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Study: Media Self-Censored on Iraq

A new American University study anonymously surveyed Iraq War correspondents and confirms what many suspected about widespread self-censorship.
 
 
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Many media outlets self-censored their reporting on the Iraq invasion because of concerns about public reaction to graphic images and content, according to a survey of more than 200 journalists by American University's School of Communications.

The study, released Friday, also determined that "vigorous discussions" about what and where to publish information and images were conducted at media outlets and, in many cases, journalists posted material online that did not make it to print.

One of the most significant findings was "the amount of editing that went into content after it was gathered but before it was published," the study stated. Of those who reported from Iraq, 15 percent said that on one or more occasions their organizations edited material for publication and they did not believe the final version accurately represented the story.

Of those involved in war coverage who were in newsrooms and not in Iraq, 20 percent said material was edited for reasons other than basic style and length.

Some 42 percent of those polled said they were discouraged from showing photographic images of dead Americans, while 17 percent said they were prohibited. Journalists were also discouraged from showing pictures of hostages, according to 36 percent of respondents, while only 3 percent reported being prohibited from showing them.

American University professors M.J. Bear and Jane Hall conducted the survey of 210 journalists from the United States and other countries, who completed the anonymous, online questionnaire in September and October 2004.

The study surveyed reporters, photographers, producers, and managers involved in their organization's coverage of Iraq. News personnel were e-mailed a link to the online survey; only those who completed all questions were counted in the results.

Some 35 percent of respondents, 73 people, reported being in Iraq or in a surrounding country during the war and its aftermath. About half that group said they were embedded with the U.S. military during all or part of their coverage.

Nearly one-third of news outlets used their Web sites to disseminate materials that were not first published or broadcast elsewhere by the organization, the survey said. In most cases, the Web sites were used not to run material censored from print but to take advantage of the virtually limitless space the Net offers for photographic essays, extended interviews, and behind-the-scenes reporter accounts.

Although the questions covered events from the beginning of the war through September 2004 – the first 15 months of the occupation – it focused primarily on decision-making during major events such as the release of the Abu Ghraib prison photographs and the images showing the deaths of four American contractors in Fallujah.

Respondents said several incidents sparked newsroom debates concerning the impact of publishing graphic photographs or detailed information about death and torture. In most instances, news managers self-censored coverage by choosing to run less-graphic images or putting details inside the paper and not on front pages.

The survey also included dozens of comments from respondents, offering specific incidents of censorship or lengthy discussions about coverage.

"As with any death, we tried to make sure the pictures were as 'tasteful' as possible – not much blood or gore," one anonymous respondent wrote. "We ran a front page picture of the four dead contractors in Fallujah, for instance, but from a greater distance than some newspapers, so the bodies were not immediately distinct as corpses. Even so, we drew a large amount of criticism from readers."

Wrote another: "We published a press release issued by the kidnappers of American Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia, which included images of his beheading. It was hotly debated in the newsroom and resulted in dozens of e-mails, letters and phone calls from readers around the country; surprisingly, all but a handful approved of our use of the images, we published an editor's note on Page 1 warning readers of the images on an inside page. The photos were run in black-and-white, far smaller than actual size."

"Our duty is to report as vividly and accurately as we can what is happening in Iraq. But we have to make difficult judgments about some of the shocking raw footage we or agencies film of death, horrific injuries, hostage murders filmed by hostage takers, etc," another journalist wrote back. "We want to show what is happening, but also to avoid causing unnecessary shock and distress to viewers or encouraging further brutality by hostage takers. It is a difficult task."

Of the journalists who were in the region, 86 percent said their ability to publish online did not affect they type of information and material they gathered, but nearly half said they were able to publish content online that wasn't available to print and broadcast audiences. In addition, 29 percent said their internet reports allowed more comprehensive coverage. Only 7 percent said their internet reports allowed them to publish material deemed not appropriate for other media.

The survey found that there were only limited in-house restrictions in the type of interviews conducted. When journalists who were In Iraq were asked if their editors or managers limited interviews, 92 percent said they had no limits at all and only two respondents said they were limited in publishing interviews with Iraqi military personnel, Iraqi insurgents, or other journalists.

Among respondents who were in Iraq, 27 percent said their organization had prior rules in place about what they would or would not publish, and 31 percent of those who were based in newsrooms said their organization had prior rules. Coverage sensitivity focused more on the type of images published.

Among those who did not have such rules in place, 39 percent reported being unable to show images of dead Americans at some point, while 22 percent said they were not allowed to show images of hostages at times.

"There is an unspoken rule against publishing images that would be extremely horrifying such as a bloody stump on an amputee or a mangled corpse," one respondent wrote. Added another: "Several photos, especially one of a very young, naked, dead boy, stirred controversy before we decided to post them."

One journalist said a report with pictures from Saddam Hussein's secret archive, showing beating and torture, was edited, "on the grounds that the pictures were 'sickening' – my answer was that, Yes they were, but all the more important to show as much as possible."

Other anonymous comments from those who took part in the survey:

"We went in with no ground rules except those of the military, which prohibited photos that would show the faces of captives, and also which discouraged photos that would ID wounded or dead U.S. troops. That said, I think we knew that HIGHLY explicit photos of gore were not likely to get published. The editors were eager for powerful photos though, and went further than many U.S. media outlets in that regard."

"Our rules are against anything which might offend our audience, i.e. we are in the realm of taste and decency, which is difficult to quantify. ... on the one hand, I don't want, say, my kids to turn on the TV after tea and see some of the things I have seen in the field. But on the other hand, the effect of this is to sanitize the coverage, and glamorize the conflict."

"An American soldier who was injured during combat in 2003 was photographed alive, but before he died. After the soldier died, the paper ran the picture of him in his still-injured state. It caused a stir."

"We delayed or didn't even publish lots of information on which we had contradictory or incomplete reports."

Joe Strupp ( jstrupp@editorandpublisher.com) is a senior editor at E&P .