Covering the Iraq War: A Homefront Hypothetical

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?” —Doug McGillCovering the Iraq War: A Homefront Hypothetical (Local Man)

As adviser to The Setonian, I’m helping to develop a core of student-reporters who have the basics down, but who aren’t always aware when they have the choice to take an angle that moves a story beyond the routine. There are only so many stories on parking, cafeteria food, and crowded dorms that we can cover, yet the mission of the student paper requires those student issues to be given attention. While our deadlines are never as rigid as the one described in the story, our student-reporters do sometimes feel the pressure to get the article done in order to get it over with. We don’t yet have a culture in which a student will drop a less-important story in order to pursue breaking news that suddenly becomes more important.

I notice that elsewhere on his site, McGill questions Wikipedia’s “Neutral Point of View,” and the teaching scenario described above is clearly intended to discourage covering local soldier deaths as patriotic events, and to encourage the examination of anti-war sentiment.

I can understand the value of reminding journalists to seek out alternative points of view, but in addition to this soldier scenario, I can imagine a similar story about an eco-activist who chained herself to a tree and was killed in the line of duty; key family members gushing their support of her actions, while one marginalized member suggests the family isn’t united.

I tried to get this idea across in a final exam question featuring a conflict between cat owners and dog owners. Some students spent their time correcting the punctuation and grammar of a mock story, while others correctly pointed out that the bias in the story was a far bigger issue. That mock story was, based on a story that actually appeared in the Cavalier Daily, one of two competing student papers at the University of Virginia when I was an undergrad there. The Cavalier Daily reported that there were two protests, one pro-choice and one pro-life, at opposite sides of the downtown mall on the same day. If I recall correctly, the student’s article contained three direct quotations and one paraphrase from pro-choice demonstrators, and represented the “anti-abortion” protestors by describing the signs they waved and the slogans they chanted. Yet the lead said that there were equal numbers of protestors at both events. Can you guess where the reporter’s sympathies lie?

I’m planning to add a unit on editorial writing, so that students will have one outlet for expressing their political opinions, if they wish.

I usually tell my freshman comp students to stay away from emotional topics such as abortion or gay marriage, because students who choose such topics invariably end up quoting slogans rather than making academic arguments. In the context of an editorial, however, I can be more flexible.

I’m toying with the idea of putting students with wildly divergent political opinions on teams in which they have to co-author an editorial. People on opposite sides of the abortion issue might both agree to praise a particular government program or local charity, or they might both agree to criticize violence against clinics or the restriction of free speech in areas near clinics.

In looking back at those final “Practice of Journalism” exams, I’m surprised at the number of students who, when asked to define “objectivity,” thought of something like “goal orientedness,” obviously thinking of “objective” as “a goal to achieve,” because they encounter “objectives” in the materials they use in starting their University Portfolio.