From The War
By Abe Rosenberg
Serious News Deserves Serious Writing
We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these
words as the backbone of a life spent defending something.
You use them as a punchline.
--A Few Good Men
Toward the end of the war with Iraq, as Coalition forces
pushed into Baghdad, a writer I know began a story about Senator
John Kerry by saying the Senator was under fire
for remarks he made about President Bush.
One night later, at about five minutes to airtime for a local
news show, a live camera with an embedded reporter
on a cable network showed an unexpected explosion. Almost
immediately, the cable reporter came on camera to reassure
everyone that it was nothing, just the army unit discharging
excess ordnance. Local producers still insisted on using the
footage at the top of their show, hustling half a dozen people
in the newsroom to get it done. But it was nothing!
some protested, The reporter himself said so!
Well, its a good picture, came the reply.
48 hours after that, a terrorist bomb went off in Beirut,
Lebanon at a fast food restaurant. Several people were hurt,
including some small children. One writer called it a Big
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we changed. For a little
while anyway, we were jolted out of our punchline mentality,
and we began to get serious about telling people what they
needed to know. Many of us dropped the silly clichés,
stopped trying to artificially dramatize, tossed out the gotcha
attitude that favored pretty pictures over hard facts. Maybe
it was because we were in pain, or angry, or just shocked.
But we found ourselves instinctively returning to the basics.
It felt right, and perhaps not coincidentally, the ratings
But time passes. And the old ways came back.
Like many of my colleagues, I slowly reverted to pre- 9/11
form as we got farther away from the actual events. Im
not happy about that, but I suppose its natural to drift
back to normal when the raw feelings fade.
As talk of war with Iraq began to build, I believed wed
get serious again, and put aside trivialities once the shooting
And we did. The coverage was nothing short of stupendous,
thanks to leaps in technology and inspiring courage by reporters
and crews in the field. All of them deserve praise.
But something else happened too.
Even in the first few days of fighting, some newsrooms quickly
shifted from, My God, were at war to Hey,
check this out! The gotcha thing came back
much faster than I expected. Sometimes it even seemed as though
the war was just another opportunity to push the envelope,
occasionally into the realm of very bad taste. Stories involving
real death, real captivity, real horrors being endured by
real people with real families back home, were dressed up
with special effects, and even background music. I saw pictures
of our POWs used as wallpaper video in a story about
torture. I hope their parents never saw it.
Newspeople who treated the war as some megashow, stressing
process and impact over the need to communicate vital information,
showed, in my opinion, a lack of maturity. They need to grow
up, especially now, when the subject matter is soldiers and
civilians dying, cities falling, whole cultures in upheaval.
This is deadly serious business.
Not for a moment should we go backward into some prehistoric
version of television news, with a talking head and a map.
I love the technology for the access its given us to
the inside of a war, something weve never had before.
And Im very proud of my thoughtful colleagues who took
the time to use the new tools to tell these new stories responsibly.
Theyve made journalism history, and students will study
their work for generations.
But some standards need to be followed, for this and future
crisis points. Here are some guidelines you might find helpful:
War is dramatic. All by itself. It doesnt need any
extra help. War is the ultimate news story with no need for
overhyped language, exaggerated terms, special effects or
enhancements. When events and visuals are so powerful, just
state the facts clearly and simply. The less elaboration,
the better. In fact, some of the most gripping coverage from
Iraq used no words at all, and wasnt even visible! It
was just the sound of gunfire crackling over a videophone,
with the embedded reporter keeping quiet.
Some pictures are worth a thousand words. Some arent.
That meaningless explosion five minutes to airtime was an
interesting picture, but nothing more. Did it really have
to be rushed to the top of the broadcast? While producers
should stay alert to breaking news, once it becomes clear
that a good picture is NOT breaking news, or for
that matter not news at all, common sense must take hold.
To do otherwise implies an importance that does not exist.
Perhaps the explosion could have been placed later in the
show as an oddity of war. Just because were in battle
mode doesnt mean we dispense with the basic rules of
At the same time we should not shrink from an honest picture.
Believe it or not, a CNN producer tried to stop embedded reporter
Walter Rodgers from showing a dead Iraqi soldier lying next
to a tank. There was Rodgers, beaming back real time pictures
from an actual battlefield, probably for the first time in
the history of warfare, and someone is buzzing in his ear,
no bodies!. Say what?
Using battle terminology in non-battle stories makes you
look silly. How in the world could you talk about politicians
under fire when our Marines were under REAL fire?
How can you casually refer to a firestorm of controversy
when the 101st Airborne faced firestorms that actually burned
things? We should also remember never to be flip or cute
when lives are in danger. A terrorist bomb is not a Big Mac
Attack. Not ever.
Were writers. Not soldiers. We may think we sound authoritative
when we barrage folks with reams of military terms. But if
people dont grasp what were saying, whats
the point? Dont write or report anything you dont
fully understand yourself. Make sure you can explain terms
clearly, even if it means weeding out a few JDAMs and
RPGs from your prose. The military wrote the book on
obscure, convoluted terms and abbreviations. Those terms serve
specific military purposes. Clarification is not necessarily
one of them. Thats our job.
Adrenaline will flow. Deal with it. Long hours. Not enough
sleep. Intense pictures. Nonstop feeds. Chaotic newsrooms.
The 9/11 work schedule all over again. Covering a huge story
can make you nuts. You keep at it, day after day, week after
week, until youre operating on nerve, caffeine, and
the reflected energy of your co-workers. During those hectic
times you probably produce some of your best work ever. But
youre also very likely to make mistakes. Recognize that.
Be ready for it. Doublecheck things. Bounce things off others.
Step back regularly, and get away from the story for awhile.
Walk around the block and smell the fresh air.
Well be living with the ramifications of the war with
Iraq for a long time. As with any big story, the intensity
gradually subsides, and we move on to other things. This time
though, lets try to remember the lessons, good and bad,
so that next time (and there will be a next time!) well
do our jobs even better!
About the Author
Abe Rosenberg is a working newswriter. His 24-year career
in broadcasting includes radio, television, local and network
news. He has written for WNBC-TV, WCBS-TV, WPIX-TV and CNN,
all in New York City, and KTTV and KCAL-TV in Los Angeles.
He is a 2-time local Emmy Award winner. He contributes a regular
column on newswriting to Communicator, the RTNDA magazine.
He conducts newswriting seminars at television stations and
broadcasting conventions, and he trains individual reporters,
writers and producers. You can read more of Abe's articles