Less than a month after U.S. forces began military operations in Afghanistan, Walter Isaacson, then the editorial boss at CNN, issued a memo warning against overly credulous, simplistic reporting of civilian casualties. As reported by Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post, Isaacson wrote: “As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble our Covering civilian casualties usually carries the additional challenge of operating at the sufferance of the other side, usually in its own territory.efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage and perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 people.” As Isaacson later explained to The New York Times, “It seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan.”

Reaction to Isaacson’s directive drew comment along more or less predictable philosophical lines. Brit Hume, the Fox News anchor, supported the notion that such casualties should not be overplayed, because “Civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war.” On the same Fox program, National Public Radio White House correspondent Mara Liasson agreed, saying, “War is about killing people; civilian casualties are unavoidable.”

Opponents of military intervention in Afghanistan did not share the equanimity about civilian deaths of their more hawkish colleagues. The very fact that such deaths are inevitable, argued a young Canadian journalist who uses the pen name Dru Oja JAY on the leftist Weblog, “Monkeyfist,” makes it imperative for journalists to assign them some weight before a country decides to do battle. “Very few commentators publicly considered whether starvation, ruined lives, increased infant mortality, depressed economies, and the more countable civilian deaths were an acceptable part of war,” he complained.

Journalism’s Tensions in War Reporting

Isaacson’s move reflected the general state of confusion among the news media following September 11th regarding their proper role as potential molders of public opinion. The New York Times that November reported that, “television images of Afghan bombing victims are fleeting, cushioned between anchors or American officials explaining that such sights are only one side of the story.” During the same period, the White House successfully lobbied the networks against playing unedited Osama bin Laden tapes because it might inspire his followers, or even covertly trigger new al-Qaeda acts of terrorism. And for months following the attack one could rarely see a local news anchor’s lapel unadorned by an American flag.

Now, as the combat phase of the Afghanistan operation has wound down, the United States is building its forces in the Persian Gulf for what has the makings of round two with Saddam Hussein. This time—rather than the desert campaign of 1991—the objective is “regime change,” with the consequent risk of urban warfare and high civilian casualties. Reporters are already flooding Baghdad at the regime’s invitation, covering the work of United Nations’ arms inspectors to be sure, but also serving as carriers for whatever message Saddam seeks to convey.

During the first Gulf War, Western reporters in Baghdad found themselves accused of doing Saddam’s bidding by paying excessive attention to the few incidents involving significant civilian casualties, while most residents of Iraq’s capital went routinely about their business confident that the highly accurate U.S. missiles and bombs were not targeted at them. Will reporters in the next Gulf War, or subsequent conflicts, face the same dilemma? Will they be forced to choose between coverage that is perceived as aiding the “enemy” vs. injecting a mechanical “balance” in response to domestic political pressure or the dictates of editors far from the scene?

This should not happen if reporters and correspondents resist demands that detract from their professionalism and instead apply the principles and techniques of sound journalism to their work in the field.

The Case for Reporting Civilian Casualties

Journalists ought to begin by examining the superficial fact that civilian casualties are a part of every war. Sure they are, but their number and causes differ materially from war to war. In World War II, for example, Edward R. Murrow could look down from the B-17 bomber in which he was flying and describe Berlin as “an orchestrated hell.” Murrow’s description was accurate because the Allies deliberately targeted civilians in German cities for purposes of undermining enemy morale. This strategy had its most gruesome application in the firebombing of Dresden, where the civilian death toll exceeded 50,000. Ironically, the strategic bombing survey commissioned at war’s end concluded that targeting civilians had the perverse psychological impact of rallying Germans behind their government.

In retrospect, the American public might have been better served if reporters had taken a more skeptical look at the deliberate targeting of civilians, even in a transcendently just war against Nazi Germany.

