School of Media and Communication

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War reporting - It's digital, but dangerous By Kim Campbell

Today's war reporting: It's digital, but dangerous

By Kim Campbell - Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Patrick Sloyan covered the Gulf War for Newsday, one of his unexpected duties was counseling novice war reporters on what to do when scud missiles hit nearby. "Get down on the ground, get low," he told them. Mr. Sloyan had served in the military in the 1950s, so, unlike his terrified companions, he knew what to do in hostile conditions.

Ten years later, covering a war isn't any less dangerous for those who have more experience with a pen than with a rocket launcher. On Friday, British newspaper The Guardian reported that the Taliban is offering $50,000 to Afghans who kill Western journalists - a group that as of last week had died in greater numbers than allied military and intelligence personnel.

But other changes have occurred in war reporting since the tanks rolled in Kuwait - advances, in the form of satellite and video phones, and obstacles, in the form of more limited access to the battlefield. Now, say observers, reporters can deliver news from war zones in real time, but they have less to tell.

"Today, war reporting means not that you know what's going on and you make judgments about what's safe and appropriate to report. The military profoundly limits the access of reporters and thus what reporters know," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

It's the new technology that makes the Pentagon nervous, says Mr. Rosenstiel. Censorship is no longer possible, now that reporters can carry their means of transmission with them - unlike World War II, for example, when reporters' dispatches had to be transferred by the military, once they were reviewed. As a result, "a great deal more of what we consider war coverage today occurs in the Pentagon press briefing room," he adds.

Despite the military's misgivings, video phones and laptops appear to be as much a part of modern war reporting as the flak jacket. Laptops have been in battle since the 1980s, but satellite communication is a product of the 1990s. Not only does it mean that the media can literally file from anywhere, they also allow news organizations to keep up with an audience that has grown accustomed to getting information quickly. "We are reporting for a public that checks back with their favorite websites four, five, six times a day, and they expect to see updated news," says Tom Kent, a deputy managing editor at The Associated Press.

Thanks to new technology, reporters are able to communicate with one another more easily - so people on location in the desert can talk with those covering the Pentagon or the White House to confirm details. "All of this technology was available in the Gulf War, [but] it was just really primitive," says Bob Murphy, a senior vice president at ABC News.

One of the first high-profile uses of a video phone came this spring, when CNN used one to report live on the freeing of the US spy-plane crew by the Chinese. By comparison, during Vietnam, it would have taken about 24 hours to get the footage.

But what journalists have gained in time and convenience, they have lost in access to the military itself.

Reporters weren't always on the battlefield - years ago, junior officers were used as a source of information. Independent reporters first came on the scene during the Crimean War (1853). In the past century, their presence on the front lines has been well-documented: helping the wounded in World War II or taking cover with frightened soldiers in Vietnam.

During the more recent Gulf War, the roughly 1,400 reporters based in Saudi Arabia got much of their news at daily briefings, but the government did arrange for them to visit sites where troops were operating. Especially at first, reporters in Afghanistan had "substantially less access than in the Gulf War," says Mr. Kent.

A week ago, the Marines started allowing a handful of journalists to accompany troops into the country for the first time.

Rosenstiel and Sloyan say the military's more limited approach to access started during the invasion of Grenada in 1983. The Gulf conflict, in particular, is widely regarded as a war where reporters had few opportunities to see firsthand what was going on. "As a result of the censorship in the Persian Gulf, we have lost our history. There were no independent news people out taking pictures or writing ... with the troops in action," says former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite.

But what raises journalists' ire has yet to fire up the public. In a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, half of respondents said the military should have more control over war news than media have.

Particularly for the families of servicemen and women, that's not a good precedent, says Sloyan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting he did after the Gulf War, including articles about US casualties caused by "friendly fire", which had been covered up. "The press is like the uncle representing the family," he says. "They go to the front line and say, 'Well, how's Johnny doing? What's going on here? Who's running this operation? Are there needless frontal assaults?' "

Mr. Cronkite says there's another reason people should care about how the military operates: "We must know what they are doing in our name."

To try to find that out, reporters in this war, as in Cambodia decades ago, have had to strike out on their own. On a good day in the chaotic situation in Afghanistan, that has meant finding stashes of abandoned Taliban and Al Qaeda documents. On a bad day, it has meant facing life-threatening situations.

In fact, Cronkite calls the situation in Afghanistan "the most dangerous, I think, that correspondents have ever put themselves in in modern times."

"It's ironic," says Rosenstiel. "We know less, and we're more of a target."

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