NORFOLK -- To longtime military reporter Jack Dorsey, the column was simply a personal observation from the front lines of the Middle East war. To peace activists and some fellow journalists back home, it was another example of a local reporter crossing the line from dispassionate observer to cheerleader.

Visiting U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Dorsey wrote a piece for the Virginian-Pilot and Ledger-Star last month reflecting the troops' distaste for anti-war demonstrators.

Dorsey, the papers' senior military writer who has covered the Navy for 12 years, derided protesters as the same people who rallied for "whales, abortion, antiabortion, anti-nuclear, anti-plastics and so on."

He added that it was uplifting to see television coverage of a pro-troops rally in Norfolk. "Personally, it did my heart some good ... " he wrote.

Here in the heavily military Hampton Roads area, which has sent about 40,000 troops to fight in the Persian Gulf War, newspapers and television stations are struggling to provide tough, objective journalism and still be sensitive to the strong emotions of a company town.

"We get criticized both ways, just like the umpire," said Sandra M. Rowe, the Virginian-Pilot's executive editor. "We get called pro-war, and we get criticized when we show the {peace} protesters."

In theory, at least, newspaper readers and TV viewers are more likely to have confidence in the news they receive if it is an unbiased version of events, not colored by the personal opinions of reporters. When reporters take stands on issues, the public may question whether those opinions influenced what was reported and how.

Frederick Talbott, who teaches journalism at Old Dominion University and heads the local chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, said he has been amazed by the "crackerjack job" that most of the local media have been doing. At the same time, he is concerned that reporters are sometimes lapsing into boosterism.

"It's great to wave the flag, but it might also be seen as toeing the line," said Talbott, who plans a public meeting for Monday on the issue of local war coverage. "Are we getting the official government line or the Fourth Estate line?"

Talbott cites the Dorsey column as the most obvious example. Some Pilot staff members grumbled about the piece, and Assistant Managing Editor Ronald L. Speer complained in an internal memo that it could compromise the paper's credibility in covering both sides of the issue.

"I thought that was extremely poor," Talbott, a former Pilot reporter who calls Dorsey a friend, said about the column. "That was not a newsman writing that. I don't know what got into Jack that night."

Dorsey said he just wanted to convey the impact of the protests on troop morale.

"They felt hurt, and I guess that was what I was trying to get across," he said. "In retrospect, if I had let them say it instead of me saying it, it would have worked out better. As to the stuff about tainting my ability to cover my beat, it hasn't. I didn't like protesters to begin with."

Since the crisis began last August, local newspapers and broadcasters have tried to satisfy a voracious appetite for war news with a steady diet of international wire stories, home-front reaction, detailed pieces on weaponry and features.

When the war started, for instance, the Pilot began a daily column answering readers' war-related questions about everything from the draft to notification of next of kin; the paper was swamped with 1,000 phone calls the first week.

Before the war, about 4,000 people called each month to listen to the paper's "infoline" offering a two-minute summary of the next day's headlines; now the paper receives that many calls each day.

With reporters at home and correspondents in Washington and, for a while, the Middle East, the local newspapers have produced in-depth pieces demonstrating their expertise in things military, including a vivid projection of how an amphibious assault would work in the Newport News Daily Press and a full-page graphic about the Exocet missile in the Pilot.

The media have also battled with military officers over restrictions on access to the multitude of local bases, and they have grappled with delicate issues such as whether to broadcast images of American prisoners of war, some of whom live here.

Some editors have not shied away from providing forums for locally unpopular points of view. The Pilot published a long article comparing the military's exclusion of gays and lesbians to its former practice of banning blacks, and later devoted several pages of a Sunday features section to profiles of anti-war activists.

Such coverage has often filled letters-to-the-editor columns a with missives from readers convinced that the media are giving too much away to the enemy -- or too much attention to protesters.

One caller told the Pilot's ombudsman that the newspaper should not have printed a routine map showing the location of the Norfolk Naval Base because it might help Iraqi terrorists. Other callers complained about a front-page graphic that included an Iraqi flag opposite a U.S. flag, prompting editors to pull it.

Aware of their audience, the local media have tried to show that they sympathize with military families.

Television stations run in-house advertisements with jingles about how the military service members are "the pride of Hampton Roads." The Pilot printed a full-page U.S. flag in color with the message: "Show your support for our local military and their families by displaying this flag in your front window or other prominent place." Not to be outdone, the Daily Press quickly prepared its own U.S. flag -- this one two full pages.

"There's no question that the papers show evidence of feeling that they have to back the military in this area or they might lose some of their readership," said Walter R. Volckhausen, president of the Peninsula Peace Education Center in Hampton. "They don't go out of their way to show the other side."

Talbott also cited the "flag waving" of local WVEC-TV anchor Jim Kincaid, a 40-year journalism veteran who reported in Vietnam and who lauded the "brave Marines" killed in ground combat during a recent commentary.

"I don't really make any apologies for commentaries because that is clearly my opinion," he said in an interview. "When I do straight reporting, I do straight reporting."

But sometimes television stations mix reporting with hometown cheering. When Portsmouth wanted to throw a hero's parade for former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait W. Nathaniel Howell Jr. earlier this month, two local stations rushed to the event -- not just to cover it, but to participate.

One station, WAVY-TV, co-sponsored the two days of ceremonies for the Portsmouth native. Rival WTKR-TV sent the reporter who covered Howell's return from Kuwait to host the parade and reception, where she described him as "the man we're all so proud of."

"I certainly think there's nothing wrong with it," said WAVY News Director Dave Overton. "He's a legitimate national hero who's from this town, and as the main media in this town we felt it was appropriate. We're part of the community too."

Kerry Sipe, the ombudsman for the Pilot, said that while reporters should not express their opinions in public forums, examples like the Dorsey column may show that the rules of journalism change during war.

"They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and maybe there are no pure, unbiased journalists in foxholes, either," he said. "Maybe when the shooting starts, it's okay to hope that one side wins and the other side loses and there's nothing to be gained by pretending otherwise."