Iraq War Coverage: Correspondents as Targets. DBQ

This document-based question exercise uses quotes from journalists about the challenges of reporting from Iraq as the basis for a student essay and discussion.

To the Teacher:

The following quotes describe some of the problems faced by correspondents covering the war in Iraq and reveal why their reporting may result in incomplete or even inaccurate accounts. The materials here can be used to prepare students for the DBQ (document-based question) on standardized tests such as the New York State history regents (items A-G) or, as indicated in item H, for small-group and class discussions.


Read each paragraph, then answer the question following it. After you have read all of the paragraphs, write an essay in response to the question in F.


"Being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest....I avoid going to people's homes and never walk in the streets. I can't go grocery shopping any more, can't eat in restaurants, can't strike a conversation with strangers, can't look for stories, can't drive in any thing but a full armored car, can't go to scenes of breaking news, can't be stuck in traffic, can't speak English outside, can't take a road trip, can't say I'm an American, can't linger at checkpoints, can't be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can't and can't."
?Farnaz Fassihi, a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, in a September 2004 e-mail to friends that was later made public.
Question: What do you think is the reason that Fassihi "can't and can't"?


"Here at the New York Times, where we have spared no expense to protect ourselves, the catalogue of hits and near-misses is long enough to chill the hardiest war correspondent: we have been shot at, kidnapped, blindfolded, held at knifepoint, held at gunpoint, detained, threatened, beaten and chased....In the writing of this essay...two rockets and three mortar shells have landed close enough to shake the walls of our house...
"To be an American reporter in Iraq, any kind of American is not just to be a target yourself, but it is to make a target of others, too....Just the other day, for instance, an Iraqi man I had met with several times before asked me not to speak English in the hallway leading to his office....In another case, a senior Iraqi government official whom I have met several times often asks that I meet his armed guards in front of a local mosque, who then drive me to his house. Better not to have an American reporter's car parked in front of his house.
"The real consequence of the mayhem here is that we reporters can no longer do our jobs in the way we hope to. Reporters are nothing more than watchers and listeners, and if we can't leave the house, the picture from Iraq, even with the help of fearless Iraqi stringers [part-time reporters], almost inevitably will be blurry and incomplete."
?Dexter Filkins, a correspondent for the New York Times, 10/10/04
Question: Why can't reporters in Iraq "do our jobs the way we hope to"?


"In no prior conflict...have journalists been singled out for such sustained and violent attack. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, thirty-six journalists have been killed in Iraq since the start of the war-nineteen at the hands of the insurgents. Two French journalists seized in August remain missing. Until this fall, many journalists at least felt safe while in their heavily guarded hotels. Then, in October, Paul Taggart, an American photographer, was seized by four gunmen after leaving the Hamra Hotel complex, one of the main residences for Western journalists....[Later] it was discovered that the captors had a floor plan of the hotel with the name of every journalist in every room. Facing such perils, many correspondents packed up and left."
?Michael Massing, "Iraq, the Press & the Election," New York Review of Books, 12/16/04
Question: Why did many correspondents leave Iraq?


"The current books about the war in Iraq do not uncover the pathology of war. We see the war from the perspective of the troops who fight the war or the equally skewed perspective of the foreign reporters holed up in hotels, hemmed in by drivers and translators and official minders. There are moments when war's face appears..., perhaps from the back seat of a car where a small child, her brains oozing out of her head, lies dying, but mostly it remains hidden....
"War is presented primarily through the distorted prism of the occupiers. The embedded reporters, dependent on the military for food and transportation as well as security, have a natural and understandable tendency, one I have felt myself, to protect those who are protecting them. They are not allowed to report outside of the unit and are, in effect, captives. They have no relationships with the victims, essential to all balanced reporting of conflicts, but only with the Marines and soldiers who drive through desolate mud-walled towns and pump grenades and machine-gun bullets into houses, leaving scores of nameless dead and wounded in their wake. The reporters admire and laud these fighters for their physical courage....And the reporting, even among those who struggle to keep some distance, usually descends into a shameful cheerleading."
?Chris Hedges, for 20 years a war correspondent for the New York Times ("On War," New York Review of Books, 12/16/04)
Question: Why are embedded reporters "in effect, captives"?


"I strained to listen for signs of humanity in the darkened city. I imagined holocaust-city blocks in flames, families running and screaming. But the only sounds were the baying of frightened dogs and the indecipherable chanting of muezzins, filling the air with a soft cacophony of Koranic verse.... [According to the Arab network Al-Jazeera, the "chanting of muezzins" was actually appeals for ambulances and for Fallujans to fight the Americans]
"We knew people were running out of food, and we heard rumors of clinics flooded with the dead and wounded. But the few Fallujans we encountered were either prisoners with handcuffed wrists and hooded heads, or homeowners waiting sullenly for their houses to be searched, or refugees timidly approaching military checkpoints with white flags....Sometimes on patrols, people approached us reporters and pleaded for help in Arabic, but there was nothing we could do."
?Pamela Constable, an embedded correspondent with the Marines in Fallujah in April 2004 for the Washington Post (quoted in Michael Massing, "Unfit to Print?" the New York Review of Books, 6/24/04)
Question: How did a lack of knowledge of the Arabic language affect the reporter?


"Iraq was the most dangerous place for journalists to work [in 2004] with 23 killed there so far this year, up from 13 last year, said...the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York. Most of those who died there were Iraqi reporters killed by insurgents, and many of them died while working for American or other Western news outlets...At least 22 journalists were kidnapped in Iraq, the group said." (New York Times, 12/11/04)
Question: Why do you suppose that most of the reporters killed in Iraq during 2004 have been Iraqi reporters?

G. Essay

Reporters have a difficult and dangerous job in any war, but the war in Iraq has been especially difficult and dangerous for them. Using information from the documents and your knowledge of events in Iraq, write a well-organized essay that includes an introduction, several paragraphs and a conclusion in which you:
  • describe problems that war correspondents have in covering the events in Iraq
  • discuss why such problems can lead to incomplete and inaccurate reporting

H. Discussion

After students have read the quotes, divide the class into groups of four to six to discuss their responses to the questions following the quotes and then the essay question . A reporter from each group can summarize those responses for the class, followed by whole-class discussion.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: