Volume 96, Issue 91
Friday, March 21, 2003

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Dissecting war coverage

By Dan Perry
Gazette Staff

The American-led war on Iraq is at the centre of a media maelstrom, but how should we ingest the overwhelming amount of information?

The Gazette sought some of Western's own expert opinions on what to expect in the war's coverage.

"Propaganda," said Huron University College political science professor Paul Nesbitt-Larking. "It's wartime, and everyone has a vested interest, especially the combatant sides. Propaganda doesn't mean lies, necessarily, but [a distorted] presentation of truth."

"Initially, we're not going to hear a lot," said Tim Blackmore, a media, information and technoculture professor. "[This is] the time when the state department and the [United States] military will get out the story they want."

Jonathan Vance, a history professor and specialist in military history, agreed. "The most important thing to keep in mind is that we're not going to see anything the U.S. military doesn't want us to see – anything that comes out will be tightly controlled," he commented.

Political science professor Donald Abelson was also concerned with controlled coverage. "I think we should [ask] whether journalists, American and international, will be required to participate in press pools; will there be independents, or will they have to follow the lead of an American military officer, as [they did during the Gulf War]?" he asked.

"I think we're also going to see a lot of what we saw in 1991 – carefully scripted news conferences, gun cameras and smart bomb videos. The Americans are keen to demonstrate the sophistication of military technology," Vance said.

Abelson questioned a different aspect of technology. "The U.S. military's command centre is already set up, and they paid $250,000 for a Hollywood set designer to do the backdrop for the room where the press conferences will be held," he said.

Confronted with this kind of reporting, what can observers do?

"Limit intake to a few sources, where you might choose one official source and one government-friendly source. When you've seen 10 minutes, switch off, then check your alternate news sources. The survey of the whole should take no more than 30 minutes," Blackmore advised. "What we need to worry about is overload."

"Keep flipping channels – CNN's going to say they have the most up-to-the-minute coverage, but also check out other media outlets," Vance said.

"What we know about war reportage [is that] when there isn't enough news, we will accept rumours, even if we may know they're false," Blackmore said.

"Be expecting to be occasionally confronted with lies – it does happen," Nesbitt-Larking said. He advised looking to "anything you can get ahold of," and quoted American media scholar Lance Bennet's list of what should alert viewers to problematic coverage.

"Fragmentation, emotionalism, over-dramatization, personalization and preoccupation with order and authority at the expense of issues are the first five. The most important one, the sixth, is to be on the lookout for 'stray facts.' They will alert you to what is the real agenda of the story," he said.


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