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SLUG: 7-35427 Dateline: Reporting in Time of War

DATE=October 12, 2001



TITLE=Reporting in Time of War

BYLINE=Judith Latham



EDITOR=Neal Lavon


INTRO: In time of war, the need for accurate information is acute. And journalists have special responsibilities to their audiences, even as they face special challenges. Today's Dateline focuses on "Reporting in Time of War." Here's Judith Latham.

JL: During the Second World War, on the 24th of February 1942, the Voice of America began broadcasting overseas with the aim of countering German wartime propaganda. The first voice heard was that of William Harlan Hale, speaking in German.


"Hier spricht die Stimmen aus Amerika. Heute und taeglish von heute an.. This is the Voice speaking from America. Daily at this time we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth."

JL: The obligation to tell the truth good or bad is the standard for American journalism. In time of war, whether 60 years ago or today, that goal has not changed. But in such times, the goal of objective reporting clashes with other principles-such as the need to maintain security and the use of the nation's media by our country's enemies. Robert Manoff is Director of the Center for War, Peace and the News Media at New York University. The Center monitors and evaluates coverage of the events following September 11th. Mr. Manoff, who works with international journalists, says the guidelines in time of war are similar to those in time of peace.


RM: The ideal is to remain objective, to continue to serve viewers and readers by the most aggressive reporting and the most thoroughgoing analysis possible of the facts. We recognize it's a hard standard to measure up to in wartime. But nevertheless we don't believe that rules of journalism change.

JL: What are the hardest parts to measure up to?

RM: By far the most difficult task facing journalists at moments like this is to remain objective and to remain dispassionate observers of the struggles of the world to report them as fully as possible. For example, journalists have always in every country rallied round the flag and become influenced by the national agendas and have felt that their role shifts from reporting the news to supporting the country. We believe from a journalistic point of view that the best way to support the country is to continue to report the news.

JL: Are there instances when it is desirable for a journalist to withhold information that he or she is privy to?

RM: Yes. Even though our Center advocates the strongest possible agenda of free speech and open inquiry, it's clear in times of war that the details of operations that could compromise the operations or people engaged in operations or the survival of a country must in fact be kept secret from enemies.

JL: What I was thinking of was not only that sort of thing but also a situation where a person's life or safety or the lives of family members are put on the line in countries that are very repressive.

RM: That's a concern of journalists at all times when they operate in environments that are repressive or when an individual could be put at risk. One could cite the first rule of medicine, which is "first, do no harm." And I think that must apply to journalists as well.

JL: When one works for a news organization that receives government funding, are there any additional guidelines that apply?

RM: The guidelines frankly remain the same which is to maximize transparency and the knowledge that is made available to the public.

JL: You recall perhaps that for a very long time the British Broadcasting Corporation never allowed the actual voice of a member of the Irish Republican Army to be broadcast. What thoughts do you have about those kinds of strictures?

RM: Free press advocates everywhere in the world were very critical of the government in that case for imposing that stricture. On the other hand, I think it is fair to say that there is a point in the struggle against terrorism where civil liberties, including freedom of speech, come under a great deal of legitimate pressure because of the nature of the struggle against terrorism. There is a norm that has been articulated by our Supreme Court that says, "Freedom of speech is legitimately curtailed when it's tantamount to yelling 'fire' in a crowded theatre." In other words, where there is direct evidence that speech will enflame a circumstance in such a way that it can lead to violence.

JL: How does the issue of balance relate to the goal of objectivity?

RM: There is an inherent underlying belief that animates all good journalism, which is that there is going to be more than one side on any issue. And it's important for informed citizens and for societies to understand all the different sides.

JL: In situations such as the world is facing now, where there has been an issue raised of the "clash of civilizations," perhaps wrongly the Islamic world v the rest of the world are there particular concepts that journalists need to be especially sensitive to?

RM: Yes, there certainly are. For journalists, the pre-eminent problem is to help their societies understand the nature of "otherness" to understand and tolerate differences around the world. To find ways of engaging with people of different religious beliefs, ethnicities, and races. I would hope it would allow more than co-existence, which is to say true dialogue and true engagement."

JL: Robert Manoff is director of the Center for War, Peace, and the News Media in New York City. Ian Williams, the U-S editor for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, has covered the news from the front lines in several theatres.


"IW: Even in peacetime a journalist has to take the consequences for what he writes, but in wartime, the people around you are often armed, often very upset, and often very vindictive. So you have to be extremely careful about what you say. Your obligation is to tell the truth, and the truth is not always what your own military commander or your own politicians tell you. To say, for example, that the tactics involved in Kosovo or Afghanistan are not the best doesn't mean to say that you support Slobodan Milosevic or Osama bin Laden. I think the media have an even more crucial role in wartime than peacetime because people should know what's going on so they can make informed judgments about it.

JL: Are there special concerns that you have in today's war?

IW: I'm deeply concerned that the one independent Arab station in the whole of the Middle East, al-Jezeera, has totally transformed information and media in the Arab world. But, people are making noises about shutting them up and "stuffing" them. You don't have to agree with Osama bin Laden to want to hear what he has to say. The answer is not to shut him up. It's to make sure that you have better arguments than he does. I don't agree with terrorist bombings of any kind, and yet I still hosted a forum at the United Nations for Gerry Adams, the leader of Shin Fein, because I felt it was important for people to hear what he was saying. By refusing to let people have a voice, in fact, you give them almost an excuse for terrorism. I think it's extremely important that the rush of patriotism and war fever does not stifle the basic constitutional freedoms of the press.

JL: In the case of those journalists who work for news organizations that are publicly funded, what particular issues are they likely to face?

IW: If the government-owned institutions are regarded as just mouthpieces of their government, then it means they're not going to be listened to. In Central Asia, the BBC has a great degree of credibility. And a lot of that credibility is because of balance. You identify correctly what the other side is doing and what it's saying. And then, you can roll out the full details and even condemnations. But, the basic point is always that you should tell the truth. And, in wartime, governments aren't always happy with the truth. When Osama bin Laden launched these attacks, his enemy was the very basic freedom of conscience and freedom of speech that we're talking about. It's pointless fighting for freedoms if in the very act of fighting you destroy those freedoms.

JL: Let me ask you about reporting civilian casualties. When it is very difficult to get at reliable sources, how do you handle the situation when the news comes from one side or the other that has a vested interest in its presentation?

IW: Then you have to give the audience the benefit of the intellectual doubt. If you have information, you should rate the source of the information. If you know that the people concerned have a tendency to exaggerate civilian casualties, you should say so. If an allied cruise missile has hit a hospital, then it's an error. On the part of the government and the military, the sooner they 'fess up' and say, yes, that happened and we're really sorry because it was a mistake, it's a much better way to approach information management than to try to deny it until the evidence become irrefutable. It comes back to the basic point always that you should try to tell the truth as far as possible."

JL: Ian Williams, U-S editor for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "Reporting in Time of War" was the subject of today's Dateline. I'm Judith Latham.

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