Thursday, June 02, 2005

Why the Good News Goes Unreported

In Sunday's Washington Post, Frank Schaeffer, the father of a Marine, asks why media coverage of the troops is so one sided. Aside from a cheap shot at the president, Mr. Schaeffer's comments are right on the mark:

As a military parent, why do I read the most positive stories about our troops in a sort of military-family samizdat e-mail underground network and not on Page One? And how many times does the same type of editorial about the same handful of abused prisoners have to be repeated before an inaccurate impression of our military is given?

Maybe reporters and editorial writers think that reporting too often on the many selfless acts our troops undertake will reflect well on an undeserving president who likes to grandstand with our troops in photo ops. But is the truth about the character of our military being accurately, or should I say proportionately, reported? Does the public, which has woefully little personal contact with our military, know that most men and women in our services are not torturers but people like them trying to do the best they can with compassion and honor? Does the public know that acts of kindness are routine and acts of abuse are rare?

I treasure a photograph of my son cradling an Afghan child in his arms while standing outside a school he was protecting from fanatics who wanted to kill the teacher for the "crime" of teaching girls. That picture is far more typical of what my son and his fellow Marines did every day than are the pictures of mistreated prisoners.

In a May 24th post on his blog, Michael Yon, a journalist on the ground with US forces in Mosul, Iraq, provides the best answer I have seen yet to Mr. Schaeffer's question:

When this SIGACT is translated by a PAO, this might come out: "3 US soldiers were wounded by small arms in Mosul, Iraq. The soldiers were assigned to Task Force Freedom." News agencies that call or request information will get some variation of this report.


But news of a baby girl with a circulatory condition who needed hand surgery getting medical help from U.S. soldiers and a concerned nurse did not become a SIGACT, nor will it be included in a media release. So, unless a reporter was embedded with that unit at that time--and decides to tell the story--no one will ever know this one small, but powerfully important detail. There are a thousand such details falling like trees in a forest, but no one is listening for those kinds of sounds.

I write about them when I can, but there's an irony to all of this that is hard to escape. Most of the acts of kindness I witness are done from an instinctive altruism that almost always seeks anonymity. And there is that other problem with catching people doing good--the cynical media is quick to ascribe cheap motivations to soldiers who reveal their humanity through their decency. And does anyone really care about the soldiers who, after having arrested a suspected insurgent, then spent the next twenty minutes trying to find a home for the two little puppies he was keeping?

Mr. Yon ably explains why most reporting on Iraq is so slanted towards the negative. He shows how military action reports become press releases, which are then turned into the "body count" articles that comprise most of the media coverage. Just take the press release, throw in a couple suitably poetic lines about how "the Iraqi insurgency today continued its relentless campaign to cover the streets in blood", add in the total number of US fatalities to date, and make sure that any news of coalition successes is buried within the last couple lines. Voila, your piece is ready to hit the wires.

I shudder to think what would happen if we didn't have e-mail and the blogosphere to tell the rest of the Iraq story.


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