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American Journalism Review
After-the-War Coverage  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   April/May 2004

After-the-War Coverage   

While some Iraq special sections froze at the time major combat operations ended, other news sites continue to commemorate the casualties.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


Scroll slowly down this Web page and see if it doesn't grip your heart: www.cnn.com/specials/2003/iraq/forces/casualties/.

There you'll find the names, ages, combat units, hometowns and circumstances of death for each U.S. and coalition serviceperson killed in Iraq since fighting began more than a year ago, sorted alphabetically. Photographs are included for nearly all of them. The effect is powerful, personal and entirely different from what a reader gets with the steady trickle of newspaper headlines reporting one casualty one day, two more the next.

For CNN.com Senior Vice President and Executive Producer Mitch Gelman, the decision to maintain this page--as well as CNN.com's expansive special sections on the war and post-war Iraq--was a matter of course. "It's our responsibility as a national and international news organization to continue to report on the progress of the conflict and the efforts to rebuild the nation," Gelman explains. "There are many men and women who have been willing to make a great sacrifice in this conflict, and we feel an obligation to honor the memory of those who have been lost by recording the circumstances in which they gave their lives."

CNN.com readers have lauded the site's efforts. Says Gelman: "We've received many e-mails from people thanking us for honoring the soldiers, including notes from family members who we know from their letters appreciate the fact that we remember the sacrifices that their loved ones have made."

It's worthy journalistic work, clearly. The daily effort to keep a record of casualties may not be large--but it's regular and continuous. Someone needs to gather the information and photos of each soldier killed and publish them day after day, month after month. CNN.com's staff also maintains charts that categorize the fatalities by nationality, race, age, gender and hostile versus non-hostile circumstances of death.

Several other news sites update casualty trackers at varying levels of detail; washingtonpost.com's "Faces of the Fallen" is another outstanding example. It's a more highly produced Flash presentation, arranged chronologically, but with much of the same information as CNN.com's page. (When I visited in mid-March, however, it appeared to be updated less frequently.)

In these cases and in every newsroom every day, the toughest task for a news manager is not deciding which stories and projects are important, but which are most important. Part of that calculation should be whether the organization is--like CNN.com--uniquely able to cover the material, or to present it in ways that other media can't.

Another factor is sustainability. When the war in Iraq began virtually all news organizations--local and national--threw all of their resources into that story. More than a year later, the Web is strewn with robust special sections either frozen at the time major combat ended--or updated sporadically, as when Saddam Hussein was captured. Sites that have curtailed their coverage haven't done so because they believe the story ended last spring, but because they simply couldn't maintain that level of depth as other national and international stories rose to the fore.

Some sites, such as washingtonpost.com, have retired their special war sections more gracefully than others. "Retired" isn't entirely accurate, as some of the content--news headlines and "Faces of the Fallen"--continues to be updated. The bulk of the "War in Iraq" page (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/iraq/front.htm) is a well-organized retrospective of the site's voluminous war coverage--including a video montage of the most striking sights and sounds of Operation Iraqi Freedom, highlights of online discussion forums, and archived reports and commentary. This is an exemplary way to keep special, in-depth coverage valuable and accessible long after it has ceased to be current news. (The Post's site does, of course, continue to comprehensively cover the rebuilding efforts, just not as a full-blown section.)

The way news sites have handled coverage after the war is, in some ways, more instructive than the way they covered the war itself. In the midst of the story everybody knew what to do. In the aftermath, when the story is no longer front-and-center every day, the choices regarding how and where to continue coverage are much less clear.

In these situations, online news managers need to be bold at choosing the projects they should do from among the many they could do. They should select those that matter to the site's journalistic mission, even if--especially if--they lead off the beaten path. And they must always be vigilant for projects, like a virtual memorial or coverage archive, that the Web can present in formats that are better--or different--than traditional media. Exploring new ways to convey the depth of a story and preserve history is more than an advantage of this medium; it's the Web's responsibility.


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