Sunday, November 8, 2015

Public Servants at Odds

Spenser Dopp

One of the most prominent issues that journalists face in war zones is the possibility of disclosing sensitive information. Reporters on the battlefield have an obligation to the soldiers they work with. They are obligated not to reveal sensitive information that is relevant to military strategy or that could place lives at risk. They are also obligated to hold off on publishing the identities of deceased soldiers until the Department of Defense can properly notify the families of the deceased. These rules of war correspondence are taken very seriously, but mistakes do still happen.

In 2003, veteran reporter Geraldo Rivera was removed from his position as a war correspondent in Iraq after revealing the position of the 101st Airborne and their planned movements during a live broadcast on Fox. This monumental error could have been avoided if Rivera or his colleagues had bothered to check the content of their broadcast with a military official before presenting it on live television. They did not, and ended up giving away "big picture stuff," according to one senior military official. There have also been problems with journalists publishing the identities of deceased soldiers before the Department of Defense has had a chance to officially inform the families.

As I said, mistakes do happen. Soldiers and journalists in war zones often find themselves in the same impossible situations, but they are there to do very different jobs. Soldiers are there to represent their countries and follow orders. Journalists are there to report. It seems to me that one way to minimize the occurrences in which soldiers and journalists find themselves at odds would be to establish some sort of process by which embedded journalists present their stories to a military official(s) before going ahead to publish or broadcast so that the official(s) can be sure that none of the contained information would compromise military operations or the wellbeing of civilian families. Of course, this proposed solution brings with it a host of other issues. Who chooses the officials that would be charged with checking each story? Who establishes the guidelines for what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable material? What differentiates these military officials from censors who are only concerned with making their organizations look good in the public eye?

One would hope that clearly established ethical guidelines regarding what is and is not ok to publish would be enough to minimize these unfortunate oversights, but apparently something more is required. In coming up with any solution, we must keep in mind that both soldiers and journalists have very important jobs to do, and that they both require legal safeguards. We cannot have military personnel unduly censoring the work of journalists, and we certainly cannot have journalists undermining military operations or placing lives at risk.

Credit: Library of Congress
Perhaps the solution requires an unbiased third party, loyal neither to the military nor the press, to ensure that journalists and military operators work together efficiently and productively. Of course, any proposed solution raises more questions than it answers. Such is the conundrum of security versus transparency. These issues are explored in depth by some of our greatest thinkers, and we still have yet to develop a satisfactory solution. Until we do, I suppose these mistakes will continue and the debate will only become more heated and less objective.

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