Reporting civilian casualties

A November 8, 2001 FAIR Action alert stated the following:

CNN, for example, has ordered reporters to frame reports of civilian deaths with reminders that "the Pentagon has repeatedly stressed that it is trying to minimize" such casualties, and that "the Taliban regime continues to harbor terrorists who are connected to the September 11 attacks that claimed thousands of innocent lives in the U.S." (See FAIR Action Alert, 11/1/01.)

The host of Fox News Channel's "Special Report with Brit Hume" (11/5/01) recently wondered why journalists should bother covering civilian deaths at all. "The question I have," said Hume, "is civilian casualties are historically, by definition, a part of war, really. Should they be as big news as they've been?"

The idea that civilian casualties have been "big news" in the U.S. is questionable, but the Fox pundits more or less agreed with Hume.

Mara Liasson from National Public Radio was direct: "No. Look, war is about killing people. Civilian casualties are unavoidable." Liasson added that she thought what was missing from television coverage was "a message from the U.S. government that says we are trying to minimize them, but the Taliban isn't, and is putting their tanks in mosques, and themselves among women and children." (Of course, anyone who has watched much TV news knows that this information is included in virtually every report.)

Fox pundit and U.S. News & World Report columnist Michael Barone echoed Hume's earlier remarks: "I think the real problem here is that this is poor news judgment on the part of some of these news organizations. Civilian casualties are not, as Mara says, news. The fact is that they accompany wars."

If journalists shouldn't cover civilian deaths because they are a normal part of war, does that principle apply to all war coverage? Dropping bombs is also standard procedure in a war; will Fox stop reporting airstrikes?


War may have killed 10,000 civilians, researchers say (The Guardian, 13 June 2003) Civilian death toll in Iraq put at 3,240: Nationwide total doesn't account for some battles, towns (AP, 11 June 2003)

The finding: At least 3,240 civilians died throughout the country, including 1,896 in Baghdad. The count is still fragmentary, and the complete number, if it is ever tallied, is sure to be much higher.

The great majority of civilian deaths appear to have been caused by US and British attacks [...]

Surveys pointing to high civilian death toll in Iraq (Christian Science Monitor, 22 May 2003) Double standards in reporting casualties (Asia Times, 19 April 2003) U.S. Has No Plans to Count Civilian Casualties: Congress Calls for 'Assistance' to Iraqis For War Losses (Washington Post, 15 April 2003) Forgotten victims: The full human cost of US air strikes will never be known, but many more died than those killed directly by bombs

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Last modified: Tue May 11 23:55:34 CDT 2004