Reading beyond the numbers: reporting on the casualties of war

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

While conducting some minor research on Thomson Reuters, I stumbled upon an article on their iPhone app about a recent suicide bombing in Kabul. One Canadian was among the 13 who died in the incident. Names of the dead weren't provided.

It's just another tragic and disheartening event within a situation that has witnessed nothing but. Canada's combat obligation ended earlier in the year, so most Canadians, including myself (naively) thought that life in the Middle East would be safer for the Canadians there serving on training missions, which aren't slated to end until 2014.  

While the article was thorough and well written, I felt a sense of uneasiness that the name of the Canadian, or even his or her role in Afghanistan, wasn't provided. The newsiness of the story wasn't who died, it was that people are still dying by the hands of orchestrated violence in the tumultuous region. 

As the Kabul bombing was becoming an after thought in my mind, I saw a headline for the story on the Globe and Mail app. This time, readers became aware that the dead Canadian was Master Corporal Byron Greff of the 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. He's said to have been only in mid - to - late 20s.

But that's it. Only a mention of his name, and nothing else. Not that he was a good solider, that he was a hardworking son, or a devoted brother, father, or anything else.

So I dug a little deeper.

Since Master Corporal Greff was based out of Edmonton, I went to the website for the Edmonton Journal hoping to find more information on him. Sure enough, there was an article filled with a few facts and quotes about his life. He was from a town just north of Red Deer. He had recently become a father. His family was shocked and saddened by his sudden death.

I don't think omitting details about Greff's life was done on purpose or to intentionally minimize his impact. Both the articles by Reuters and the Globe were very well written, and gave me a good understanding of the long and bloody road ahead in Afghanistan. 

It's just that so often in conflict and war that names, faces, and people dissolve into nothing but statistics. An entire life and existence whittled down to a mere percentage point. 

I guess it boils down to writing for a target audience. Someone who reads from international news sources might be only looking for the Five Ws. Anything else is an annoying road bump along the unforgiving information superhighway. 

And that works both ways, unfortunatley. How often do we in the western world read reports about deadly bombings and uprisings outside our proverbial white picket fence. How often do our minds and hearts go beyond the statistics?  

Really, the point I'm poorly trying to make is a simple one: don't just rely on one singular news source for information. We're journalists. If we've learned anything over the last year, is that we hate numbers. Look beyond them, and hope to find tangible truths draped in emotion and human connectivity. 

Bureaus like BBC and Reuters are excellent places to start for news, but not great places to finish. And it's not their fault. There's simply not enough keys on the piano to be able to tell everyone's story. 

Questions to ask yourself: is it fair to accept that readers don't always get the full breadth of a story when brought forth by large news agencies? Is it important or "worth it" to search out different news sources on the same story?  


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