Reporting from the Front Line: the connection’s in the detail

Previous entry in series…1st post

WHEN THE crowds turned out in Wootten Bassett last month to repatriate the bodies of Territorial Army Rifleman Andrew Fentiman, 23, of 7th Battalion The Rifles, and Corporal Loren Marlton-Thomas, 28, of 33 Engineer Regiment, there was an added poignancy. It was the 100th time this Wiltshire market town had turned out to welcome home our fallen soldiers.

But while we can be filled with emotion and grief for the loss the families and friends of these servicemen and women, our experience is greatly detached. Even as we near a decade at war – in Afghanistan and Iraq – few people will have a tangible link to the military.

Perhaps we sat on a grandad’s knee as a child as they recounted stories about their experience of military service. Or through a relative or friend who may have served in Iraq, Afghanistan, or the Falklands or Balkans. But I would guess the majority of us will never have met a soldier. Before my recent experience with the Royal Marines, I was in that category. Max Hastings said in his book Going to the Wars, soldiers can seem like “creatures from another planet”.

The closest most people will come to the military is through the press; the news reports of British soldiers being killed in Afghanistan. But even then, despite the reporting sent back from the front line, as the journalist crouches down behind a makeshift parapet in the company of troops, and we hear bullets flying overhead, detail about events can sometimes be hard to find.

We hear very little detail about the operation or patrol when a soldier is killed. A newspaper or broadcast may report simply that they were killed in a gun battle or by an IED.

The BBC News article which first reported the death of Rifleman Andrew Fentiman said he “died after coming under fire while on a foot patrol near Sangin in central Helmand province“. Later in the day, a revised article limited its description of events to “Rifleman Fentiman was shot on foot patrol near Sangin, central Helmand“. The rest of the article focused on a blog Rifleman Fentiman had posted at the start of November in which he said they were waiting for new body armour and helmets.

Questions about soldiers being provided with adequate body armour have, legitimately, been the subject of much media scrutiny. But, nowhere in these two articles is the reader informed with any detail what task Rifleman Fentiman was engaged on. Simply that he was on “foot patrol”.

Lecturers at the Cardiff School of Journalism have been emphasising to fellow students and I the importance of building up the word picture for the reader. Constructing an image of an event so your reader can picture it in their mind. After reading the BBC’s article, I could not picture the situation. The Times reported in a similar fashion, that he had been shot while on foot patrol, though printed more of the blog in which Rifleman Fentiman himself gave a picture of the situation as he saw it. So too the Daily Mail, Mirror, Independent, The Sun, Guardian, Sky News.

As far as I can see, it was only The Telegraph which dug a little deeper into the MoD’s press release to tell the reader:

“Rifleman Fentiman was shot while on a foot patrol designed to keep insurgents at bay and reassure the local population.”

Finally a reporter – Aislinn Laing – had considered it important to tell the reader the purpose of the patrol.

From an office in London, over 3,500 miles from Afghanistan, obtaining precise details about the nature of a patrol  – its purpose, aims, success in a wider context – is no easy task. And as I discovered, it can be difficult for journalists even on the front line to obtain information.

Reporting from the Front Line series continues

Series continues…3rd post

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