The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday January 20th

Journalists Strive For Objectivity During Tragedy

A recent Gallup Poll reports that 86 percent of Americans believe the news media have acted responsibly since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Though called to be loyal, patriotic Americans, reporters sometimes had to pick through disturbing information.

NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS's Dan Rather -- two icons of American journalism -- both have displayed emotional response to the attacks and their aftermath on the air.

As the days wore on, the television screens were covered with patriotic symbols and the media's attention turned toward Afghanistan -- a country with little Western media presence.

Now the media must focus not only on covering one of the biggest tragedies in American history but providing fair coverage from a section of the world often inhospitable to a free press.

Striking a Balance

The media's attempts to maintain an aura of objectivity surfaced soon after the attacks.

ABC News asked its on-air reporters not to wear American flag pins. Some networks asked that suspects in the attacks not simply be referred to as "terrorists" but as "alleged terrorists."

James Carey, a professor of international journalism at Columbia University, said balancing patriotism and journalistic responsibility can be difficult during a crisis. "There is a point where the norms of citizenship end and the lines of professional reporting begin," Carey said.

A recent Gallup Poll reported that 86 percent of the American population believes the news media has acted responsibly in the weeks since the attacks.

Despite strong approval for media organizations' coverage of both the terrorist attacks and the impending conflict, critics have argued that some papers have been insensitive.

The New York Times received criticism for publishing an image on Sept. 12 of a man diving head-first from the burning World Trade Center.

Even as the media have drawn some criticism for lacking sensitivity, an overwhelming red, white and blue theme has appeared throughout television news programs.

Each news network gave the conflict a different catchline -- CNN titled its coverage "America's New War." Many networks changed their logos to include red, white and blue.

But UNC journalism Professor Chuck Stone said networks and the public were mistaken to assume unbiased reporting and loyalty to country could not coexist. "People look at objectivity as not being supportive," Stone said.

Some of the media's patriotic rhetoric can be attributed to the recent backlash against those who criticize President Bush and America in general.

Tom Gutting, a city editor for the Texas City Sun, was fired for his editorial "Bush has failed to lead U.S." which was published on Sept. 22.

In an editorial the next day, City Sun Editor Les Daughtry apologized for running the editorial. "I offer an apology for this newspaper's grave error in judgment in allowing such a disruptive piece ... to make it to print," Daughtry said.

Gutting is just one of several journalists who have been punished.

Bill Maher, host of the popular show "Politically Incorrect," also came under fire. "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away," Maher said on air. "That's cowardly."

Two major advertisers pulled their support of the show, and a Washington, D.C., station removed it from its late-night lineup. Maher apologized the next day.

Covering a Hidden War

In times of conflict, the media, often vigorous in pursuing information, must also be careful not to hinder the war effort.

Phil Meyer, a UNC journalism professor, said that in times of war journalists often have to balance comprehensive reporting with the possibility that such reporting could harm America's military efforts. "Most reporters have followed some form of voluntary censorship because no one wants to jeopardize the military or country," Meyer said.

USA Today received both praise and criticism for being the first news organization to report on covert operations in Afghanistan. The paper reported in late September that U.S. Special Forces had been stationed in Afghanistan for two weeks, and critics said this information jeopardized the U.S. military position.

Reporter presence in the Middle East also increased after the terrorist attacks. Networks aired footage of reporters close to Kabul during the military strikes. They also have broadcasted scenes from al-Jazeera, an Afghanistan television station.

But Stone said networks should use caution before airing segments from al-Jazeera. "We should balance them off with other reports," he said. "Their reports should be verified against The Associated Press or The New York Times."

But finding out the truth is sometimes made difficult by the fact that journalists often have trouble accessing information behind enemy lines.

The Taliban government has already arrested four foreign corespondents in Afghanistan. Three are being held on espionage charges.

According to a press release from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mullah Taj Meer, Taliban intelligence chief, said, "Any journalist entering illegally into Afghanistan will be treated like an American soldier."

But the challenges facing journalists in recent weeks are likely to continue.

With war looming on the horizon, censorship, safety, patriotism and professionalism will be major challenges for correspondents worldwide.

Carey said, "Journalists have to pick their way through the mine field."

The State & National Editor can be reached at stntdesk@unc.edu.

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