If I see one more interview with an Iraq war widow that takes the "He was a hero" angle only, I'm gonna scream.
All these stories are merging into one giant cliche -- "He loved the Army," "He loved what he was doing," "He was proud to be serving our country," "He knew the risks," etc.
The news media is once again missing a huge part of the story -- namely that mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, and friends of soldiers killed in Iraq have more complicated reactions than the ones they provide to reporters who show up on a deadline to grab a few quotes and soundbites for a story.
In my journalism class today I tried a hypothetical that opens to many ethical and practical dimensions of journalism at the homefront in a time of war.
Parenthetically, I prefaced the hypothetical in class by asking how many students had at least one relative, friend, or acquaintance who was presently in Iraq, and more than half the class of 40 raised their hands.
The hypothetical goes like this:
You are a newspaper reporter assigned to interview the family of a young man killed in Iraq.
When you get to the house you are greeted at the door by the soldier's father. The soldier had been a fireman in civilian life, as is the father, a broad-shouldered and proud man who comes across in person as a very open, sincere, and intelligent guy. In the living room, where the interview is conducted, he has brought out childhood and recent photgraphs of his son -- playing Little League, fishing, high school graduation day, his first day at boot camp, and recent shots of him in Baghdad horsing around with fellow soldiers.
It is 3 p.m. The practical considerations are that you have the story exclusively for now, and if you get it into the next day's paper you will score a scoop. After that, the Army will release a statement and every other newspaper will have the story. To make tomorrow's paper, you need to file the story by the daily deadline of 6 p.m., and not a second later.
You calculate 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 the interview even a minute later than 4 p.m., you lose the scoop.
Between 4 and 4:45 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 all express this theme.
In particular the father relates: A) How his son was searching for a purpose in life and found it in the Army; B) How Army service instilled in his son the idea of importance of duty to nation; C) How when he had enlisted he, the father, had expressed some doubt but the son had cut him off: "Dad, it's what I want to do;" D) How his son was proud to be helping the Iraqi people establish democracy; E) How only a week ago his son had called him from Baghdad to say he had been assigned to a new mission to train Iraqi citizens to be soldiers, and how motivated he was by the mission; and F) that he and his son had had a heart-to-heart talk on the telephone and how the son had assured him that "he had no regrets" about signing up for Army service.
At 4:45 p.m., you, the reporter, 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 it up and get back to write it on a tight deadline."
However, at that very moment, the son's mother makes her first appearance in 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 speaks, but you notice she grimaces and shakes her head slightly when he speaks.
At this point I ask the students: "As a reporter, what do you do?"
They all understand the dilemma, but I summarize 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 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."
When I asked students for their ideas, I got some great suggestions:
1) Tell the wife you need to get back to the office because you are on deadline to tell the story as her husband has told it, but you would like to come back the next day to write a second story based on her thoughts and reactions to her son's death;
2) Tell the wife 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;
3) 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 wife with only a few minutes to talk, you will inevitably get a limited view from her and thus will inevitably misrepresent her in print, so it's best not to even get started on that path;
4) Decide it's important to get the full story even at risk of losing a scoop, so you open a full conversation with the wife. You may lose the exclusive, but on the other hand, if you are lucky and the competition is slow, the story you get will be twice as good as it would be if you interviewed only the father. Also, your story in this case would represent more accurately and fully the impact of the son's death on his family.
In addition to, I hope, giving students a sense of the kind of day-to-day practical and ethical decisions journalists make, the hypothetical gave us a chance to consider the following basic questions in class dicussion:
A. Of every, say, 25 stories the news media is running these days based on interviews with surviving family members of soldiers killed in Iraq, what percentage of these stories tell the same type of story the father told in his interview -- i.e., a redemptive story that honors the fallen soldier and stresses the worthiness of his sacrifice? In my class, everyone said that virtually all stories take this tack, and that they had not seen any interview with a surviving family member who told the mother's likely story of doubt, grief, and anger.
B. Did the students think it was important for citizens to hear the mother's story? And if so, why? What is society losing if they do not have a chance to hear the mother's story as well as the father's story?
C. What is it, structurally, about the news media that prevents it from telling the mother's story more often?
D. How could the media change so that it get's the mother's story more often and thus, by the agreement of all in the class, presents a fuller and more realistic picture of the impact that the Iraq war is having at home?
There are many other questions and issues one could raise, but this gives the flavor.