WASHINGTON, April 5, 2005 -- The news media are self-censoring reports about Iraq because of concern for public reaction to graphic images and details about death and torture, according to a survey of 210 U.S. and international journalists.
Many reporters and editors chose less-graphic images and explicit details, or made them less noticeable, according to an online, anonymous survey conducted between September and October 2004 by two American University professors. The study was released March 17.
Findings also included how journalists were using the Internet to enhance coverage of events in Iraq. One-third said they published material -- such as photographic essays, extended interviews and behind-the-scenes reporters' accounts - that was not used in their reports on their news organization's Web site.
The survey is a "window on journalists grappling with how to handle the imagery of war," one of the authors, Jane Hall, a journalism professor at American University in Washington, told United Press International.
Journalists from a variety of media outlets were asked about coverage from March 2003 to September 2004, from the beginning of the war in Iraq through the first 15 months of the U.S.-led occupation.
This was a period of some of the most violent incidents in Iraq after President Bush announced the end of major U.S. combat operations there. A wave of beheadings peaked, four contractors were killed and their charred bodies hung from a bridge in Fallujah, and explicit images from the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal surfaced.
Of the 210 respondents -- out of 1,000 invited by e-mail to participate, 73 were in Iraq during and after the war. Half of that group was embedded with the U.S. military during all or part of their time in Iraq. The majority of all the journalists reported to an American audience. The publications involved were not identified.
Eighty-three percent of the respondents (175 people) said they served a U.S. audience; 10 percent (21 people) said their audience was from North/South America; 11 percent (24) said their audience was European; 3 percent (6) said they were targeting Eastern European; 7 percent (14) said the catered to Asia; 5 percent (11) to the Middle East; and 6 percent (13) to Africa. Some said they served more than one primary audience.
Fifty-nine percent of the respondents were primarily print journalists, 26 percent were broadcast and 12 percent were online.
Hall said she and the survey's co-author, M. J. Bear, were looking at how reporters and editors made decisions about what to publish. She said she was struck by how often decisions were made on a case-to-case basis. Only 30 percent of the respondents said they had rules in place for dealing with sensitive information and images at the start of the coverage.
The online survey also showed that geography was important for how restrictive the newsroom policy was of showing graphic content.
Respondents from European and Middle Eastern news organizations were not as confined as the U.S. media in showing graphic or disturbing images, according to the survey.
In contrast, U.S. journalists were concerned about publishing images of dead American or coalition civilians and military personnel. Also, the U.S. military rules prohibit publishing names or images of dead soldiers until their families have been notified.
"Our community is notoriously squeamish and vocal about it to boot," said one respondent. "So, we usually avoid dead bodies if we can."
Another said journalists wanted to show what was happening in Iraq without shocking and distressing viewers unnecessarily, or encouraging the hostage-takers.
"It is a difficult task," the reporter said.
But the images of dead Iraqi military personnel and insurgents were more graphic than of American troops or coalition causalities, one journalist said.
There is an "unspoken rule" against publishing images of what would be horrifying, such as a "bloody stump on an amputee or a mangled corpse," a journalist said. Another said publishing or broadcasting the dead, dying or injured went too far.
"The qualitative results tell about the decision-making process at many institutions and explain why some toned-down coverage was often published," said the authors.
But some of the journalists said their reporting was distorted.
Out of 73 journalists working in Iraq, 11 said they thought that on one or more occasions editing in the newsroom had distorted the final version of their story.
A print journalist embedded with the U.S. military said that on some occasions the reports he sent were subtly edited to make them less negative and more in line with official views, though it was not a systematic practice.
Another said: "The real damage of war on the civilian population was uniformly omitted."
The survey raised questions about the effect of playing down graphic coverage of the situation in Iraq.
Michael Hoyt, executive director of the Columbia Journalism Review, a magazine that monitors the media, said the U.S. media has to think about the sensibility of its audience, but was concerned that media self-censorship compromised accuracy.
"We have to present war for what it is," he told UPI.
He added: "If we're making decisions as a democracy, we should know what's going on -- how the bullets are being used and what's happening to the soldiers over there."