In Korea, during the first weeks of panicky retreat following the June 1950 invasion, U.S. forces sought to prevent advancing North Korean troops—some disguised as civilians—from overrunning them. They bombed or dynamited bridges bulging with fleeing South Korean civilians, extracting a fearsome toll in “friendly” civilian lives. One can argue the civilian deaths were a necessary price, since U.S. forces barely managed to establish a line of defense at Pusan. But clearly the civilian deaths were an integral part of the war story.

Vietnam saw the first substantial reporting of civilian casualties inflicted by Americans by print and television correspondents. Terms like “tactical evacuation,” and “harassment and interdiction” fire, entered our lexicon, and a little girl running naked down a highway—her clothes having been scorched from her body by napalm—and a marine using his cigarette lighter to set fire to a thatched peasant hut became emblems of the war’s human toll. Books have been written about the alleged media bias in coverage of Vietnam, and to this day there are military veterans who argue that by undermining public support for the war, the media effectively limited military options that might have produced victory.

Perhaps more context was needed, particularly regarding Vietcong and North Vietnamese atrocities. But no reasonable case can be made for temporizing reports of the war’s impact on the civilians that U.S. forces were fighting to “save.”

The 1989 Panama invasion involved the overwhelming application of U.S. force against a regime with no army. The purpose was to remove a single troublesome strongman, Manuel Noriega, from power. The operation reflected the military doctrine of the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell. In addition to the presence of vital interests, public support, mileposts and exit strategies, Powell insisted on missions that could be resolved with military hammerblows. A Vietnam veteran, he wanted nothing resembling gradual vice-tightening. Nearly 1,000 Panamanians died in the action, most of them noncombatants. Few journalists questioned the proportionality of the effort.

During the Persian Gulf War the reporting of CNN correspondent Peter Arnett from Baghdad became a microcosm for many complaints about reporters permitting themselves to become conduits for enemy propaganda. Arnett reported on the results of U.S. bombing raids: The first was against a factory that the Iraqis claimed produced instant milk formula and that the United States said manufactured chemical agents; the other was against a bunker that intelligence had described as an important command facility but that turned out to be a shelter for wellconnected Iraqi civilians. Hundreds were killed in the latter attack.

To many observers, Arnett’s reporting conveyed a credulous acceptance of the Iraqi line on the factory and uncritical reporting of Iraqi assertions that the bunker attack had deliberately targeted civilians. The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer was moved to suggest that Saddam had only three cards left: “his Republican guards, his chemical weapons, and Peter Arnett.”

The 1999 NATO campaign to oust Serbian troops from Kosovo involved nearly 80 days of intensive bombing of Belgrade and other Serbian cities, plus missions flown against Serbian forces in Kosovo. With shaky domestic support, President Bill Clinton was anxious to avoid U.S. military casualties and committed no ground forces to the operation, while aircraft in both Kosovo and the remainder of Serbia flew high enough to stay out of the range of Serb gunners. Because of these tactics, Serbian air defenses were not completely neutralized, and Serb forces inflicted far more damage inside Kosovo than would have been the case with more effective U.S. air power. Several “friendlies” were inadvertently hit from the air, and the Serb forces operating in Kosovo suffered relatively little battle damage. The press reported extensively on civilian casualties, and Clinton’s approach remained controversial throughout the war. No U.S. forces were killed in the operation.

Covering the Consequences of Economic Sanctions

Not all civilian casualties result from direct military attack. Following its invasion of Kuwait, for example, the United Nations, with a strong push from the United States, imposed a comprehensive regime of economic sanctions against Iraq. These sanctions were extended after the war pending Saddam’s compliance with an assortment of Security Council resolutions. During the late 1990’s, a UNICEF study concluded that more than 500,000 Iraqi children had died as a result of the sanctions. Confronted with a question about the report, Secretary of State Madeline Albright replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”

The issue of civilian consequences of economic sanctions against Iraq has to this date received far less analytical coverage than one would expect for one of its magnitude.

