How journalism turns its back on grief

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Journalistic narratives that treat the impact of the Iraq War on American families and society often find their central theme in such remarks as “He was proud to serve his country,” “He loved the Army” and “He’d certainly do it again.”

One sympathizes with grieving survivors, of course, and can fully understand the need for comforting ritual at such times. But as a journalist, narrative stories based on such rally-round-the-campfire platitudes offend me. Not only because they a) follow a cookie-cutter narrative model of “suffering and redemption,” and b) decline to engage the relevant critique of our government’s rhetorical justifications for war. But also because c) they fail to illuminate the individual reality of grieving mothers, fathers, wives, children. “He was proud to serve his country” is stiff-upper-lip and formal — a ritualized observance more than a human feeling expressed.

Who believes that, in her most private moments, a widow or mother of a fallen soldier finds true solace in such remarks?

The promise of narrative journalism is precisely to penetrate beyond formal speech and the rituals of social life, in order to reveal the usually hidden, unidealized “felt life” of individual people. It is completely understandable that under the pressures of daily journalism, or any kind of journalism covering war, reporters using narrative forms will not always reach the full potential of the genre. Partial kudos for partial attainment is, in this sense, justified. Yet when the narrative form is routinely abused, a degradation of this useful genre tears away at reader trust. It is part of journalism’s larger — and today very considerable — credibility crisis with citizens.

Fake Newsmen
Among journalistic story forms, narrative journalism offers a perspective that is uniquely humane and, more to the point, in great need when so many global social structures — of commerce, finance, politics, industry, bureaucracy and war — efface the dignity of individual human life. Within the journalism profession, narrative storytelling is a way to ensure that the individual, humble, urgent human voice is honored and maintained in society. To routinely publish “narrative” pieces that merely recycle society’s phrase book bromides thus degrades the potency of the narrative genre. It seems little different from late night infomercials where fake newsmen sit behind a TV anchor’s desk to announce “breakthroughs” in erectile dysfunction drugs and skin-smoothing creams.

Yet if the potential of the narrative genre is unique, its erosion in the contemporary newsroom is not. News organizations have a large selection of story forms at their disposal. All are being degraded today because of mainstream journalism’s overall decline. So the crisis of narrative journalistic storytelling, as seen in cliched “he loved the army” stories, is similar to crises in other newsroom genres.

Myriad Threats
Investigative journalism failed to reveal the truth about the absence of WMDs in Iraq. Daily news reports routinely fail to check the veracity of claims made by politicians speaking in their campaigning and legislative roles. Both straight news stories and analytical articles are widely mistrusted by readers for supposed, and at times real, distortion due to ideological and other biases.

Only a few years ago, journalism gave the American public its essential mental picture of the world. Today, it’s lost that role to a handful of entertainment conglomerates. Network TV news departments are now buried inside these giants, while newspapers battle myriad threats ranging from the Internet cannibalizing classified ads, to shareholders demanding higher profit margins, to vastly declining numbers of young readers.

The essential crisis in journalism is thus a conflict between front-office commercial demands on the one hand, and the profession’s revered code of “objectivity” on the other. The latter is clearly losing. Network TV news has gone the infotainment route, while newspapers downsize and slash newsgathering and investigative budgets to meet profit goals.

The Balance Trap
The inevitable result is continued loss of public trust. The percentage of people who said they can believe most of what they read in their daily newspaper dropped to 54% in 2004 from 84% in 1985, according to the Pew Research Center for People and the Press.

“Balance and objectivity, without a strong commitment to the truth, can turn journalism into farce,” wrote the distinguished war reporter Chris Hedges. He was summarizing his experience covering more than a dozen wars, such as the one in Kosovo, where he and other journalists filed eyewitness reports of massacres of men and women by Bosnian Serbs, only to be hounded by editors back home to balance these accounts with Serbian denials.

And without those “balancing” quotes, the stories sometimes didn’t run. Who might those editors have been fearful of upsetting, had they published the story of a massacre without a denial by the perpetrators?

This question applies not only to coverage of wars abroad, but also to coverage of the domestic effect of war waged overseas, such as the impacts of the war in Iraq on American families, communities and society.

