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By Anne Harpham
Photographs of five American soldiers held by the Iraqis as prisoners of war.
A photo of an Iraqi soldier being given water, but with a gun aimed at his head by an American soldier.
A photo of a burned child in Baghdad one day, apparently hurt in the bombing by coalition forces. On another day, a photo of an American soldier helping an Iraqi child.
A story about a missile attack that killed civilians in Baghdad.
Headlines that tell of American troops repelling an Iraqi attack.
These are snapshots from the first week of war as recorded in the pages of The Advertiser, and they have provoked anger, consternation, frustration and puzzlement among our readers.
Readers have complained we are too pro-war, glorifying death and destruction and downplaying the suffering of civilians. Others say we are "anti-American," that our pages look like the "Baghdad Journal," that we have overemphasized the misery and danger facing coalition troops.
A sample of the comments:
- "I just saw your front-page picture of the Iraqi child with your caption," one reader wrote about a picture of a child with burns, reportedly suffered in the U.S. bombing of Baghdad. "It struck me as both disgusting and anti-American."
- A reader thought that our headline "Baghdad a day away for swift U.S. troops" showed we were too eager to fall in lockstep with the American military assessment.
- A number of readers called about our decision to run photos of five U.S. soldiers held as POWs. Some felt it insensitive, others thanked us for putting a human face to the conflict.
- Wednesday's headline, "U.S. repels fierce attack" generated complaints from those who said it is the United States doing the attacking, not the Iraqis, who are simply defending themselves.
- Several readers called editors "anti-American" for choosing to publish a Washington Post story on Page One on Thursday describing a missile attack on a Baghdad marketplace. The headline was neutral "Blast kills 14 Baghdad civilians" and the story pointed out that it was not clear who was at fault for the attack, which up to that point had caused the largest civilian loss of life since the war began.
Photos have generated some of the strongest comments from readers, and newspapers across the country are struggling to find the balance between chronicling the horrors of war and being sensitive to families of soldiers in action.
Advertiser library photo March 24, 2003
A photo of U.S. Marines giving water to a captured Iraqi soldier generated anger from readers who felt the picture made U.S. forces look bad. But editors felt the photo pointed to the truths of war.
Advertiser library photo March 24, 2003
Managing editor David Montesino said the taking of the first U.S. prisoners of war was not only important news but showed the "harsh reality of war" and put a human face on the prisoners, rather than portraying them as anonymous statistics.
On March 21, several readers reacted angrily to a photo of a captured Iraqi soldier being given water by an American soldier while another soldier held a gun inches from the man's head. Was it run to make the U.S. soldiers look bad, as some readers suggested? No. It showed a humanitarian gesture while acknowledging what soldiers know: They must be vigilant when dealing with captured enemy troops.
Likewise, was it "anti-American" to show a photo of a burned Iraqi child? Not if it was in the context of what has happened, and if there was an overall balance in the day's photos. Other photos that day showed children giving British troops a thumbs-up welcome, troops firing on Iraqi positions and civilians being escorted by troops. The dominant picture on Page One that day was of a convoy of Army 3rd Infantry Division forces headed for Baghdad.
Our main headline last Sunday "Baghdad a day away for swift U.S. troops" reflected the optimism of the U.S. military the previous day. Obviously, that optimism was gone by the time the sun set Sunday, a bloody, dispiriting day for the coalition forces. Troops were killed and captured and Iraq television showed gruesome photos of dead and captured Americans.
Was the headline too optimistic on Sunday? In hindsight, it was. But it also reflected the assessment at the time. No one could foresee what happened overnight. Monday's headline "Bloody day for allies" generated a new batch of complaints from readers who thought it was too "negative."
News editor Brad Lendon, who is in charge of selecting the day's best accounts of the war and recommending how they are displayed in the paper, cited two stories as the most interesting in the past week and a half.
One was the Washington Post story on the marketplace attack that raised several objections from readers. For Lendon, the story put readers at the scene. That, plus an Army Times story from the 7th Cavalry that took readers through 24 hours of fighting, "were stories of real people in unthinkable situations," Lendon said.
There is the dilemma. In the first Gulf War, there was a dearth of information; news was handed out in military briefings by government spokesmen. It was a distant, quick war that for most of us had an unreal quality to it. In this war, the challenge is sifting through an avalanche of information.
In selecting photos and stories, in writing headlines, our objective is not to send a message but to convey the events of the day. The news of war, by its very nature, is news of conquering or retreat, death and capture, gunfire and bombs.
As the war continues, so will the dilemmas we face. Reputable media outlets want to be sensitive to families of troops and to the feelings of readers and viewers. But it would be a disservice to hold back on coverage because the events and images are disturbing.
We are wrong if we do not strive for a balanced approach that focuses on the news of the day. And that balanced account will sometimes include images and accounts we don't like.
Senior editor Anne Harpham is reader representative of The Advertiser. Reach her at 525-8033 or firstname.lastname@example.org.