Saturday, June 19, 2010

Getting the story right: A cautionary Tale

The first casualty in war is truth...

In 1918 US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson is purported to have said: The first casualty when war comes is truth. However, this was not recorded. In 1928 Arthur Ponsonby's wrote: The 'When war is declared, truth is the first casualty'. (Falsehood in Wartime) Samuel Johnson seems to have had the first word: 'Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.' (from The Idler, 1758) (here)

War correspondents can serve an important function, and despite what you may read in this current Global War on Terror, for the current batch of war correspondents (or writers, as some prefer to call themselves,) one of the main tools in their arsenal should be TRUTH. Of course, truth also comes with its own caveat, depending on who is telling the story.

There are three sides to
every story. Your side,
their side, and the truth. Anonymous

'Anon,' as we all know, is the most prolific writer in the history of the written word. However, within that saying, is more than a kernel of 'truth.' That is never more evident than in wartime.

If you research - as I have - you will find since time began, hardy souls have joined troops on the front lines during wars, and shared their news stories (and their opinions) with a public waiting for the truth. There are many great articles out there about the history of war reporting, and well worth the time to seek them out.

The history of such reporting spans hundreds of years, and many wars. From the Crimean War, to Gallipoli, through to WW1 and 2, reporters in war zones can add texture, context to the battle. One of my favourite poets is Rupert Brookes. He wrote a few poems, based on his own experiences in WW1, and joined the ranks of what I refer to as warrior/writers. Last year I found a fascinating piece on the BBC:
D-Day: A breakthrough for war reporting

By Vincent Dowd
BBC World Service

'Midget' recording device (copyright: Chris Owen)
The 'midget' recording device was revolutionary for the time

Saturday marks the 65th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of occupied Europe on June 6 1944.

Unlike earlier in the war, it was the first time that BBC radio was able to broadcast news back to the UK from the beaches and battlefields of Europe.

Hidden away in a BBC storeroom in central London is a remarkable bit of broadcasting history. It looks rather like a 1950s Dansette record player, redesigned by the British army.

In fact it's a so-called 'midget' recording device made by the BBC for use by correspondents in the field during and after the D-Day invasions.

The BBC's Charles Commander, who guards this priceless bit of broadcasting heritage, pulls it out from under a pile of boxes. "What the BBC considered 'portable' in 1944 is remarkable. But compared to what came before, it did give the reporter freedom to move.

The idea was they could take it through the sand-dunes and round the back roads in Normandy. And it worked: we still have the recordings to prove it."

Unsure of role

That the BBC even sent the likes of Richard Dimbleby, Frank Gillard, Guy Byam and Chester Wilmot to report on the D-Day landings was remarkable by the standards of the day.

Until the late 1930s, the BBC had had no reporters in the modern sense. The Corporation was deeply unsure of its journalistic role....(more here) [Yes, emphasis mine.]

Today's war, unlike any of its predecessors, comes with its own challenges, and pratfalls, in that often elusive search for 'truth.' Today, more than ever, the role of 'war reporter' is a minefield, as instant media offers opportunities to manipulate the facts. Just as embedded reporters in Vietnam shared their 'truths', and affected the outcome of that war, so today do 'reporters' share up to the minute impressions of what life is like for our troops. With the advent of the internet, and instant 'reportage,' comes the ability - with all its inherent danger - to shape public opinion and massage the message. In today's climate, the military media departments have a difficult time controlling the facts shared with an avid readership.

In WW2 in England, the media worked with the politicians in supporting the war effort and our troops. Found an interesting site which starkly demonstrates the difference between then and now:

"Loose Lips Sink Ships"

Millions volunteered or were drafted for military duty during World War II. The majority of these citizen-soldiers had no idea how to conduct themselves to prevent inadvertent disclosure of important information to the enemy. To remedy this, the government established rules of conduct. The following is excerpted from a document given to each soldier as he entered the battle area.


THINK! Where does the enemy get his information -- information that can put you, and has put your comrades, adrift on an open sea: information that has lost battles and can lose more, unless you personally, vigilantly, perform your duty in SAFEGUARDING MILITARY INFORMATION?


1. Don't write military information of Army units -- their location, strength,, materiel, or equipment.

2. Don't write of military installations.

3. Don't write of transportation facilities.

4. Don't write of convoys, their routes, ports (including ports of embarkation and disembarkation), time en route, naval protection, or war incidents occurring en route.

5. Don't disclose movements of ships, naval or merchant, troops, or aircraft.

6. Don't mention plans and forecasts or orders for future operations, whether known or just your guess.

7. Don't write about the effect of enemy operations.

8. Don't tell of any casualty until released by proper authority (The Adjutant General) and then only by using the full name of the casualty.

9. Don't attempt to formulate or use a code system, cipher, or shorthand, or any other means to conceal the true meaning of your letter. Violations of this regulation will result in severe punishment.