Tragic Miscalculation
Who are editors and reporters at mainstream newspapers and TV stations fearful of upsetting should they report — in full and gritty detail — not just “he was proud to serve and die for his country” but also details of familial suffering, doubts about the war’s legitimacy and a family’s experience of the war as also a cultural war inside America, one that touches them directly? This cultural war is splitting families, communities, economies and our whole society. Do journalists who are embedded in our communities throughout the country, where the dead soldiers lived, typically tell this story?

Editors and reporters may suppose that uplifting stories of sacrifice on the battlefield “balance” the depressing and horrible facts of the war, or that their communities need tales of valor and happy endings as a counterweight to the endlessly lengthening roll calls of the dead and wounded. That’s a tragic editorial miscalculation. The first thing J-school tells students, and it’s true, is that a journalist’s loyalty is not to sources, power, city, state or nation. It’s to the facts. Truth.

What the government does has long been a definition of news. But in recent years that notion, like a commitment to “balance” that’s blind to the truth, has been stretched to the point of farce.

Unofficial = Unpublishable
For example, leading television networks and newspapers today put a correspondent in the White House, another one in Congress, and feel their job covering the U.S. government is done. One person is all a news organization needs, the thinking goes, to attend press conferences, pick up press releases and buttonhole aides for “background” stories. No doubt, one person following the president and one following Congress fulfills a news organization’s front-office needs for low-cost, high-impact coverage. But does this formula serve the information needs of a democracy?

An insidious corollary to “what the government does is news,” taken to extremes, is that any news, event or person is not actual until they have been so announced by a certified public body. This applies equally to foreign as to domestic news. If a massacre or genocide abroad doesn’t incur formal acknowledgement by the very officials who committed the crimes, newspaper editors may treat the story as “unverified” and often, therefore, as unpublishable. Readers miss much of what happens “unofficially” although such events are real and often devastating and revealing.

A case in point: I returned to Minnesota from an African reporting trip in April 2004. I’d interviewed several dozen members of the Anuak tribe of western Ethiopia. They gave virtually identical eyewitness accounts of a slaughter of some 425 Anuak men and boys by the Ethiopian army, in the town of Gambella in western Ethiopia on December 13, 2003. Yet even after I gave three versions of painstakingly reported and sourced articles on this crime to my editors at the states largest newspaper, they asked me, “If this is true, how come the United Nations has not reported it? How come Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International has not reported it?” One kept asking, “How come this hasn’t been reported in the Ethiopian press?”

Comic Oracle
That last absurd question aside, I explained to these editors that the United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are all huge bureaucracies that often take years to respond to crises. That didn’t change their notion that a massacre not “officially” announced hasn’t happened. The paper killed the story; I published the news on my blog, where it was confirmed a month later by two small nongovernment organizations that sent teams to Ethiopia, and 15 months later by Human Rights Watch.

Yet if the press is increasingly wary of moving decisively, such as announcing major news without authorization from a government body, it is not outright government manipulation of the press that usually is to blame. Rather, a new kind of self-censorship involving a complicit duet of press and power — each ritually griping about the relationship but working hand-in-glove — is at work today. There is very little mystery to the process any more.

Here’s how Stephen Colbert, the ironic comic oracle of “The Colbert Report,” explained the game in his keynote speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 29th (with President Bush and his wife sitting nearby):

“But, listen, let’s review the rules. Here’s how it works: the president makes decisions. He’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Just put ’em through a spell check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know — fiction!”

The disease has been diagnosed and treatment prescribed, but the patient is still dying — journalists rarely speak out against their profession’s failings.

A Case Study
Let’s consider a hypothetical I described recently to my students at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. (A majority know someone fighting in Iraq.) In it a reporter assigned to write a deadline narrative must weigh the chance to land a scoop against the chance (less likely but possible) to report a longer narrative that would be richer in truth:

You are assigned to interview the family of a young man killed in Iraq.

When you get to the house you are greeted by the soldier’s father. The soldier had been a fireman in civilian life, as is the father, a broad-shouldered man who comes across as open, sincere and intelligent. In the living room, during the interview, he brings out photographs of his son — playing Little League, fishing, on high school graduation day, on his first day at boot camp. Recent shots show him in Baghdad horsing around with fellow soldiers.

