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Objectivity, access discussed at war reporting forum

As the United States House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution Friday rebuking President George Bush for his planned troop surge, notable journalists, scholars and a representative from the Defense Department met at USF St. Petersburg to discuss how the war is perceived and presented by the media.

The two-day War and Journalists Conference (WJC) featured discussion on a wide array of problems facing journalists who cover war. Conversation ranged from the ability of journalists to obtain true objectivity to the problems faced in a new theater of war and the duties of a journalist to raise the collective consciousness of their societies.

The nine-person panel included Martin Bell of the British Broadcasting Company, Cory Flintoff of National Public Radio, University of Maryland professor Judith Lichtenberg, and Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman.

Through conversation, a general consensus was reached among the panel that journalists, as humans, can never hope to be completely objective. Despite this idea, the panel agreed that objectivity should be maintained as one of the main goals of a journalist.

“Let me dispose of the objectivity myth right now,” said the BBC’s Bell. “There cannot be such a thing – all journalists are human beings, what you report comes through the filter of your senses and your memory and your experiences.”

As an experienced foreign correspondent who has covered 11 wars, Bell suggested that as technology advanced, journalism has not necessarily advanced with it.

“Film was more honest than video tape,” Bell said. “The difference from a practitioner’s point of view is that film cannot be copied in the field and video tape can. When we were in Vietnam, what you had was your own stuff and nobody else’s. You couldn’t go soliciting exciting shots from other agencies and networks. Video tape, on the other hand, can be copied easily, and I think this has given rise to what I would call a rise of inauthenticity in foreign news reporting.”

Serving in his first war as an embedded reporter, Corey Flintoff – who has 15 years of experience as newscaster for NPR – brought a different view of war journalism to the dialogue. He spoke of the troubles facing journalists in the current war in Iraq.

“What we are talking about is really a wrenching dilemma for reporters,” Flintoff said.

According to Flintoff, this war is different from others, as journalists have become a specific target for the insurgency in Iraq. This leads to three major means of collecting information in Baghdad.

“What it amounts to is the security situation in Iraq is now so bad that civilians of any kind – particularly reporters – can’t get around in the way that Martin (Bell) or Barbara (Crossette) are used to doing,” said Flintoff. “The only ways we can get around are things that inevitably distort our perception. One is that we report under the aegis of the American Military. Another is that we use second-hand material that is gathered for us by Iraqi surrogates; and the third is that we bring people into our own safe zones in ways that make it very difficult for anyone to be comfortable in doing the interview with us.”

Flintoff also spoke about the narrow view the press is able to attain of the war because of these factors, but reinforced the importance of continued reporting from Iraq.

“I’m frankly embarrassed about the kind of reporting we have to do,” he said. “I think that it’s important that we all maintain bureaus in Baghdad, that we keep following the story as well as we can, that we keep challenging the military and keep challenging the Iraqi government, keep challenging the politicians from these various factions and keep telling them what we can see.”

Following Flintoff, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Whitman fortified the Defense Department’s positions on reporting in Iraq.

Whitman addressed a crowd that he viewed as potentially hostile to his position, citing the many times they cheered for critical statements concerning the current administration.

In his presentation, Whitman outlined the way in which the Defense Department views the media.

“When the military looks at (the media), what they primarily see, what I observe that they see is, they see a means to get information to the American public about what their military forces are doing,” Whitman said.

He also agreed with the Defense Department’s choices to withhold certain information from reporters as a means of protecting the soldiers in the field.Bell – who was wounded by shrapnel as an embedded reporter – summed up his opinion of the war in the final formal question-and-answer session of the conference.

“Sooner or later we are going to understand that war doesn’t work and all this expenditure of blood and treasure is for nothing,” he said.