04 May 2017

What They Don't Teach at Journalism School

A mortar explodes in non-combat Afghan National Army training incident, Laghman Province, July 2, 2013, killing four and injuring 11 others. Photo by: U.S. Army Spc. Hilda I. Clayton
There's a short video posted by Kurdish fighters that went viral earlier this year, in which one of their members swaggers through a field with a cigarette in one hand and a small pioneer tool in the other, casually harvesting land mines as easily as if they were clumps of potatoes. He swings his pick downward into the soft and sandy soil, and skewers thick, plastic-wrapped mines the size of dinner plates. Then, after he pulls them out of the ground, he follows wires to other mines interconnected to the first.

I'm not an combat engineer, but I've hung out with enough to assume he's poking and prodding anti-tank mines—weapons designed for use against vehicles, rather than personnel. Still, the soldier's practice and technique seem dangerously ill-advised. I know the engineer job often boils down to "poke it with a stick," but I wouldn't touch those explosive rocks with a 10-foot pole.


"Sappers … with balls of steel." says DoctrineMan!!, posting the Peshmerga video on his Facebook page March 27.

Some guy called Charlie Sherpa comments: "Camera guy not following at max focal distance is no slouch, either."


It is the early 1990s, and I am a reporter at The Osceola (Iowa) Sentinel-Tribune, circulation 5,000. Located in south central Iowa—just down the road from the place with all the covered bridges—Clarke County is home to my first journalism job out of college, delayed by a stint of six months of Army communications school at Fort Gordon, Ga. The latter was all about radios and telephones. Journalism school, on the other hand, was all about writing under deadline in sub-optimal living conditions, and paying more in annual tuition than a newspaper reporter's starting salary for the privilege of doing so.

What they don't teach you at journalism school: Blue blazer and khaki pants make a good work uniform. Add a clipboard and blaze-orange hat while visiting any crash or crime scene, and people will assume you know what you're doing. You're either Crime Scene Investigation or a municipal official, or maybe you're with an insurance company. Also, keep a pair of boots in the trunk, because you never know when a story will literally take you into the muck. Finally, if you're chasing a fire truck out in the country and can't see smoke in the distance, your best bet is to follow the dusty road.


The newspaper's owners and publishers were a married couple, Frank and Sally Morlan. I'd spent more than four years in school learning how to write and edit news copy, and the first thing they did was issue me a 35mm camera big attached flash. I was expected to shoot photos well enough to illustrate my words in print, not because that old cliche about a picture being worth a thousand words, but because the right pictures can help sell newspapers.

Photographs of state-fair-sized vegetables went over big with readers. So did jackpot harvests of morel mushrooms—just don't ask where the people had found them, because it's impolite to ask such secrets. Visiting celebrities and small-town-boys-and-girls-made-good made for decent coffee talk fodder. The best way to bump newspaper sales, however, was to put a picture of fire in progress on the front page, above the fold.

Frank and Sally also issued me a RadioShack-brand police-band scanner, for monitoring local emergency channels. I didn't chase ambulances as a reporter, but I did go after fire trucks.

As a backup to the scanner, during business hours, I could also keep an eye on Ed, one of the guys who ran the printing presses. He was a member of the volunteer fire department. Probably saved my life a couple of times, too.


Once, a farmer's pick-up truck caught fire in the middle of field.As I angled for a good shot of a firefighter extinguishing the engine area, Ed waved me away from the vehicle's front, and called out to "watch out for the bumper." Later, he told me that the shock-absorbing compressed-gas design of some bumpers can cause them to "cook off" when hot. The resulting explosion could knee-cap a firefighter.

Another time, a vehicular accident had damaged a city utility pole. From his position doing traffic control, Ed pointed behind me, to where da owned power line drooped from overhead. Message: The blue blazer and orange safety vest were no protection from high-voltage. "You touch that wire, and I'm not going touch you with a 10-foot pole," Ed joked.

A favorite story involves a fire in a large pasture area: Knee-high flames cut a ragged edge though the grass. From atop their small brush truck, firefighters sprayed a misty cone of water, attacking the fire from one side. I knew I was getting good pictures, despite the relatively low height of the fire. There was flame, and the stark contrast of black earth and green grass would show up dramatically in black-and-white. Water droplets offered some artistic visual possibilities, as did the heat and smoke rippling off the fields.

My firefighting buddies on the truck started shouting at me, and motioned toward my feet. I looked down. Nothing there. Just grass. What's the problem?

What they don't teach you at journalism school: If you are standing on something green or brown, the flame is headed toward you. You are standing on fuel for the fire.


In my foreword to "Reporting for Duty: Citizen-Soldier Journalism from the Afghan Surge, 2010-2011," I liken U.S. Army public affairs soldiers to community journalists. They cover their respective units like hometown reporters cover their beats, telling stories about regular people doing regular things. That often means writing about humdrum stuff like speeches and shuras and change-of-command ceremonies. And taking pictures of visiting important people and celebrities. Sometimes, however, there are opportunities to cover sexy, dramatic, and compelling topics. Big-ticket items that people will be sure to talk about the next day, like championship football games and three-alarm fires.

While they don't teach you in journalism school about the practical techniques, say, of covering small-town fires, but Uncle Sam makes sure you know the deal upfront: No job is without risk. You could die just as easily in civilian life, of course—death is always a car accident or gas-leak explosion away—but the Army job overtly and explicitly puts you in harm's way. Even if you don't sign up to be a trigger-puller.


U.S. Army Spc. Hilda I. Clayton
On July 2, 2013, U.S. Army combat camera soldier Spc. Hilda I. Clayton, 22, of Augusta, Ga. was killed in Eastern Afghanistan's Laghman Province, when a mortar being fired by Afghan National Army soldiers during a training exercise exploded just feet away from her camera position. Clayton was attached to 4th Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, then based at Forward Operating Base Gamberi. At the time, reports indicated the blast also killed three Afghan soldiers, and injured an additional 11.

