for release Friday April 4, 2003
by Melodie Davis
Writing About War: Take It With A Grain of Sand
War seems like the obvious column topic. It’s on every tongue, on every page, in every newscast, on your home page.
But I would like to write about writing (or broadcasting) about war. If soldiers are trained to fight and couldn’t wait for the war to actually begin rather than sitting around with engines revving for the big showdown, then the media are just as guilty of lining up with their ringside seats to see the fight. Goodness knows, people in the media seem to love a war because it gives them a sure story every day. It’s an adrenaline rush.
No panic about writer’s block. No lack of stories here. Wars sell papers, get viewers to watch TV news (and the advertising), and load Internet sites. The first place I saw any images of the September 11 attacks was when our webmaster called me over to see it on his computer at MSNBC.com. Web sites crashed from the rush.
And what is being offered up in the traditional media isn’t only heavy stories dealing with gruesome death and quagmired politics, it is p.r. masquerading as news. The morning TV talk shows seem particularly guilty of coming up with all sorts of trivial—if interesting—war-related topics, all designed, I feel, to stir up patriotic support for war. Or maybe just to show the human side. In the days of waiting for the war to begin, I saw one morning show featuring “squiggly creatures our soldiers will be facing in the desert” (scorpions and other deadly and dreadful looking things).
Worse, one day they went down a line-up of military gear showing all the new fangled technology (kind of like they show off new toys at Christmas) that was helping to outfit today’s solider, from new better gas masks, newly designed camos, and better c-rations that could actually heat themselves when you tore open the package. The anchorman gamely tried on the huge backpack of gear like he was a kid trotting off to school. I’m sure that story idea was planted by an army public relations person.
And during the build up to war, the celebrity anchors began a series of journeys to Iraq, donning army clothes to make light “war talk” with generals and go on board the big gun boats. When I see these things I cannot understand why people think all the major media are so “antiwar” or liberally-biased. Someone has said that people pick on the media because whatever your bias, you see the media as being biased on the other side.
Months before the war, I was upset to hear one of my favorite newscasters talk about “when we go to war,”—not in terms of “if we go to war.” Why does that matter? While it seemed almost inevitable given all the conditions, I did not like her taking away the possibility for hope, for prayer, for striving for a different outcome.
Weeks before hostilities began, the anchors stood gamely in front of a huge “war room” type map, the better to plot positions and activity with. They were ready, even if the troops were not. What would they have done with all their studio sets if it wouldn’t have transpired?
This is all without even getting to the new phenomenon with this war, of having “embedded” journalists. The term, of course, means that the journalists travel with and stick with an assigned military unit, which means they only get the story that the military hierarchy wants them to get. Of course the strategists can’t have journalists undermining their efforts and jeopardizing the safety of troops, and they don’t want journalists turning citizens against them.
Those reporters who are actually in the war zone don’t necessarily have a trivial or easy time. They not only are very vulnerable to danger, they have to worry about things like getting visas into the country, and being careful and obeying Iraqi rules while in the country so that they can get back in the next time they need a visa.
It is always wise, though, just to keep in mind the manufactured nature of most news these days. Many many stories, including some ideas that make it into my column, come from a public relations person’s news release.
How can I pick on the media and bite the hand that feeds me? Maybe because I’m on the other end too—producing news releases that plant news stories about the projects our organization is involved in.
So, always be skeptical of what you read, hear, see. Use multiple news sources. The Internet offers many wonderful alternative news sites—from whatever perspective you want to pick. Not all are believable of course. So be careful not to just stick with your own biases.
What do you think? Post your comments at the Another Way discussion page at http://www.thirdway.com/aw/conversation.asp or send to:
Write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 805 words; end material = 105 words
We would appreciate it if you would include the "Globe Syndicate" bug at the end of the column.
©2003 by Globe Syndicate, all rights reserved.
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