Friday, November 12, 2004

War reporting. Can we trust Iraqi reporters

While most of the news about the battle for Fallujah is coming from journalists embedded with U.S. forces, newspapers and TV networks are also getting some stories and photographs from Iraqi correspondents. That gives American newspaper readers and TV viewers a fuller picture than they had during March and early April 2003, when U.S. forces invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. Almost all the Western reporters in Iraq traveled with U.S. forces, depended on those troops for protection and saw the war almost exclusively from one side of the battle lines. Also, there were almost no Iraqi correspondents providing information to the Western media about what was happening.American newspapers and TV networks have established small networks of Iraqi correspondents and in some cases are able to push the envelope a little more.

The Post published a front-page story by Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad. Headlined “In Hideout, Foreign Arabs Share Vision of ‘Martyrdom,' ” it painted a picture of what life was like for a dozen insurgents who were preparing to be attacked by U.S. forces. “We are not vicious, bloodthirsty people, but we will kill anyone who cooperates with Americans,” declared Abu Yassir, one of the men, according to Abdul-Ahad. USA TODAY and other newspapers across the country published a photograph of Iraqi fighters that was taken as they battled U.S. forces in Fallujah. It was taken by Bilal Hussein, an Iraqi freelance photographer hired by the Associated Press. He is among about half a dozen Iraqi photographers the AP has used.

“It takes ingenuity to properly cover a war,” says Roy Clark, vice president of the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists. “It can take hiring the locals. … Part of the job of the media is faithful storytelling even when we shine a light on things American forces shouldn't have done.” American media have turned to Iraqi correspondents for a broader picture of what's happening in Fallujah, but also for a very practical reason: Because of the roadside bombings and kidnappings, it's too dangerous for American reporters to travel much in Iraq. Ironically, some media executives say, the 70 or so reporters with U.S. forces in Fallujah may not be in much more danger than those in Baghdad. “In some respects, being embedded (with the U.S. military in Fallujah) may even be a bit safer” than trying to report elsewhere in Iraq, says Paul Slavin, senior vice president at ABC News. ABC reporter Nick Watt is embedded with U.S. Marines in Fallujah. The Marines he was with came under fire.

The Western media received an offer of protection from a group called the Fallujah Mujahedin Shura, on behalf of the insurgents, to any media wishing to send reporters to Fallujah. The invitation came three days after it was reported that journalists from four Arab-language TV networks had been ejected from Fallujah by insurgents for refusing to broadcast video of civilian casualties. There's no evidence any American or Western media took up the offer.

“The American military's orders are to kill or capture the insurgents. That's not a great place for us to be,” says David Verdi, executive director of news at NBC News. The network's Kevin Sites is embedded with U.S. Marines in Fallujah.“There's a good chance any reporter who did that would end up dead. It's not a good idea,” says Martin Baron, editor of The Boston Globe. That newspaper has one reporter, Anne Barnard, embedded with U.S. forces in Fallujah.

Wednesday, Barnard wrote about an incident Tuesday when the troops she was with were fired at by Iraqi soldiers who were supposed to be American allies. It could have been a case of mistaken identity, but Barnard reported that one of the U.S. soldiers thought the Iraqis acted deliberately. All five major U.S. TV news networks — ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC — are sharing information about the threats their correspondents face in Iraq. They hold a weekly conference call that includes the security firms they've hired to help protect their crews in the country and bureau chiefs such as CNN's Jane Arraf, who is with U.S. Army forces in Fallujah.

“It's the one time we set aside our microphones and stop competing,” says John Stack, a vice president at Fox. Fox's Greg Palkot is with U.S. forces in Fallujah.Reporters' safety is a constant worry. “I don't want anyone to feel as if they're pressured by us back here to do things they shouldn't,” says Marcy McGinnis, senior vice president of news coverage at CBS. The network's Elizabeth Palmer is with U.S. Marines in Fallujah.

That feeling extends to the Iraqi translators, drivers, photographers and off-camera reporters working for CBS, McGinnis says.American media take another risk when employing Iraqi journalists. They must be confident the Iraqis are unbiased and are truthfully reporting what they've seen and heard. The credibility of a newspaper or network is at stake.The Post, Hoffman says, studied Abdul-Ahad's earlier reports for London's The Guardian. Philip Bennett, who will step up Jan. 1 to be the Post's managing editor from his current position of assistant managing editor for foreign news, met with Abdul-Ahad in England this fall. Abdul-Ahad is best known in Iraq as a photographer, but “he struck Phil as someone who's a really talented journalist,” Hoffman says.

USA TODAY has been rotating reporters in and out of Iraq. The next staff writer is due there this week. The newspaper also draws on reporting from an Iraqi correspondent, The Christian Science Monitor (which has a reporter embedded with U.S. forces in Fallujah), wire services and publications owned by Gannett, USA TODAY's parent company. Those include the Army Times and Marine Times.

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