This morning’s front page headline at the online Times was horrifying: “At Least 7 Afghan Children Killed in U.S. Airstrike.” The first two paragraphs describe carnage and what appears to be inaccurate intelligence:
The American-led coalition forces in Afghanistan killed seven children during an air strike on what they say was an Al Qaeda base in the east of the country, the military said in a statement today.
The air strike, which took place on Sunday night, hit a compound in the Zarghun Shah district of the border province of Paktika, which contained a mosque and a religious school and which the coalition forces said intelligence had shown was being used as a safe house for Al Qaeda fighters.
It’s only when you get to the third paragraph that you discover that the intelligence was good and that there were, in fact, militia leaders on site:
Several militants were killed in the strike, and two militants were also detained, the coalition said. The children’s deaths come amid mounting civilian casualties in Afghanistan and rising public anger in the country over them.
The next paragraph explains that a lot of civilians have been dying in recent raids, making the Afghanis really angry. Only in the paragraph after that one does the Times quote an Army spokesman who makes a point about the same problem Israel routinely struggles with in dealing with Palestinians and Hezbollah — human shields:
“We are saddened by the innocent lives that were lost as a result of militants’ cowardice,” Army Maj. Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman, said in the statement. “We had surveillance on the compound all day and saw no indications there were children inside the building.”
Oh, and by the way, now that the Times is dealing with actual facts, not a political agenda, it turns out that this carefully targeted air strike followed an attack in which the Islamists terribly targeted civilians, killing 24 people and injuring scores more, with most of the dead being police on their way to work:
The attack followed a mammoth bombing by insurgents in Kabul on Sunday, which killed at least 24 people and was one of the deadliest insurgent attacks in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Of those killed, 22 were police academy instructors on their way to work.
The blast occurred at 8:15 and was powerful enough to shear off the roof and both sides of the bus and uproot many of the front seats.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with Zabihullah Mujahid, who said he was a spokesman, saying in a phone interview that a suicide bomber had infiltrated the police and guilefully boarded the vehicle.
Kabul’s police chief, Esmatullah Daulatzai, said the precise tactics of the attack were unclear. “Our investigation shows that a suicide attacker jumped into the vehicle and blew himself up,” he said.
Whatever the method, it was spectacularly lethal, unleashing shards of glass and metal into a crowded area beside police headquarters, the governor’s office and the national archive. Two other vehicles were ripped apart by the explosion. The wounded included pedestrians waiting at an adjacent bus terminal.
Raz Muhammad, a policeman standing guard at headquarters, was among the first to reach the scene. “Those in the front seats, their bodies were very ripped apart,” he said. “Half of their heads were gone and there was brain matter all over. Very few of those inside survived. I could help those able to walk.”
There is confusion about the death toll. Police officials originally said 36 had died, but the chief later amended that number, adding that 52 people were wounded, including 38 who had to be hospitalized. It remains possible that more than 24 people perished. Bodies were taken to more than one hospital and then quickly released to families, perhaps sacrificing an accurate mortality count.
Indeed, the remainder of this article is about the horrors of the Taliban attack on civilians.
So now we know how a New York Times article is structured: Bury the major story in the last part of the article. Open with an attack on America. And slowly reveal that both the headline and lead paragraphs are misleading. That’s great journalism.
UPDATE: Incidentally, there are other ways of reporting the story about the air strike. In The Telegraph, on the news page that has the headlines and the little blurbs meant to attract readers’ attention, this is what you see (as of 11:14 P.S.T.):
Seven children killed in Nato airstrike
An airstrike on a religious school sheltering al-Qa’eda militants in Afghanistan killed seven children.
The Telegraph definitely gets the shock headline about the seven dead children (in the “if it bleeds, it leads” hierarchy, nothing leads better than bleeding children), but it quickly follows that attention-grabbing fact with the other newsworthy part of the story: militants were hiding amongst children. The headline readers and news skimmers who seldom dive into the whole story will understand the heart of the issue, which isn’t that children die, but that militants ensure that children die.
Go to the Telegraph story itself, and you’ll see that the focus continues to be on the issue of human shields which, as DQ points out in his comment to this post, is the real story:
A Nato airstrike on a religious school sheltering al-Qa’eda militants in Afghanistan killed seven children, coalition forces admitted today.
The children died along with several militants when coalition jets bombed a compound containing a madrassa and mosque in the Zarghun Shah District of Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan yesterday.
Nato forces insisted they were unaware of the presence of children in the compound. Major Chris Belcher, a Nato spokesman, also accused the al-Qa’eda militants of not letting the children leave the compound and using them as human shields.
“We are saddened by the innocent lives that were lost as a result of militants’ cowardice,” Major Belcher said in a statement.
“This is another example of al-Qaida using the protective status of a mosque, as well as innocent civilians, to shield themselves.”
As the Times did, the Telegraph follows its discussion of the air strike with a description of the Taliban suicide bombing that occurred on the same day. This time, however, including the two stories in one place makes sense, because they both focus on a Taliban tactic: using the innocent as weapons of war. This stands in stark contrast with the Times reporting, which never tied the two stories together, and made the headline and first five paragraphs of its report look like nothing more than US/Nato bashing appended to an otherwise unrelated story about Taliban suicide bombers. Indeed, it did worse, because it seemed to imply parity: the US and Nato kill innocents, the Taliban kills innocents. It’s all the same in media land.
UPDATE II: I reread my post just now and discovered that, aside from multiple typos and awkward phrases, I fell into one of my little writing: I overuse the phrase “in fact” or the word “fact.” I’ve cleaned up the post’s language (a lot), both to erase awkward phrases and verbal tics, but otherwise left it unchanged since I first wrote in such a rush this morning — and that’s a fact.