I read Christopher Hitchen’s story on Agent Orange in this past month’s Vanity Fair. It’s a well written and horrifying article with stunning and horrible photos by James Nachtwey. The article covers the spread of Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. It’s the sort of article that makes you wonder if the United States committed war crimes during the Vietnam War and makes you question just what is “collateral damage.”
[Incidentally, the article references studies by Prof. Jeanne Stellman; she is an expert on how Agent Orange was deployed during Vietnam and its long term effects. She is also my friend Andrew’s mother. It’s a small world.]
However much the article and photos stuck with me, one paragraph really hit home. Hitchens wrote:
I swear to you that Jim Nachtwey has taken photographs, as one of his few rivals, Philip Jones Griffiths, also took photographs, that simply cannot be printed in this magazine, because they would poison your sleep, as they have poisoned mine.
To me, this quote illustrates a facet of professional journalism that is not widely understood: writers, editors, photographers, and others exercise discretion in what they choose to create and publish. They make tradeoffs between how they feel their reader’s will react versus what their readers want to see and their “right to know.”
Two examples of incidents that have been underreported come to mind: one generic and one specific. It’s been well documented that publishing details of a suicide can lead to other suicides. Because of this, the media will refrain from publishing details of a suicide. It isn’t censorship, because governments are not preventing the media from publishing details of suicides; it’s just responsible journalism. (See the Wikipedia article on copycat suicide.)
Specifically, one example of an underreported incident that comes to mind was the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11. This may sound surprising, since there was such in-depth coverage of this horrific event. However, I’ve talked with people who were there when the towers fell. When I heard the specific stories of the carnage that surrounded the area, I realized how even though coverage was extensive it did not cover the true horror of what happened there.
I’m a bit curious if fiction writers can cover historical events more accurately than journalists. Because they are not bound to cover everything in a historically accurate manner, they can choose to represent the true nature of events without reprisal. In a sneaky way, a fiction writer can always just claim to be making a story up. In an even sneakier way, a reader can accept events more easily because they are reading fiction.
Ultimately, I think people who criticize the “mainstream media” fail to realize that the media is generally made of people who deeply care about their readers and humanity as a whole.