Reporters used to see themselves as unseen observers, exerting no more influence on the unfolding of events than would a fly on the wall. Now the flies are buzzing around our heads. Coverage of the war in Iraq included:
* Discussions of the effect "embedding" reporters with the troops was having on the coverage of the war.
* Discussions of the differences in how the war was reported, not just by Fox News on one hand and CNN on the other, but by the American news media on one hand and al-Jazeera and other foreign news sources on the other.
* Front-page stories about, and op-ed page tributes to, reporters killed "in action."
* Appraisals of the performances of broadcast journalism's up-and-comers (Lara Logan), old reliables (Ted Koppel), has-beens (Peter Arnett) and never-weres (Geraldo Rivera, Ollie North).
* Diary entries from The New York Times' embedded reporters.
* A National Public Radio news anchor interviewing an NPR correspondent on what it was like to be in Baghdad during the war.
Have we ever before been as conscious of the journalists behind the journalism?
Whatever the public may think of this increased attention to the role of the messenger in the delivery of the message, at least some journalists are discomfited. This is a profession that instructs its practitioners to write in the third person and keep their opinions to themselves. It censures those who become "part of the story" or indulge in "navel-gazing." Now we're seeing mug shots, first- person accounts, tributes to fallen comrades and reporters being interviewed by other reporters.
All the buzzing may be unseemly to the traditionalists, but it may also be more honest. The fly-on-the-wall metaphor was never apt. Journalists don't just watch the unfolding of events. They first have to decide what to watch. Having watched, they have to decide what to say about what they have seen.
With the recognition that the news is a product of a set of decisions comes awareness of the human factor. Different people working for different organizations operating in different cultures will have different ideas about what is newsworthy-based, perhaps, on different ideas about journalism's role in society. It is even more complicated when the business and marketing sides of journalism organizations put in their two cents about what should be covered-and how.
News media critics and scholars have been exploring the influence of ideology, economics and inescapable human subjectivity on the "doing" of journalism for decades. The war in/on Iraq allowed the public to join this conversation.
Ultimately, paying so much attention to the men and women behind the curtain could make for a more discriminating audience. Reminded that the news is never simply observed or even gathered, but crafted, readers and viewers may seek out those journalists who appeared to be trying hardest to come closest to the unattainable ideal of objectivity. Or, they may surf from channel to channel, paper to paper and Web site to Web site, comparing versions in hopes of arriving at a more complete picture of what was taking place.
On the other hand, there is the rising popularity of Fox News. Viewers who watched the war on Fox didn't do so because they thought it was the least biased news source. Far from it: They decided that if all news reports are "versions," they might as well watch the version that best reflected their own biases.
More than anything else, the embedding of reporters forced us to think hard about the role of the news media during wartime. Are American soldiers "our troops" if you're an American journalist in the same way that the local sports franchise is "our team" if you're the local station that broadcasts the games? Or do you report on the war the same as you would if you were from a country that was not involved and had no stake in the outcome-the way network announcers report on the game of the week? Or is there a middle way, whereby you maintain some critical distance, while still treating American casualties as more newsworthy than enemy casualties? Is such detachment even possible if you are living with and being protected by soldiers from your own country?
Knowing that reporters were facing the same dangers and hardships as the soldiers they were covering may even have made the public more sympathetic to the risks, pressures and constraints to which journalists are subject. Who could listen to Ann Garrels on NPR day after day and not wonder how she was holding up under the strain of life in a besieged capital? Who isn't at least mildly curious to know what those big-shot reporters from The New York Times thought about their stints in the Iraqi desert?
Of course, it may also be the case that a little of this sort of thing goes a long way. We don't want to swat flies off the wall only to have them buzz around our heads.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), p.12.