Information age requires prudence

Published 12:02 pm Wednesday, April 2, 2003

By By BILL CRIST – Publisher
Should the games go on, or not? Should images of captured and/or killed American soldiers be broadcast over the airwaves or published in the printed media? In showing support for this nation's Armed Forces, are we promoting war?
These are questions that the media, and our society, have been asking themselves ever since the military action began in Iraq almost two weeks ago. They are not easy questions to answer, and those that attempt to are often painted with a brush that defines them in black and white terms, rather than the fuzzy grey many of us fall in to. There are professional and personal feelings that come into play, and there are strong arguments for and against each of them.
As the information age has exploded, our access to information has grown in both ease and breadth. Some of that is by its nature very good, but at other times it requires prudence, both on the part of the media and the viewing public.
Most of those involved in sports, either as participants or commentators would argue that by playing, we send a signal that life goes on here. Some would argue that if we want to avoid seeing controversial images, we can simply choose not to pick up the newspaper or we can change the channel. By flying American flags and hanging yellow ribbons we are supporting the individuals involved in our nation's war, if not the effort itself.
However, there are those that offer a different point of view, backing their opinions with equally valid reasons. They say the serious nature of war should pre-empt efforts spent on past-times like sports. They say that we are simply aiding the enemy by showing graphic images from the battlefield and reinforcing anti-war sentiments.
All are valid points of view, and each is driven by our own personal experiences and prejudices. Perhaps the most worrisome aspect, though, is that a very few people can manipulate each point of view. There is no doubt that the news editors and directors at the major newspapers, magazines and broadcast news stations wield a great deal of power not only determining what the public sees, but the underlying message that's delivered with those images. It is a power that carries a considerable responsibility, one that thankfully, we rarely face at smaller community newspapers.
As consumers of news, our growing viewership has led to an increasing number of all-news channels. While some newspapers are experiencing readership declines, the fact that we regularly sell out of newspapers when an important story is covered, is testament to the popularity of print media. Those two facts, coupled with explosive use of the Internet, also reinforce that as a society, we are hungry for information. And we not only want complete information, we demand it instantly. The fact that journalists are "embedded" with combat troops on the drive to Baghdad is testament to that.
The media have an obligation to report the news objectively and responsibly, taking into account the impact that message is going to have on the public. The impact may not always be a popular or pleasant one, but it does need to be considered when making news judgements. At the same time, the public must realize that all stories are not going to end happily. Taking the war out of it, our own front page generally contains what many would consider bad news. It is not news of our making, but it is news that impacts our community, just as coverage of the war in Iraq impacts our community, nation and the world.
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