long time now, and that has not changed appreciably in months.

Even worse, from a news point of view, it has become predictable. On a typical day in Baghdad, we can expect to see one or two car bombings, a few mutilated bodies discovered, and perhaps an attempt, successful or otherwise, to kidnap or assassinate a government official.

News, as much as anything, is about the unexpected. If a reader is interested in cataloging the violent incidents in Iraq, there are places he or she can go, but we are unlikely to put the story on our front page again until we see something that surprises us.

That could be an unusually big bomb or a totally original way to kill large numbers of people. Or it could be some sign that things are getting better, that the police are learning how to control the violence and that the killing is coming to an end.

Changing lives

The Lebanon story, on the other hand, has been filled with surprises. I doubt that any of our readers expected Hezbollah militants to come across the border on July 12 and seize Israeli soldiers. Only a few would have expected Israel to respond as forcefully as it did.

Almost none of our readers thought Hezbollah would be able to hold out against the Israelis for more than a month. No one knew how long it would take the international community to agree on terms for a cease-fire — or whether the combatants would respect it when they did.

There were also unpleasant surprises even for those involved — such as an Israeli rocket that brought down a house in the village of Qana, killing 28 persons, more than half of them children.

Each of these developments offered plenty of fodder for speculation and analysis. Would the war, in the end, leave Israel more safe or less? Hezbollah stronger or weaker? The Lebanese government more or less secure?

News value is also determined by the potential of an event to change people’s lives in the future. No question, the Iraq war will have repercussions that last for years and even decades, but very little has happened in the past four weeks to change its direction one way or the other.

The Lebanon war, on the other hand, is daily having effects that we still don’t understand on the balance of power between Syria and Israel, between the United States and Iran, between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

All this is, to say the least, interesting, and in our opinion more likely to attract readers to our paper. If you disagree and would rather be reading about Iraq, send me an e-mail.

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

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