Americans can tune in to CNN or Fox News to see bombs lighting up the sky and troops on the move, but images of casualties are more rare, partly due to government control over what the media can show.
Communication studies lecturer Anthony Collings said the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq has been censored, and not just on Iraqi state-run television.
“On the U.S. side, there is also censorship of a kind,” said Collings, a former CNN foreign correspondent in Beirut. “The Pentagon system of ’embedding’ journalists means that we have been able to see unprecedented live television coverage of such things as tanks on the move and guns firing. The problem is that these journalists had to agree to not bring their own communications equipment along, so the U.S. military has the power to pull the plug on them at any time and might do so to prevent negative stories from getting out.”
The main task of the news media is to find ways to present as much of the truth as possible to the American public, Collings said. But he added that the administration’s pressure to censor images of American casualties has prevented the public from getting the full truth.
“The administration has strongly pressured news media not to publish or broadcast pictures of American war dead,” he said. “Part of this request may be legitimate, to give families time to be notified, but part of it could be censorship to minimize negative reporting. But war is all about killing, and not showing war dead is not showing the full truth.”
Andrew Finkel, a Michigan journalism fellow, said the government has used the media to further its goal of going to war with Iraq.
“There is an overwhelming sense of self-righteousness (by the Bush administration) and the media didn’t do much to deflate it,” said Finkel, a freelance reporter in Turkey now on sabbatical at the University. “When you have a government so determined to do this, it is very difficult for the media to stand in the way.”
“A lot of people justify the decision to go to war because Saddam was responsible for September 11th and has direct connections with al-Qaeda … which there is no proof,” Finkel said.
“Who gave (the public) this impression? It was the government which used the media to give that impression. The media have allowed themselves to be used this way.”
When an Arabic-language television network on Sunday broadcast images of captured and slain American soldiers, the U.S. media decided only to air short clips or still photos. U.S. military officials in Qatar and the Pentagon criticized Al-Jazeera for broadcasting these images and asked the U.S. media to halt the airing of these video footages until family members were notified.
Collings said it is insensitive to air videotapes of POWs before their families have been notified. But he also said it is important for the American public to know about captured American soldiers.
“The images are important … so that we can see what condition they are in and whether they may have been mistreated,” Collings said, adding that he would be in favor of airing the videotapes so that as much of the truth gets out to the public as possible.
“Some of the criticism by U.S. leaders may be legitimate concern for the families, but some of it also may be an attempt to intimidate independent journalists from doing their job because the U.S. officials want to downplay any bad news that might undermine support for their war,” he said.