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'Parachute journalism' hurts world news overseas

By Namrata Savoor


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ARLINGTON, Va. — As most television networks succumb to economic pressures by closing their foreign bureaus, the number of inexperienced journalists covering international crises and wars has increased, said journalist and author Don Oberdorfer at a May 26 Inside Media program at the Newseum.

Sending journalists into crises without much background knowledge is commonly called "parachute journalism," Oberdorfer said. Often these journalists are unfamiliar with the people around them and don't know the best sources, he said.

Nowadays, few television correspondents are permanently stationed in foreign countries, Oberdorfer said, and journalists sent to cover sensitive incidents give the "public a much thinner sense of what this is all about because you (the journalist) don't know it yourself."

Oberdorfer covered the Vietnam War for Knight newspapers and later was a diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post. He is the author of Tet: The Turning Point in the Vietnam War, published in 1971 and still in print.

When reporters cover wars, he said, newsroom pressures often force them to make snap judgments about events and prompt them to predict the outcome to complex situations.

"It's dangerous but understandable that the press ... feels it must make up its mind about who won, who lost," Oberdorfer said.

War correspondents today do not provide sufficient historical background and context to help readers understand conflicts better, he said. "If you don't know a little bit about the past, you can't really understand the present," he said.

Oberdorfer said the turbulent relationship between the American military and the press had shown signs of abating in recent years, with the American military "coming to a more sensible position about the press."

But with the advent of new technologies, the press poses new problems to the military, he said. The military is faced with the possibility that the press can use sophisticated electronic equipment, such as satellite telephones, to transmit information in real time, which can be tracked by enemy forces to reveal American bases, Oberdorfer said.

Although this scenario is plausible, he said, he seeks to dispel a popular "myth" among some military officials that the press was largely responsible for America's defeat in the Vietnam War.

Oberdorfer said correspondents covering the Vietnam War did not make up stories and were getting their information from the lowest American military ranks in the field, not from ambassadors or the White House.

"I don't think the press can be looked at in isolation from the rest of what was happening," he said.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the military felt compelled to control what was being reported, Oberdorfer said. In subsequent conflicts in Grenada and Bosnia, for example, the military has found some success in controlling correspondents' movements and interaction with sources, he said.

But journalists should try to circumvent such attempts, conduct independent investigations and report on what they find, he said.

"The job of a journalist in part is to try to detach yourself a little bit from events in order to have a better degree of judgment," Oberdorfer said.

The program was held in conjunction with the Newseum's War Stories exhibit, which runs through Nov. 11.


War Stories events coverage
Coverage of discussions relating to Newseum's War Stories exhibit.  07.31.01