American newspapers and television tend to sanitize the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. At points, their coverage distorts the grim reality of the war, misleading the public about the effectiveness of "smart" bombs and lack of civilian casualties and injuries.
A review of yesterday's newspaper and TV news Web sites (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Baltimore Sun, Houston Chronicle, Jackson's Clarion Ledger, Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, Washington Post, CNN.com, FoxNews.com and CBSNews.com) suggests that while articles provide a deeper picture of the war, pictures themselves tell a different story.
The Web sites of newspapers and TV channels carried clean pictures of tanks, fighter planes and aircraft carriers. They showed U.S. soldiers in combat, with family members and being kind to Iraqi civilians. Some had photographs with smoke bellowing out of a building and fleeing civilians. A few provided graphic pictures of war.
The Post's "Day in Photos" offered a balanced perspective, providing evidence of Iraqi and American suffering. The Sun's "Day in Pictures" showed no images of war dead. The Clarion-Ledger's "War in Iraq" contained mostly pictures of U.S. troops. The Chronicle's "Photo Gallery" had pictures of Texas soldiers. The Times had four different slideshow options on its front page; one included a photograph of an Iraqi man crying over his dead children.
FoxNews.com's "Photo Essay" offered only positive pictures of American soldiers. CBSNews.com's "Photo Diary" contained a number of pictures by date, including a picture of Iraqi children in a car trunk and Iraqi prisoners.
Another measure of coverage is information about civilian casualties, which was difficult and in some cases impossible to find.
The Chronicle was an exception. It had a front-page, top-well link to a page that included U.S., United Kingdom and Iraqi troop causalities, as well as civilian deaths.
Other newspaper and TV Web sites provided no easily obtainable information about Iraqi civilian deaths. An inside page of the Journal-Constitution's Web site included U.S. troop deaths, missing and prisoners of war. The paper ignored Iraqi civilian casualties. FoxNews.com and CBSNews.com had sections titled "Fallen Heroes," but no readily apparent information about civilian deaths.
American and Arab newspaper Web sites differed sharply at these points.
Arab News, an English-language Saudi Arabian newspaper, carried articles on the civilian dead, as well as a disturbing pictorial directory of war that included images of dead and injured children. It had pictures of children in caskets, a mother and child sharing a casket and dead American soldiers.
The Jordan Times had a front-page picture of a grieving father with his three, small children sharing the same casket. The Jordanian newspaper had several articles about the civilian death toll.
PalestineChronicle.com had articles on civilian deaths and gruesome photographs from Al-Jazeera TV.
However, no media source surpasses the graphic intensity of the pictures on the Web site of Al-Jazeera TV. While the Web site is an Arabic-language site, a few random clicks led to some pictures of civilian deaths simply too horrible to describe.
Newsweek magazine reports this week, "Even as the U.S. military strives to avoid Iraqi civilian casualties, it finds itself depicted as a bunch of baby killers in the only air war most of the world sees—the one that appears on television."
The magazine credits Al-Jazeera TV with this perception.
"At its best, Al-Jazeera treats the United States roughly the way Fox News Channel treats antiwar protestors—with a half-hearted effort at balance, followed by withering commentary," said Newsweek.
If American newspapers and TV channels carried more pictures of civilian deaths and information about civilian body counts, we might tilt toward a balanced view of the destructiveness of this war. The fourth estate is simply disserving the public and the national interest.
Similarly, Arab press pictures lack balance, conveying the impression that U.S. forces lack any sense of discrimination between combatants and civilians.
For American Christians, we must see the American press with a certain objectivity. We are not getting the whole story, especially about civilians. The sanitized version of combat tempts us toward a moral self-righteousness about the goodness of war.
Robert Parham is BCE's executive director.