W. Thomas Smith, Jr

We writers – whether journalists reporting, columnists expounding, or authors expanding – have an incredible responsibility. We must be critical in our approach to news and information. We must understand it. We must remember it is not about us as writers; it is solely about our readers. We must take the information we receive; ensure that it is both thorough and unflaggingly truthful. Then we must accurately boil it down in a fashion that is digestible for our readers.

There is another variable in the reporting mix: We must report and write responsibly.

And when it comes to writing about war and military operations, we have to strike a balance between what we owe the news-consuming general public and what we owe our soldiers in the field.

For instance, as a military/defense writer, I often find myself privy to sensitive information. Such information, if read by the enemy (and make no mistake, the enemy reads what we write), could put the lives of our men and women in uniform at great risk. This is a trust the vast majority of my colleagues and I take very seriously. But more than a few defense contractors and some senior military leaders believe not all reporters feel bound by such accuracy or responsibility.

Case in point: a story published January 7, 2006 in The New York Timesthat criticized, among other things, the military’s issuance – or lack thereof – of body armor for troops in Iraq.

According to the story, “Pentagon Study Links Fatalities to Body Armor” by Michael Moss, “The Pentagon has been collecting the data on wounds since the beginning of the war in March 2003 in part to determine the effectiveness of body armor. The military's medical examiner, Dr. Craig T. Mallak, told a military panel in 2003 that the information ‘screams to be published.’ But it would take nearly two years.”

Then on February 13, Army Times senior staff writer Gordon Lubold reported that at the behest of Congressman Curt Weldon (R – PA), “Mallak testified at [a February 2 Congressional] hearing that the quote in The New York Times story ‘was very much taken out of context’ and that his remarks were made not in regard to body armor but to another issue altogether.”

W. Thomas Smith, Jr

W. Thomas Smith Jr. is a former U.S. Marine rifle-squad leader and counterterrorism instructor. He is the author of six books, and he has covered war and conflict in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and Lebanon. Visit him online at http://www.uswriter.com.
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