Vietnam The Media’s Role in Wartime
During the Vietnam War, the media played a highly visible -- and controversial -- role in bringing information to the American public and helping shape public attitudes toward the war. The war raised important questions about how best to balance the public's right to information against other priorities, such as protecting government secrets and maintaining a strong war effort. These questions have emerged again in the context of the war against terrorism and the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a class, briefly discuss each of the five hypothetical situations described below and then take a class vote on how you would respond. Provide reasons for your answers.
Scenario One A terrorist group that is holding an American hostage sends your news organization a videotape of the hostage denouncing American foreign policy. The accompanying note states that the hostage will be released if you air the videotape on the evening news. Do you air it, refuse to air it, or agree to follow whichever course the U.S. government advises?
Scenario Two One of your reporters has been given secret government documents that show the government has tortured foreigners arrested for involvement in terrorist plots against Americans. Do you provide this information to the public?
Scenario Three A wanted terrorist grants one of your reporters an exclusive, face-to-face interview, but on the condition that you do not reveal his hiding place -- or any other sensitive information you learn in the course of holding the interview -- to the government. Do you refuse these terms and reject the interview, agree to the terms and abide by them, or agree to the terms but then violate them after the interview?
Scenario Four One of your reporters has written a story, based entirely on unclassified information, that describes some aspect of the government's anti-terrorism policies. A government official asks you not to publish the story because it might help terrorists avoid capture and plan future attacks. Do you run the story as is, kill the story, or run the story but only after deleting any sections the government objects to?
Scenario Five One of your photographers takes a powerful, graphic picture of a child accidentally killed by U.S. forces during a major anti-terrorist operation. Do you print the photograph on the front page, on a less prominent page, or not at all? (Would you give a different answer if the child had been killed by a terrorist attack, or if the child had been killed during a newsworthy event that was unrelated to terrorism, such as a major flood or tornado? If so, why?)
Bringing It All Together Now, work as a class to craft these responses and reasons into a series of principles that should govern media coverage during wartime. These principles could cover such topics as how to deal with terrorists and their demands, what to do with secret documents, how to respond to government requests not to publish certain information, and the use of graphic pictures of violence.