One in a series on how people around the world are perceiving the war in Iraq through their local media.
Eight Germans watched intently as images from the war flashed across a small screen: a U.S. helicopter firing missiles, Iraqi prisoners with bags concealing their faces, a bombed-out Baghdad television facility, Saddam Hussein in a conference room, an American general briefing the press.
While the 8 p.m. broadcast ranged over a variety of topics, the viewers said afterward that they were most affected by scenes of suffering Iraqis and accounts of foul-ups in the war.
The scene of hooded prisoners "looks sort of dehumanizing," said Margit Mayer, 51, a professor of politics at the Free University of Berlin. "It made me compare it immediately to when it happened the other way around," when the U.S. government complained that an Iraqi display of American POWs violated the Geneva Convention, she said.
Mayer said Iraq's handling of the American prisoners was preferable. "They got to say, 'I'm Shoshana. I'm from Texas.' You saw a real human being," she said.
The group also was struck by an account of a friendly-fire incident in which an American plane killed a British serviceman, and by film of a crowd of Iraqi civilians pushing and shoving to get water.
"Did anybody here ever have the feeling that they have to fight for water to survive?" Carsten Kus, 34, a firefighter, asked indignantly. "These people fear for their survival -- not like in a traffic accident, where it lasts 20 seconds, but for a whole week."
The eight Berliners agreed to let a reporter join them Monday in watching the ARD evening telecast, the nation's most widely watched news program. Like most Germans, they oppose the war. A poll conducted late last week found that 84 percent of Germans believe the attack on Hussein's government is unjustified. The survey, by the Forsa Institute for RTL television and the Bild am Sonntag newspaper, also found that 60 percent of Germans believe the U.S.-led coalition should do more to protect the civilian population.
Germans appear to be viewing the war through a prism that highlights the human costs, difficulties and risks. Media and political analysts say that perspective springs from three interconnected sources: public attitudes against the war, the German government's opposition to it and the occasionally antiwar tone of German media coverage.
"Since the majority of the German people and the government are opposing the war, it's easier for the German media to raise critical questions and stress aspects of the war, which really make clear that this war might not be the right decision," said Martin Loeffelholz, a professor of media studies at Ilmenau University of Technology and editor of the book "War as a Media Event."
Overall, though, he and others said the media were professional and fair-minded. "You can't say that the coverage of the war is only critical in Germany," said Lothar Mikos, a professor of television studies at the Academy of Film and Television in Potsdam-Babelsberg. "They try to manage this in a so-called objective way."
The group that met in Mayer's cozy, high-ceilinged apartment in a middle-class neighborhood in Berlin's Steglitz district delivered a mixed judgment about the German media's impartiality. Axel Dorloff, 26, a North American studies major at the Free University, said that ARD's correspondent in Baghdad, Stephan Kloss, seemed to label the war as illegitimate.
"He said it's an illegal war. He said it in his own voice," Dorloff said. Other viewers disagreed, saying they thought Kloss was merely describing the opinion of Baghdad residents.
Susann Park, 26, a student majoring in American studies and drama, thought the guests on German talk shows were overwhelmingly antiwar. "It's actually rare that someone is pro-American," she said.
A popular late-night comedy talk show hosted by Harald Schmidt regularly displays a dove and peace symbol on the set, for instance.
On the other hand, Mayer thought the media had given too little coverage to how the German government still supports the war effort, and had neglected to cover Berlin's decision to allow American and British planes to use German airspace on missions involved in the conflict.
The group of viewers, as well as the professional analysts, praised German media for making an extra effort to identify their sources and for actively acknowledging the difficulty of obtaining accurate information in a war zone. The German media are doing that in part because they have fewer reporters on the front lines than Americans and British.
"They always tell you the source. I don't remember they did that in the Yugoslav war," said Petra Brandstaedter, 42, an elementary school teacher.
Most of the group said they often found it difficult to watch the war coverage, because the images of combat, destruction and human suffering were so disturbing.
Ingeborg Boenigk, 55, a special education teacher, said she was particularly upset by a recent newspaper photograph showing an Iraqi father and his two children, a teenage boy and a young woman in her twenties, running from a tank.
"It's just so horrifying," she said. "When you see a body suffering, you feel for that person. I feel it even for the American soldiers, being away from their families."
Some of the viewers said they thought war coverage has an especially powerful impact on Germans because of their role in World War II. Brandstaedter said her mother, who lived through that war, "thinks this is horrible. She's almost crying."
The Germans said President Bush doesn't come off well in the German media. He is not an impressive speaker, they said, and is often portrayed as a puppet of his advisers.
"The Germans initially didn't take him seriously," Park said. "Phrases like 'Either you're with us or against us,' they're so much like something from Western movies. It appalls you, because it seems so narrow-minded."
There's no sympathy for Saddam Hussein, though. Mayer said the media show him as someone who has committed atrocities, started the 1991 Persian Gulf War and used poison gas against his own people.
"He is a brutal dictator. Nobody in the peace movement would doubt that," Dorloff said.
A summary of news coverage of the war in Iraq and a roundup of international commentary is updated weekday mornings at www.washingtonpost.com