Journalists Under Fire
Materials Needed: research materials, including newspaper and magazine articles; public television documentaries or other news broadcasts about the war in Iraq.
The purpose of this activity is to learn about how public opinion has been affected, in part, by news coverage of U.S. conflicts, from the war in Vietnam to the present, and the ways that that coverage has been shaped by relationships between the news media and the military.
Ask your students what they know about the news media's coverage of conflicts that the U.S. has been involved in. For example, what have they heard about the media's coverage of the war in Vietnam? What do they know about the U.S. media's coverage of other conflicts, such as the war in Grenada, the Gulf War, and military actions in Somalia and Kosovo? What have they heard about the limits on the media's access to the military in Afghanistan and Iraq?
- Ask students to discuss (or write) why media coverage of conflict is important in a democracy.
- Have the students form small groups to research the ways that the military and government officials provided information to and generally informed the news media about the war in Vietnam, conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua, the war in Grenada, the Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and the war in Iraq. To what extent were military successes exaggerated or failures minimized? How did the media's coverage of these wars influence public opinion?
- After students complete their research, have them discuss their findings.
The purpose of this activity is for students to examine the factors that have influenced the media's coverage of the war in Iraq. While viewing a documentary program or news broadcast about the war, have them note what the journalists say about the limits of their access to information both in Pentagon briefings and in Iraq. You may want them to think about the following questions and then discuss them after watching the video segment:
- How do the journalists describe their relationship to the military and the government?
- How do the journalists perceive their treatment by military and government officials?
- When do you think the journalists have legitimate complaints about the Pentagon's control over information? Are there times when you feel that their arguments are invalid?
- What are a few reasons the military may not want to provide information to the news media? When might it be important for the public to see and hear what the military and the administration would like to keep secret?
- How might journalists' own feelings about the terrorist attacks on 9/11 affect their coverage of the war on terrorism?
The purpose of this activity is to debate the freedom of the press during wartime.
Form the class into two groups. The first group will take the role of the news media; the second will represent military and government officials. Have the group that represents the news media research and list arguments in favor of freedom to report as much news about the war as is reasonable. Have the group that represents the military and government officials research and list justifications for keeping information secret. Then hold a debate on the following statement between the groups:
A free press needs to be able to tell the public as much as possible about military operations during wartime in order to ensure that American interests are being well served.
After the debate, ask the class whose arguments seemed the most persuasive. What are the potential dangers for the United States when the press is not told the truth about the overall success or failure of military operations? What are some of the reasons the military would want to control access to the front lines of a conflict?
You may also ask the teams to consider the following hypothetical scenario: American special forces have been sent on a mission to gain information about the whereabouts of Al Qaeda leaders. During the mission, American soldiers are killed because of misinformation that may have been deliberately provided by Northern Alliance forces. What kinds of questions should the press ask military and government officials?
How might military and government officials manage and anticipate questions from the press?
Have the students form groups to find newspaper or magazine articles covering U.S. military actions in the war in Iraq from March 2003 to the present. Have them describe the kind of information that is in the articles and the types of information that may have been left out because of the military's control of access to information. What are some noticeable effects of the government's management of news about the war? Has the tone of the articles changed over the months? If so, how has it changed?
Downie Jr., Leonard and Robert G. Kaiser. The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril. New York: Knopf, 2002.
MacArthur, John R. Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War. New York: Hill & Wang, 1992.