It is 3 p.m. You have the story exclusively for now, and if you get it into the next day’s paper you score a scoop. After that, the Army will release a statement and every other newspaper will share the story. To make tomorrow’s paper, you need to file by 6 p.m. — not a second later.

“Dad, I Want to Go”
You calculate that you need to finish the interview by 4 p.m. to get back to the office, write the story, fact-check it and file it. If you leave even a minute later than 4 p.m., you’ll probably lose the scoop.

Between 3 and 3:45 p.m., the father gives you a great interview. His descriptions of his son are colorful, specific and heartfelt. His overarching theme is the pride he feels for his son, and his stories express this theme.

In particular the father relates (and here I draw specific details from war-at-home narratives I’ve read in Minnesota and national newspapers): 1) his son was searching for a purpose in life and found it in the Army; 2) Army service instilled in his son the idea of importance of duty to nation; 3) when his son had enlisted, the father had expressed some doubt but the son had cut him off: “Dad, it’s what I want to do;” 4) his son was proud to be helping the Iraqi people establish democracy; 5) only a week ago his son had called him from Baghdad and said he’d been assigned to a new mission to train Iraqi citizens to be soldiers, and he felt motivated by the mission; and 6) he and his son had had a heart-to-heart talk on the telephone and the son assured him “he had no regrets” about signing up for Army service.

The Mother’s Story
At 3:45 p.m., you are thinking to yourself: “Wow, I’ve got a great story here. Great color. Great quotes. A solid through-line. It’s time to wrap up and get back to write it.”

However, at that moment, the son’s mother first walks into the living room. She looks terrible, as though she hasn’t slept for weeks. Her face is tear-stained; she’s nervous and distracted. For the last few minutes of the interview, she keeps her eyes fixed on the floor as her husband answers questions, but you notice she grimaces and shakes her head slightly when he speaks.

I asked the students: “As a reporter, what do you do at this point?”

They understood the dilemma, but I summarized it: “You see there is another side of the story, but if you try to get it, interviewing the mother will take at least another hour and you won’t get into the paper the next day. You will probably lose your exclusive, and the entire story may be killed if your editors knows that the competition across town may publish a similar interview with the soldier’s father the next day.”

A Few Minutes
The students had some great suggestions:

Tell the soldier’s mother you need to get back to the office because you’re on deadline to tell the story as the father has told it, but you’d like to come back the next day to write a second story based on her thoughts and reactions to her son’s death;

Tell the mother you are on deadline, but you have ten minutes remaining and want to give her the opportunity to use that time to say whatever she would like about her son’s life and death;

Realize that every story is limited in some way and that this time around, you only had time to interview the father and tell his story. If you engage the mother with only a few minutes to talk, you will inevitably get a limited view from her that will misrepresent her in print, so it’s best not to even get started on that path;

Decide it’s important to get the full story even at risk of losing a scoop, so you open a full conversation with the soldier’s mother. If you’re lucky and the competition is slow, your story will be twice as good. And the story would represent more fully (and therefore more accurately) the impact of the son’s death on his family.

Worthy Sacrifice
Which option would you as a journalist choose?

This hypothetical gave students a sample of the day-to-day ethical decisions journalists make, and led us to consider a few basic questions in class discussion:

Of every, say, 100 stories the news media run these days built from interviews with family members of soldiers killed in Iraq, what percentage tell the redemptive story the father offered in his interview — i.e., a story that honors the fallen soldier and stresses choice and worthiness of his sacrifice?

My class thought that virtually all stories take this tack; they had not seen any interview with a surviving family member who echoed the mother’s doubt, grief and anger. And no one could remember reading in local or state newspapers, or seeing on television, any grieving parent (except Cindy Sheehan), widow or surviving child rail at the President and his advisors for deceptively getting us into the war.

Did the students think it was important for citizens to hear the mother’s story? Why? What is society losing if they do not hear the mother’s story as well as the father’s?

America’s Story
What is it, structurally, about the news media that most often prevents it from telling the mother’s story?

How could the media change so that it gets the mother’s narrative more often and thus, by the assessment of all in the class, presents a fuller and more realistic picture of the impact the Iraq war is having at home?

Would anything change if this hypothetical, especially the last four questions, were discussed in every newsroom in America? That sincere gesture, I propose, is the least we owe to the mother’s story, which is America’s story as well.

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