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Just the facts, please

April 6, 2003

The reporters in Iraq who have won the most positive attention from their peers are John Burns of The New York Times and Anthony Shadid of The Washington Post. Both are highly skilled, write vivid prose, and are bound to win awards for their work.

However, I have a bone to pick with Shadid. He is woefully addicted to emotionally loaded “They’ve killed my baby!” journalism. In this kind of reporting, you go into a neighborhood after a battle or a bombing and focus at great length on the parent of a dead child, or maybe the husband of a dead wife. Then you make that person’s suffering represent either the folly of war, or more often, the awesome brutality of one side in the war.

This is what the Post (not Shadid) did a year ago in covering the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli war. “He Kept Bleeding” was a huge front-page headline on a story about a Palestinian fatally wounded in Bethlehem. Another was “Father, Son Dead; Family Wonders Why.” After reading these articles, the average reader would be tempted to answer the “why” question by saying: “Because the Israelis are such pointlessly violent brutes.” But that answer would come from the emotional loading of the articles and their headlines, not from any factual analysis of what happened or what the war is about.

Shadid picked up where the Post’s emotional Mideast reportage left off last April. “The Whole World Cries” was the headline on Shadid’s long and harrowing front-page account of the March 28 market explosion in Baghdad. The devastating blast was apparently the result of an errant U.S. missile.

Gruesome details told us that blood was everywhere and heads and legs came off in the explosion. The reader was reminded (three times) that the market is a civilian area with no military targets nearby. A stream of mourners were quoted, a few simply exclaiming in great grief, but most bitterly attacking the United States. “They slaughtered us, slaughtered us,” said one. Others added: “They came to free us. This is freedom?” and “America is responsible for this. Why does it hate the Iraqi people so?”

Shadid produced a similar article after a lesser bombing, complete with the legs of one survivor being torn off, and one severed hand of a dead victim being “tossed gracelessly in a pool of blood and mud.”

Another front-page “They Killed My Baby” effort followed the day after the market blast, this time headlined “A Boy Who Was Like a Flower,” reporting on the death of a young Baghdad teen. As in many Shadid articles, aggrieved Iraqis seem to erupt frequently in well-sculpted, articulate, anti-American arguments: “This war is evil. It is an unjust war. They have no right to make war against us. Until now, we were sitting in our houses comfortable and safe.”

Some, but not all, of the emotional pitching of these pieces comes from the obvious fact that reporters in Baghdad work under the surveillance of government handlers. These handlers can provide good access to reporters who cooperate. They can also have uncooperative reporters expelled, and they can have tongues of uncooperative interviewees removed.

But even in the absence of surveillance, highly emotional reporting is dicey stuff. It can zero in on random or rare events, like a wildly off-course smart bomb, and present them as symbols of America’s whole effort in Iraq. A bombing mistake is not a strong argument against any war, but in Shadid’s reporting it certainly seemed like one. Unlike traditional, straightforward reporting (see John Burns’ able and thorough coverage of the market bombing in the Times), high emotional coverage pushes the reader beyond the facts and toward a strong emotional response.

This is particularly true if editors think it’s a good idea to attach over-the-top headlines like “The Whole World Cries.” Enough. Our emotions are already fully engaged in this war. Just give us the facts.

From → Media

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