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From the Field
Lessons 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, it’s 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 Mac Attack”.

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 went up.

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. I’m not happy about that, but I suppose it’s natural to drift back to “normal” when the raw feelings fade.

As talk of war with Iraq began to build, I believed we’d get serious again, and put aside trivialities once the shooting started.

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, we’re 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 POW’s 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 it’s given us to the inside of a war, something we’ve never had before. And I’m very proud of my thoughtful colleagues who took the time to use the new tools to tell these new stories responsibly. They’ve 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 doesn’t 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 wasn’t 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 aren’t. 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 we’re in battle mode doesn’t mean we dispense with the basic rules of journalism.

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.

We’re writers. Not soldiers. We may think we sound authoritative when we barrage folks with reams of military terms. But if people don’t grasp what we’re saying, what’s the point? Don’t write or report anything you don’t fully understand yourself. Make sure you can explain terms clearly, even if it means weeding out a few JDAM’s and RPG’s 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. That’s 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 you’re 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 you’re 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.

We’ll 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, let’s try to remember the lessons, good and bad, so that next time (and there will be a next time!) we’ll 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 at