Cover Story


Cameras can't lie, but editors-by seeking to bolster what they presuppose-can

Issue: "Baghdad set free," April 19, 2003

Iraqi forces ambushed an American supply convoy. There was a firefight. The Marines won. Embedded journalists with cameras were on the scene. Those were the facts. What was the coverage? Many newspapers, such as the San Diego Union Tribune, published a photo of the aftermath: Lance Corporal Marcco Ware carrying a wounded Iraqi over his shoulders so that he could get medical attention. The photo recalled a shepherd carrying an injured lamb. The Iraqi had been trying to kill the Marines. Now Corporal Ware was saving his life.

The New York Times, on the other hand, covered the same incident with a different piece of photojournalism: the body of an Iraqi soldier killed in the fight. He was lying face up, his head toward the photographer. In the background, a Marine walks away from the body, his back turned, going into the sunset.

Both photographs recorded something that happened, but each told a different story. One showed a warrior in an act of compassion for a defeated enemy. The other image, in its composition, was from the point of view of the dead Iraqi. The viewer of the photograph is put in the position of the body, looking up at the soldier walking away. It suggests the cruelty and indifference of the soldier who killed him. The viewer is made to identify with and thus feel sympathetic for those who find themselves on the other side of American military power.

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The war in Iraq, with reporters and photographers given unprecedented access to the military operations, is yielding a wealth of coverage and images straight from the front. Newspapers, magazines, and television networks have a lot to choose from. Editors must select which stories and pictures to run, and how to treat them.

San Diego, with its major military bases and thousands of military families, has a newspaper that supports the troops. The New York Times, being consistent with its liberal ideology despite what happened on 9/11, is against the war.

Selective journalism, reflecting the bias of the publications, is a worldwide phenomenon. Al-Jazeera, the pro-Iraqi Arab news channel, shows the bodies of dead Americans, suggesting the great Iraqi victories over the infidels.

France, though, and the rest of anti-war Europe are regularly treated to pictures of dead Iraqi civilians, the innocent victims of American aggression.

The French Journal du Dimanche had a feature on "ravages of the war," showing a wounded woman and her dead baby, their house destroyed by a bomb. The Paris newspaper Le Monde had a photo spread, showing a terrified Iraqi child getting treated for his wounds and the bodies of dead Iraqis. One picture showed American troops inspecting the body of an Iraqi civilian, next to a woman convulsed in grief. The caption was a quotation purportedly from one of the Marines: "My God! There are people dead!" As if these na•ve Americans are actually surprised that people are getting killed.

One photo published widely throughout Europe showed two British soldiers looking into a trench at the dead bodies of two Iraqi soldiers whose heads had been blown off. One of them was clutching a white flag.

These things happen, of course. War is terrible, and it involves death. Oversanitized journalism that omits the horrors of combat and the reality of people dying is a distortion, but so is coverage that shows heaped-up bodies while ignoring the issues that led to the war.

What a picture cannot show is context. Pictures of dead civilians are full of pathos. But why were they killed? Were they human shields, some of the women and children herded in front of the Fedayeen Saddam? Were they some of the civilians in the schools, hospitals, mosques, and ordinary homes where the Republican Guards had set up their guns? Who was really responsible for these tragic casualties? Coalition forces intentionally targeting civilians? Or Saddam Hussein?

In choosing what pictures to show, editors should consider not just their biases but "what is news?" Dead bodies are part of every war. What is different, to the point of being unprecedented, is a war that tries to minimize casualties-not just one's own casualties (that's not news) but enemy casualties (that is news). Saddam Hussein has killed more of his own people than American forces ever would. In this war, the conquerors are trying not to seize a country but to give it back to its people. In some cases, coalition forces are fighting and dying so that they can bring food and water to hungry and thirsty Iraqis.


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