On June 16, a caller from Maryland said she had heard a radio report the night before that seven U.S. servicemen had been killed in Iraq, but when she looked in The Post, there was no news about it. Actually, the paper did report it in a story from Iraq, inserting material from a Reuters news service account saying that the U.S. military reported that five Marines had been killed the previous day. The Post mentioned it again the following day, adding that a sailor had also been killed and pointing out that it was the second time in a week that a roadside bomb had killed that many Marines.
Both these items, however, were well inside stories that had headlines about other things. The June 16 headline on Page A20 said, "Australian Hostage Is Rescued in Baghdad; Dozens of Iraqis Killed at Mess Hall." The next day's story on Page A22 was headlined, "Sunnis Added to Iraq Constitution Panel." So it is easy to miss these things.
Almost every week, I get one, two or three calls or e-mails like this one from people upset about the way military losses are reported and presented. That's not much, but it has formed a steady hum in the background the past year or so, and I find myself in sympathy with these readers.
I think their point is important because it goes to the question of whether the reality of the war in Iraq has become sanitized in the newspapers; there are almost no pictures of dead or wounded Americans, and very few stories about U.S. casualties make the front page or get a main headline.
The Post, in particular, has done a superior job in reporting on the war from Iraq. Similarly, the paper does several other things that call attention to the war's toll. There are feature stories in Style and stories of funerals and remembrances of local service members in Metro. A small feature runs on most days in the World News section with the tally of those killed and wounded as announced by the Pentagon, and an excellent graphic appeared in that section on May 1 depicting the human and financial cost of the war. And since the war began in March 2003, on 15 occasions The Post has run powerful, two-page spreads labeled Faces of the Fallen, with the portraits of those killed in Iraq. It has also done fine work in presenting the carnage being done to Iraqis by suicide bombing and other attacks, including many front-page stories and photos.
Yet, between April 1 and June 23, as I write this, 193 U.S. service members died in Iraq, and there wasn't a single, major front-page headline that captured this as it was unfolding or summed things up at any point. (More Marine deaths, including that of a woman, were reported in a front-page story yesterday and were mentioned in the subheadline.)
Here are some examples of what is more typical. On June 11 there was a reference -- inside the box at the bottom of the front page that tells readers some of what's inside -- to a story about five Marines being killed. But even that small "key" headline said, "Iraq Violence Flares Near Syrian Border," and the headline on the story inside made no reference to the Marines. On May 25, nine U.S. troops were reported killed. The front-page story was headlined, "Insurgent Chief Wounded, Aide Says." Underneath that, in the smaller, lighter-faced type used for subheads, it said "Zarqawi Reportedly Shot; 9 U.S. Troops Die in Attacks." There have been other references in front-page stories to soldiers or Marines being killed, but rarely in a headline of any kind and almost always as part of a story that gives the headline to other aspects of the war.
The combat deaths usually unfold one or two at a time, and that's not likely to produce individual stories. But when four or five, or nine, are killed in one day, that seems different. Compared with the casualties of World War II, Korea or Vietnam, the numbers are still not high, and the public understands that people get killed in wars. Nevertheless, this is an unusual and controversial war, and it could be a long one. So news organizations need to find ways so that even a slow buildup of casualties does not escape the kind of occasional Page One attention -- in headlines, words and pictures -- that readers deserve and won't miss.
There was a torrent of critical e-mails and calls about a Washington Sketch column on June 17 by Post columnist Dana Milbank that appeared in the news section and was about the unofficial hearing on Iraq held by Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and other opponents of the war the day before. I thought it was a serious mistake for editors to assign a columnist to cover a news event. There are large numbers of people who oppose the war and care about what Conyers was trying to accomplish, and a reporter should have covered the event as news. If a columnist wants to write a separate piece with his take on it, that's fine. But it is not enough by itself.
Finally, several readers wrote and called to complain that the paper had underplayed the story on Wednesday about a veteran Prince George's County police officer, Cpl. Steven Gaughan, who was killed in a shootout in Laurel. The officer, a member of a special unit that chases down violent criminals, was the first county officer shot in the line of duty in at least a decade, according to the story by reporter Allison Klein.
The Post is a heavily zoned paper, so this story was on the front of the Metro section in the Maryland edition but well inside in the District and Virginia editions, and readers from all over said they felt that it was important Page A1 news for all. Some D.C. and Virginia callers said they could have done without another story on their Metro front pages about the theft of the D.C. police chief's car two days earlier. "Ha, ha," wrote one reader. "We got it the first time. What I don't get is why today's police officer murder is on B5."
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.