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Public invited to join journalists to discuss war coverage during SPJ National Convention


Nerissa Young, SPJ Project Watchdog chair, 405/744-8096, or wnyoung@inetone.net
Dorothy Estes, SPJ convention programming chair, 817/261-4824 or destes22@aol.com.
Robert Leger, SPJ president-elect, 417/836-1113 or rleger@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS -- In times of war, should the news media give balanced coverage to the opposition? Should it report civilian deaths or play propaganda and training tapes from Osama bin Laden? How much coverage should be given to security issues?

These and other questions will drive a conversation between journalists, a military strategist and the public in a special program at the Society of Professional Journalists’ national convention in Fort Worth. Local residents are invited to the Project Watchdog session at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, at the Renaissance Worthington Hotel at Sundance Square.

Several journalists and a Pentagon strategist will compare experiences and opinions about the working relationship of the military and the media when the nation is engaged in war. The public will be invited to ask questions and offer opinions.

The idea is to help readers and viewers understand the role of the press, says Project Watchdog chair Nerissa Young of the Beckley (W. Va.) Register-Herald and journalism instructor at Oklahoma State University. At the same time, journalists need to understand public reaction to their performance.

Ed Offley, a long-time military reporter and author of “Pen and Sword,” a new book on press coverage of military operations, warns that editors must exercise additional caution during these uncertain times. After 9/11, he points out, the American press identified major terrorist training camps under U.S. satellite surveillance and revealed that the National Security Agency had been monitoring bin Laden’s satellite phone calls.

“He immediately switched his communications to other methods,” Offley said. “The news media was at least a co-partner in this intelligence failure because we gave away what should have been the deepest secret in the U.S. intelligence community.”

Another panelist, free-lance writer Peter Y. Sussman, warns that war reporting requires editors and writers to walk a thin line between the public’s right to know and coverage that gives aid and comfort to the enemy.

“When the country goes to war, the press does too,” Sussman says. “For journalists in a democratic society, wartime issues are highly charged and ambiguous. They must grapple with high-voltage issues like propaganda, national security, patriotism and protection of troops. “

Glenn Mitchell, a popular talk-show host on public radio station KERA-90.1 in Dallas, will moderate.

Also appearing on the panel will be Barry Shlachter, who covered two wars in Afghanistan for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Army Maj. Robert Bateman, military strategist assigned to the Pentagon; and Ian Marquand, chair of SPJ's Freedom of Information Committee and special projects coordinator at KPAX-TV in Missoula, Mont.

“It is generally agreed that the new war on terrorism is the most tightly controlled in terms of information and media coverage in American history,” Marquand says. “Journalists who travel the war zone outside of U.S. military protection face danger and death. Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the shadow of a revised 'Official Secrets Act' looms in Congress.”

Bateman says he has no problem with competent journalists on the battlefield, but he questions the wisdom of sending poorly trained journalists to combat zones. He is also concerned about the logistics of having hundreds of journalists in areas where troops are under enemy fire.

SPJ President-elect Robert Leger says he hopes many residents take part in this free program.

“In times of war,” notes Leger, editorial page editor at the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, “government often claims a greater need for secrecy than normal, often with the public’s consent. The press doesn’t want to jeopardize lives, but it still must ask hard questions, creating conflicts, few of them easily resolved. That’s why it is important to have discussions such as this one, so the public can understand why reporters ask those questions and reporters and editors can hear and understand the concerns of readers and viewers.”

More than 800 professional journalists and college journalism students are expected to attend the Fort Worth convention Sept. 12-14.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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