10. Don't give your location in any way except as authorized by proper authority. Be sure nothing you write about discloses a more specific location than the one authorized.

This really is a must read, with much more information here.

That may have been sixty years ago, and yet - today - issues of OPSEC are ever more vital. Anybody paying attention can see that any Tom, Dick or Harry can say whatever they like, when they like, and damn the consequences.

Loose lips STILL sink ships, still have grave consequences, when flapped inappropriately. Loose lips, and instant messaging all over the internet, can still endanger our troops in many ways. I have previously written about a London-based 'journalist,' Nick Meo, here. I also wrote about the Amoral Parasites (AP) who are today's vanguard of media 'truths' here.

Which brings me to today's cautionary tale:

June 18, 2010

"Revealed!" (Revisited!)

By Greyhawk

"If a writer wants to make money, he should avoid truth and tell people what they want to hear."

One Sunday in March this year, MaryAnn Phillips was nearing the end of a typically busy weekend. Like most other days off, she'd spent these at the US military's Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany, supporting wounded coalition troops as a representative of the group Soldiers' Angels. Before starting her five-hour drive home, she stopped to check her email.

Among countless other messages was one from proud reporter Peter Almond, pointing her to his newly-published story about her in the London Daily Mail.

Contacted by a quick-thinking British doctor at Camp Bastion, Mr Yon sent an urgent email to a group of American civilian volunteers called Soldiers' Angels near Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where most American casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are initially sent.

The volunteers, founded by the great-niece of General George S. Patton, alerted the US Army's nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center's Acute Lung Rescue Team, which specialises in going straight to the aid of soldiers with severe lung problems.

He had portrayed her as heroic - and in truth, she is - but unfortunately the example he used was not true - and the error was far from a minor one. She responded swiftly with a request for a correction: "Love the graphic," she began. "Makes it easy to understand a very complex series of events."

But yes, there are a couple of errors... including the fact that SA had nothing to do with getting the Lung Team into action! That all happens automatically, no matter what the nationality of the patient - which is the point of the whole story! We have nowhere near that type of influence...
MaryAnn thought correcting the story was no big deal, and a simple thing to do. But shortly afterward she received this reply from Almond:...

Greyhawk then goes on to detail the anatomy of what can possibly go wrong when there is a rush to 'get the scoop' and race to print ahead of anyone else. If you read nothing else, read this illuminating, instructive, cautionary tale here.

When I was in 'j' school, I used to joke (often): 'Why let the facts get in the way of a good story?' Truth be known, if one earns a living by the stories/words produced, it can be seen - possibly - as tempting to go to print with whatever truth first hits your personal radar. Heady stuff to get a 'scoop' before any of the other stodgier media outlets even hear the details. Today, with the 24/7 news cycles, airwaves to fill, and donations to gather (if you are an independent writer or something), it is perhaps understandable that time becomes of the essence, and very little time may be left for fact checking to authenticate whatever you have been fed. I 'get' that.

However, the caution in all of that, especially given the power of the internet today, is that factual errors can be found immediately. With the reach and connections of technology, erroneous bloopers can travel the globe faster than a byline can be written. Villainous Company has this to say:

June 18, 2010

Correcting the Record: MUST READ

Anyone can get a story wrong. Online writers link to each other all the time. There's an element of trust there - trust that we're all committed to being as accurate as possible.

Still, mistakes happen. The question is, what do you do when you find out you published something that wasn't true?

That is the crucial question for any of us seekers/purveyors of truth. Read the rest of this piece here.

Bottom line is, we each find our own truths. Every single one of us makes our own choices as to what 'truths' we will share, once we stumble upon them. I am not suggesting that any of us become military flunkies and act as their media mavens. I am saying, we should all be sceptical of anything we find in our search for stories, and that we 'get it right' first time out.

In war time, as in no other time, I believe it is imperative to be careful with what we publish. It is not good enough to be first with information. Yes, like others, I have made mistakes, and published things that I found, swiftly, to be untrue. One of the joys of being independent is that I can correct my errors as swiftly. Another joy in what I do is that I get to choose, for myself, every single day what I will, or will not, publish without answering to the money driven agenda of any msm.

As always, with freedom comes great responsibility. If any of us abrogate that responsibility, it is my (always humble) opinion that we do a great disservice not only to ourselves, and our own credibility, but most importantly in this time of war, to our troops.


K-Dubyah said...

Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!!

Ever concise, ever mindful of the repercussions to 'Our Guys'

If only YOU could be embedded with our troops then we would know the truth as they live it.

Anonymous said...

Good read, Brat. I'll not comment about Yon not correcting his inaccurate story, but I'm thinking some not so nice things.


Charlie Sherpa said...

Well presented and executed. J-school, huh? Shoulda known: "Be first with the facts-but first, be right."

Your words came at a particularly good time, as I've been contemplating the first 6 months of Red Bull Rising. Tactical pause: What I have I learned, where am I going with this kind of thing.

Thanks for the insights and observations about the craft!