Accuracy in Media

It sounded like a gruesome and horrible story: mass graves containing hundreds of bodies, mostly children, had been discovered in a town in Kosovo, where a civil war is taking place. To make matters worse, the bodies were said to have been bulldozed into a garbage dump. It seemed if the Serbs, who were blamed for this atrocity, had finally gone too far. These violations of human rights were said to be so gross that they could prompt intervention in the conflict by NATO and American forces. In the end, however, the stories turned out to be vastly overblown. In fact, some of them may have been fabricated.

The stories of mass graves made the American evening news programs on August 5th. By then, however, serious doubts were already starting to emerge. The story broke that morning when several European papers had started reporting on the graves. The most sensational story was run in the Austrian daily Die Presse, whose article seemed based on a visit to a rubbish site with the graves and interviews with inhabitants and grave diggers. The implication was that hundreds of innocent people, including children, had been massacred and their bodies dumped.

But the Serbs had a completely different story. They said they had buried the bodies of up to 40 terrorists who had been killed in the fighting. These were rebel fighters killed in battle, not men, women and children massacred at close range or executed point blank. They said there was no garbage dump, only some trash that had been thrown into the area. By the evening of August 5th, European authorities were starting to have doubts of their own about the initial stories. Officials of the European Union reported visiting the site and seeing single graves. This was confirmed when the New York Times ran a story by Mike O’Connor, who himself visited the area and found what he said appeared to be about 40 individual graves. He confirmed the graves appeared to be in a garbage dump and that another excavated area could have contained more bodies. But he gave no indication these were children.

It was subsequently reported that the author of one of the initial reports admitted that he had not personally seen the graves, and that the article was based on information provided by an “informer.” It had all the earmarks of a propaganda campaign being waged to force NATO intervention in the conflict. If this was the intent, it backfired because NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana himself dismissed the reports of mass graves. “There are no mass graves of the type described in a newspaper,” he declared.

Here, in the United States, the Washington Times failed to catch up with the truth in time. On August 6th, after the story had already begun falling apart, the paper ran a front-page story by Philip Smucker repeating claims about 500 bodies, many of them children.

These stories sound sensational when they first appear and they tug at our emotions. However, we have to remember that it is the interests of one faction in this war, those devoted to independence for Kosovo, to get us so outraged that we demand U.S. or NATO military intervention on their side. Reporters should resist being duped into a campaign that will put our troops at risk of losing their lives.

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