The question of coverage of civilian casualties has often arisen in connection with the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Israel has been confronting an intense campaign by suicide bombers and other terrorists for more than two years, suffering in excess of 700 fatalities, often at the hands of people disguised as workers, students, orthodox Jews, waiters and even members of the Israeli military. Suicide bombers have passed through checkpoints, scaled walls and fences, blended into sympathetic crowds, hidden in the homes of confederates, and barged into markets, discos and restaurants. In response the Israelis have restricted travel, closed their borders to Palestinian workers, assassinated key terrorist leaders, dismantled the security structure of the Palestinian Authority, and swept through and reoccupied cities and towns where trouble has occurred, arresting hundreds of “suspected terrorists.” Israel has killed more than 1,700 Palestinian “civilians” during the current cycle of conflict, often to the accompaniment of some of the most noncontextual journalism of recent times.

Unless one scanned both the print and electronic coverage with exquisite care, the reader or viewer would have little inkling of the hundreds of terrorist attacks pre-empted by Israel’s reoccupation of lands placed under control of the Palestinian Authority by the Oslo accords, or the lack of any realistic alternative to that action. Nor would he or she have much sense that the entire intifada would never have occurred had Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat not insisted at Camp David and Taba on the right of Palestinian refugees to return to pre-1967 Israel, a formula for functional termination of the Jewish state. Viewers or listeners would have little notion that most of the settlements the Palestinians complain about would have been dismantled under the Clinton peace plan accepted by Israel or of the strategic alliance forged by Arafat with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations dedicated to Israel’s destruction.

Similarly, the press has provided scant inkling of the disaffection of much of the Palestinian intelligentsia from the current intifada, their disgust with the suicide bombing campaign, and the feeling of betrayal by many veterans of the first intifada (1987-90) as regards the “Tunisians” who returned with Arafat and imposed a corrupt and brutal dictatorship on the West Bank and Gaza, long before the Israelis reoccupied PA-administered lands. On the other hand, citizens following events in the media would have had a surfeit of stories on the matriculation of suicide bombers, the support of their families, and their heroic status as martyrs in their communities, important stuff to be sure, but usually presented in a way that conveyed a sense of moral equivalence between victim and killer.

Reporting Well on Civilian Casualties

Civilian casualties are intrinsic to most military campaigns. So are military casualties, bombing sorties, the movements of armored units, artillery clashes, efforts to suppress enemy air defenses, operations designed to interrupt the other side’s lines of communication, and battle damage assessments offered by military intelligence. During a war, journalists try to cover all of these things, given the vagaries of military access, logistical problems, and the availability of reliable sources. Covering civilian casualties usually carries the additional challenge of operating at the sufferance of the other side, usually in its own territory. Journalists gain entry when the enemy believes they will be useful to its cause. If officials conclude they are not, they will be restricted, expelled or worse.

Still, good journalism involves acquiring relevant information and putting it into context. How many civilians died in the incident? What was the proximate cause? What is the relationship between the strategy and tactics of the party inflicting the casualties and the incident itself? How about the strategy and tactics of the other party and their role in generating civilian casualties? Apart from physical damage, is there any political impact of the incident in the immediate area or elsewhere? To what propaganda use is the host country putting the incident?

If questions such as these are kept in mind by reporters and editors, the story defines itself, and there should be no need for arbitrary formulas and condescending reminders of why the war is being fought. An errant bomb that kills a score or so civilians might, for example, require only short mention or brief footage. Events that reveal more about each side’s strategy or tactics might demand more time or space to tell the story. Rarely, if ever, should a particular story’s impact on domestic morale influence the report, even were that elusive concept capable of precise measurement.

The United States is, after all, a country committed to democratic values. It thrives on robust debate and the informed consent of the governed. It is a nation that brought low two totalitarian systems during the past century, not by aping their values but by asserting its own. When this nation begins to run on the theory that truth is the enemy, it will have suffered a selfinflicted wound more grievous than any adversary is likely to inflict.

Bob Zelnick is chairman of the Department of Journalism at Boston University and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. For 21 years, he reported for ABC News covering Russia, the Middle East, the Pentagon, and Capitol Hill.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment