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How to make sense of TV

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© St. Petersburg Times
published March 22, 2003

Having trouble picking out exactly what is happening in this rushing vortex of wartime information coming at you from television?

Relax, because you're not alone.

Even longtime journalists and media watchers are having a tough time making sense of the enormous amount of information pouring onto TV screens courtesy of the most TV-friendly war in history.

"What we are seeing is not the war in Iraq," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said during a news conference Friday. "What we're seeing are slices of the war in Iraq ... that particularized perspective that reporter or that commentator or that television camera can see at that moment."

No wonder understanding it all is a challenge. Here are a few tips on sorting through it all:

Tip 1: Mix your media

"You have to watch an awful lot of television and read a lot of newspapers" to get the war's big picture, said Marvin Kalb, former host of NBC's Meet the Press and executive director of the Washington office of Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy.

"This is a very complicated war and it is being covered by an army of journalists. . . . What news can you trust?" asked Kalb, who suggested viewers read at least one good newspaper, supported by a dose of National Public Radio in the morning and CNN in the evening to get a fuller picture.

It's all about finding adequate summaries of the day's news, said news consultant Andrew Tyndall, president of ADT Research in New York. "That's the problem with wall-to-wall coverage. . . . The criterion is whether the information is current, not whether it's important," he added. "That thing that happened six hours ago that you didn't see may have been what's really important."

War coverage seemed to stabilize somewhat Friday, as the Pentagon delivered the early stages of the "shock and awe" campaign journalists had been anticipating.

TV cameras captured the destruction of Baghdad (though CBS was stuck in NCAA coverage for some time), and every network summed up the day's events. Iraqi officials kicked CNN's four-person crew out of Baghdad, leaving National Geographic Explorer's Peter Arnett (reporting for NBC), freelancers and foreign reporters to document the damage.

One odd moment: when NBC anchor Tom Brokaw choked up after watching comments from the mother of a soldier killed in a helicopter crash. "I'll get it together in a moment, because it's inappropriate for me to become this emotional about it," said Brokaw, his voice quavering, prompting the four ex-military officers around him to offer support.

Tip 2: Know your reporters

Tyndall knows CNN has more reporters in the field, while Fox News is the "gung-ho network." So he suggests viewers tailor their news decisions accordingly.

Watch out for reporters who use words like "we" when referring to the military and "enemy" when referring to Iraqis (such terms, used often by Fox News Channel's Shepard Smith, can indicate a lack of journalistic objectivity). Watch where experienced war correspondents go, and watch for a lack of objectivity among embedded journalists.

"What you get from them has got to be from the point of view of the U.S. military," Tyndall said.

Walter Dean, a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, cites as pet peeves the many graphics that sometimes crowd the screen and the failure to say where visual images in Baghdad are coming from.

"Frankly, we haven't seen a lot of people other than U.S. soldiers or reporters in front of the cameras," he added. "There's a reality check to that."

Here's this critic's list of a few notable media moments.

BIGGEST CONFLICT: The military experts. Every network has an army of ex-military officers (paid up to $5,000 a month, reports the Los Angeles Times) to decode the action. But besides lacking ethnic or age diversity, these experts are unabashedly promilitary, encouraging anchors to see this war from the Pentagon's perspective.

STATESIDE REPORTER TO WATCH: CBS's David Martin. As the network's Pentagon correspondent, he has done the best job keeping unfolding events in perspective, noting the first strike against Iraq cost a cool $50-million.

OVERSEAS REPORTER TO WATCH: NBC's David Bloom. Traveling with the 3rd Infantry Division to Baghdad, Bloom used a new truck-mounted camera (developed by a Miramar company) to transmit impressive footage from the war zone Friday, while remaining somewhat detached in tone.

CHANNEL TO WATCH: News from the British Broadcasting Corp., shown on the BBC America cable channel and WUSF-Ch. 16, offers a refreshingly international perspective, with zero concern about looking unpatriotic.

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