Media coverage of airstrike fails, outlets quietly rewrite articles

Tommy Collison, Opinion Editor

The world was shocked this weekend as news emerged that 19 people were killed when a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan was attacked by a U.S. air strike. The hospital, operated by Doctors Without Borders, was systematically bombed, reportedly leaving 22 dead, including three children. The hospital, which is the only one of its kind in the region, had generated controversy for treating members from both sides of the conflict. The U.S. media once again showed itself beholden to the U.S. military establishment, with high-profile news outlets unwilling to call out what is arguably a war crime in a country where U.S. conflict had allegedly ended last December. CNN reported that the hospital was bombarded “about the time of a U.S. airstrike,” seemingly incapable of drawing the probable link. In a first draft of its story captured by NewsDiff.org, a website which records when major news sites change their stories, The New York Times refused to say more than that a U.S. strike “appears to have badly damaged the hospital,” despite reporting that the military “confirmed” the strike. The NYT, with no critical eye, regurgitated the military’s statement that an attack may have led to the hospital coming under attack from “collateral damage.” Newspapers fail their readers when they mindlessly lean on official sources or quietly rewrite their stories with no word to the readers.

But beyond a national media that is largely unwilling to directly call out the US military when they attack civilians, another cause for concern is the propensity of  newspapers like The New York Times to quietly rewrite their stories, with no acknowledgement until days after. This happened in July with a story on the Clinton email scandal, and it happened again with the story on the Afghan hospital bombing. NewsDiff has archived 16 separate versions of the NYT story, under five different headlines.

Newspapers have long been the “rough first draft of history,” an admittedly imperfect report of the previous day’s events. Front pages after the Titanic sinking, V-E day in Europe or Sept. 12, 2001 have become iconic and are used as examples in journalism schools around the country. As journalism moves online and editing content becomes faster than a correction in the next day’s edition, it is important that newspapers do not abdicate their role and report events as correctly as possible, without mincing their words.

It remains to be seen if outrage at the Kunduz attack will force U.S. leaders to examine their strategy in the region. However, so long as media outlets quietly change their articles, it is up to third-party sources such as NewsDiff to serve as a watchdog on the media. This is not how our news media should work, and papers such as the NYT must lean less on official sources and be more transparent when it reports on these issues.

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Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them. 

A version of this article appeared in the October 5 print edition. Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]

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