Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel pursued truth, journalistic principles in lead-up to war

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Observer staff
March 19, 2008

The fog of war is a challenge in disseminating accurate and timely information to the public. The post-Sept. 11 era is no exception to this rule. Fear and uncertainty after the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania combined to create an environment in which the Bush administration was able to argue successfully for preemptive war against Iraq. Information that was presented as fact by the highest levels of the U.S. government in 2003 has later been proven to be questionable at best, or altogether fiction.

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The front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel announces Bush’s 48-hour warning to Saddam Hussein on March 18, 2003.

This paper is not an examination of the validity of the information presented to the public in the run-up to the war on Iraq, but is an examination of one large regional newspaper’s role in conveying that information. The fact that it is a regional newspaper and may have limited resources compared to larger media outlets does not excuse it from the responsibility of reporting accurately. Specifically, this paper assesses the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s pre-war coverage against the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics in determining whether or not the paper failed the public. It takes content quality and quantity into account when evaluating the paper’s pre-war coverage.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was not silent in the run-up to the war on Iraq. It printed an extensive amount of information about the pending conflict in both its news coverage and editorial section. The Journal Sentinel made a few troubling mistakes that could be corrected in future coverage, but did not completely fail in its duty to the public. To the contrary, this regional newspaper urged a measured approach to the conflict, encouraging diplomacy over all other options. The quantity and quality of its coverage aligned with that approach.

. . .

Seek and report truth

The prime directive of journalism is to provide the public with reliable information so they may make decisions about issues that are important to them. In the run-up to the war, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s primary duty was to seek and report the truth about the threat Iraq posed to the American public so citizens could decide whether or not to support military action.

The front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel announces the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

Reporting truth requires journalists to test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. The Journal Sentinel could not necessarily test the accuracy of the claims the Bush administration and other world leaders made because it did not have access to highly classified national security information. However, it could have done a better job prefacing statements made by official sources as speculation, or by better attributing statements to their sources.

Reporting truth requires journalists to seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing. While it may have been unreasonable to expect the Journal Sentinel contact Saddam Hussein directly about allegations against him, it could have pursued other perspectives more vigorously. The Journal Sentinel relied heavily on official U.S. sources, creating a vulnerability of dependence in its fact-finding.

Reporting truth requires journalists make certain headlines, teasers and promotions do not misrepresent. This paper pointed out a number of instances where information was either distorted or misrepresented. (Note, this paper does not assert the distortion or misrepresentation was intentional.) The Journal Sentinel could have been more vigilant in avoiding sensational headlines and page headers about Iraq.

Reporting truth demands journalists tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so. The Journal Sentinel took its calling as a regional paper too far in focusing so heavily on the effects the potential war was going to have on local readers, thus failing to fully represent the trauma a war would create for Iraqi citizens. An Arab voice was little heard in the Journal Sentinel’s pre-war coverage.

The front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel announces a U.S. surgical strike on Iraq on March 20, 2003.

The Journal Sentinel succeeded in supporting the open exchange of views, a primary element to reporting truth. The extensive quantity of information presented was exceptional for a regional paper. The wide spectrum of letters to the editor on Iraq was also commendable.

Reporting truth requires that journalists be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. The Journal Sentinel’s internal structure limited its effectiveness in meeting that goal. The paper acknowledged its lack of Washington correspondents creates a vulnerability because it is difficult, or even impossible, to question the White House from afar.

Articulation of official position

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel succeeded in articulating its position on the conflict with Iraq. The paper’s position of record was that it supported any means other than war necessary to resolve the conflict, yet did not rule out war because it believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Much of its news reporting on the topic focused on international diplomacy. And, the majority of its editorials were neutral, urging diplomacy before any other action. Even after military action began in February, the paper still focused on diplomacy.

War as an outcome

The fact that the U.S. government declared war on Iraq on March 20 does not automatically incriminate all American newspapers, or the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in failing their journalistic duty to the public. Journalists are not the public, the U.S. Congress or the president. Their role in life is to report on events as they occur. Journalists are not called to become involved in or change the outcome of an event.

This paper concludes the Journal Sentinel did a reasonable job seeking and reporting truth in a very difficult situation. It acknowledges there would be areas for improvement if the same type of situation ever happened again, but does not condemn the Journal Sentinel for being in a ‘coma.’

Furthermore, this paper finds the Journal Sentinel remained true to its own statement of principles in its pre-war coverage. It supported a strong national defense, tried to lead its readers to truth, made recommendations with the hope of progress, strove to be accurate and attempted to affirm what is wise in order to build a better future.


The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel supported a strong national defense, tried to lead its readers to truth, made recommendations with the hope of progress, strove to be accurate and attempted to affirm what is wise in order to build a better future.

1. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel printed an article on Feb. 6 titled “Iraq derides evidence as stunts” which discussed Hussein regime’s claim that the United States was fabricating evidence of weapons of mass destruction. But the article may have been overlooked by readers because an editorial in the same issue was printed on subsequent pages was titled “Powell delivers the goods.”

2. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did a reasonable job in offering its readers a balanced approach to pre-war coverage: published opinion pieces on both sides, for and against the war, in the same newspaper issue. For example, the Feb. 8 issue had these two articles: William Safire’s “Can there still be any doubt about his intentions?” and Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin’s “It will take more than 18 trucks to justify this war.”

3. The paper’s editorials almost universally urged caution in engaging in war, saying diplomacy and all other options should be exhausted before taking military action.

4. However, the paper did use letters to the editor, which took a sharper stance against the war than the paper did in its editorials: the first letter published opposed the war nearly 88 percent of the time.

This article is an excerpt from Lisa Tanger’s “Pre-war Coverage: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Approach to the War on Iraq.” Read the full story here.

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