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Journalistic Transparency in NY Times Q&A From Iraq


A long Q&A: Life in Iraq on the New York Times website shows the Baghdad bureau in more human terms, and gives readers an even better idea of what life is like in that nation. At one point John F. Burns, the newspaper’s outstanding bureau chief, writes of the Iraqi nationals who do an enormous amount of the actual reporting:

Our Iraqi reporters — who do double duty as interpreters when they accompany New York-based correspondents and photographers on assignments — are the bedrock of our enterprise.

This is not to confirm what some of the more scathing critics of the American media’s performance in Iraq have alleged, which is that American reporters in Baghdad practice a form of “hotel journalism” — meaning that for most of what we write we rely on the reporting of Iraqi staff members who venture beyond our well-guarded compounds, and rarely do so ourselves. There is hardly ever a day when one or more of our American reporters is not out in the city, or on embeds in Baghdad and beyond with American and Iraqi troops, and the results can be measured, on any day, by the authenticity of the reports that appear in the paper.

But it would be foolish to deny that there are occasions when a sensible calibration of risk deters us from going out on assignment ourselves. Often, those judgments apply in equal measure to our Iraqi reporters, too. But there are other times when an Iraqi, blending into the environment in ways that no foreigner can, feels safe in taking on an assignment that we judge to be too hazardous to undertake ourselves. Our principle is that any Iraqi leaving our compound on assignment — whether reporter, driver or guard — does so only as a “willing partner”, and after a thorough security review of the assignment beforehand.

Since our Iraqi staff are in a much better position to assess risk than we are, knowing their country as they do, this is not only a matter of principle, it is a practical precaution that we believe enhances our security.

Sensible, but it raises an issue. This suggests that the Times isn’t going far enough to give these reporters the credit they deserve in the pages of the newspaper (virtually as well as on paper). Shouldn’t they be getting more bylines? And why not let some of them create blogs on the Times’ website (as McClatchy is doing with its Iraqi staffers)?

What we’re seeing, in initiatives like the Times Q&A, is increasing transparency in how the news gets reported. We need more, and more often.

UPDATE: The AP reported on a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism showing that the pro-Bush network is covering the Iraq war much less than competitors, who speculate that the story line is going so wrong that Fox doesn’t want to call attention to it.

(Note: I hold a small amount of New York Times Co. stock, and McClatchy’s charitable arm has contributed to this center’s work.)

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