The shot Clayton was taking was released by officials earlier this week, and published in the May-June 2017 issue of Military Review. A second image, shot by the Afghan public affairs soldier she was training, was also released.

The Military Review's editors state that Clayton was the first U.S. public affairs soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. They note also that Clayton was serving shoulder-to-shoulder with her Afghan counterparts:
At the critical juncture of the war, when it was necessary for the ANA to increasingly assume responsibility for military actions, the story was not in the fighting but in the partnership that was necessary between U.S. and Afghan forces to stabilize the Afghan nation. One of the Afghan soldiers killed was a photojournalist that Clayton had partnered with to train in photojournalism. Not only did Clayton help document activities aimed at shaping and strengthening the partnership but she also shared in the risk by participating in the effort.
Finally, they note the relevance of her death to the topic of gender equality in the military. "Clayton’s death symbolizes how female soldiers are increasingly exposed to hazardous situations in training and in combat on par with their male counterparts."


The "Reporting for Duty" book project was recently recognized, albeit indirectly, via an essay contest co-sponsored by the Small Wars Journal and the Military Writers Guild. The exercise assignment was to document operational lessons from tactical soldiers working at lower, tactical levels. In Army jargon, a "lesson" is knowledge gained from experience. A "lesson-learned" is knowledge gained from experience that changes subsequent behaviors.

Drawing on some Army lessons-learned training, as well as my experiences as a former small newspaper editor, I wrote an essay titled "Telling the Brigade Story: A Case Study of U.S. Army Public Affairs as an Engine of Operational Effects, Organizational History, and Strategic Narrative," which I'm pleased to report was a finalist in the contest. The essay notes how nearly every article and photo produced by public affairs soldiers deployed to Afghanistan with Iowa's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT) was tied to one of three narratives of counterinsurgency: Clear the countryside of insurgent fighters. Hold the terrain, alongside Afghan security forces. Build infrastructure, commerce, and rule-of-law on behalf of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA).

Anything not related to "clear, hold, build" was a human-interest story. And even those stories, like that of Clayton's death, could also be arguably linked to the mission. We stand, in the words of one NATO training mission in Afghanistan, shohna ba shohna. "Shoulder-to-shoulder." We share in hardship and sacrifice. Our soldiers are just people, like you.


I've got mixed feelings about the public release of the Clayton photographs. Journalism school was filled with classroom discussions about balancing the public's right to know with a subject's right to privacy. If an image only served to entertain, to titillate, to shock without moral or purpose, we taught ourselves to keep it off our pages, no matter how many magazines or newspapers it might sell.

Those were the days, of course, before the Internet. Now it seems that everything is up for grabs, regardless of good taste or facts.

I am publishing the photographs in question as part of this blog post. That's because you have to see them to understand what I'm talking about. Also, you can see them easily via the Internet. Neither of those reasons, should be an automatic indication that they're journalistically OK to publish.

Was releasing the Clayton photo the right call editorially? I don't wish to aggressively probe the ground with my own pole or pick axe, of course, but I am conflicted. As Time magazine notes, there is precedence for publishing the last images seen by war photographers. It also seems, however—that without a countervailing public need to illuminate a flaw in policy or procedure—the moment of a soldier's death might be best kept private.

Certainly, the image is not longer any sort of news flash. Released four years after a 2013 incident, its value as an artifact of current events faded long ago. Also, if value of the image is due to its representation of U.S.-Afghan security partnership, why is the name of one U.S. soldier privileged over the names of three or more Afghan soldiers, equally deceased?

Things once taught in journalism school (and, one hopes, that still are): Interrogate all messages and motivations, including your own. Make sure implied meanings match those more overtly stated. Actions speak louder than words. So do pictures.


In the poem "toward a poetics of lessons-learned," which first appeared in "Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors Vol. 5," I write generally about five lessons from military service. The poem ends with this insight:
In war, doing everything right
can still get you killed.

Try not to learn
that last one
the hard way.

July 2, 2013 mortar training incident from unnamed Afghan soldier-photographer's
perspective. Photo courtesy U.S. Army
In the Afghan soldier's image, everything and nothing is happening, all at once. You can see two Afghan soldiers, identifiable mostly by the fact that their Kevlar helmets lack the cloth camouflage covers usually worn by U.S. soldiers. A ball of flame hangs between them, centered in the image like a sun. The soldiers are facing the explosion. The soldiers' faces are obscured by light, and by the hands they have raised to their ears in anticipation of the mortar round's launch. In the lower-left corner, a camera lens invades the frame.

The camera was Clayton's.

Clayton's perspective is from a lower angle, and her photo depicts only one Afghan soldier, standing, hands to ears, facing the fire. Clayton's image captures rock and shrapnel from the exploding mortar tube. It seems somewhat overexposed, desaturated like World War II combat footage, or the 1998 war movie "Saving Private Ryan."

Editorially, I'm not sure there is much to be learned from viewing these. There are no potential lessons here, other than don't stand so close to the weapon. After the world sees these images, soldiers will still conduct mortar training. Soldier-journalists will continue to take photographs. Soldiers will continue to fight in an open-ended war. The images will eventually—perhaps quickly—fade from public view and consciousness and memory. The realities of service will remain. Afghanistan will remain. No job is without risk.

Perhaps we should regard Clayton's image as an artifact of fine art. One that hangs, suspended, out of time, and invites further contemplation. Or, better yet, conversation.

The mortar blast images show everything, and nothing. They should not have been released. They are essential for understanding the war. We are still in Afghanistan. Discuss.

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