Friday, October 27, 2006


There are, in the Taipei Times where I work, sections called “Briefs” on the local and international pages. Consisting of a page-long single column, briefs, usually five to a page, provide little snippets of news — normally no longer than 100 words — from around the world, and the subject is usually something odd or unusual, like “Man loses boa in van,” or “Visitor bites panda at Beijing zoo.” The rest of the page is usually consecrated to more “serious” or newsworthy copy, nowadays nuclear developments in North Korea and Iran, factional violence within the Palestinian Authority, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Georgia/Russia.

It is indicative of the state of the world when, after reporting on unrest in the Palestinian Territories for weeks, where Hamas and Fatah have engaged in internecine violence, stories on people killed — by the factions or by the Israeli military — were relegated to the “Briefs” section. So routine had the killing of Palestinians become, it seemed, that it was no longer news as such; it was part of the oddities, of the briefs people read in passing, with little emotional attachment.

This only occurred on a few days, when violence elsewhere was such that the deaths of a dozen Palestinians didn’t suffice to break the threshold. Iraq, Afghanistan, N. Korea and Sri Lanka, through violence or the detonation of a nuclear device (this is what it takes now to make it to front page) had pushed it aside. As for Iraq, every new day brings an editorial challenge, not so much in preparing the story as in finding a headline that doesn’t read like the previous five, ten, twenty. "Forty killed in bombing in Baghdad"; "Violence intensifies as Ramadan begins"; "Bloody day in Baghdad as Ramadan comes to an end," etc, etc, etc ad bloody nauseam. There, again, the situation has become so routine that our editor-in-chief made the explicit request that we no longer publish pictures of bombings in Iraq. Every day, as we search the keyword “Iraq” in the Wire Graphics Database, which provides thousands of pictures updated on a daily basis from agencies like EPA, AFP, AP, Reuters and others, most of what we obtain are wrecked vehicles, buildings burning or ruins, in front of which are semi-dazed children or injured passers-by. Being given the order to find “something else” to tell the story is, sadly, very challenging. It’s almost like being asked to find a picture of Hong Kong with a clear sky. So in the past few weeks we provided pictures of Iraqi Muslims gathering in mosques to pray during Ramadan, or vendors making popcorn in preparation for celebrations of the Eid al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan. But for every such picture there are dozens of carnage and violence. Afghanistan fares no better, and Sri Lanka is headed in that direction as well. Oh, and that is without mentioning the bloody pictures showing the results of war, which are too graphic to be printed in a newspaper.

It is saddening but unfortunately a symptom of the world we live in that people killed with missiles fired from the air, or in car bombings, can turn into an item of such normalcy as to become a mere “brief,” or perhaps worse, that copy editors are asked to search for pictures from the hell holes of our world that are devoid of violence, and have a hard time finding any.

Fortunate are those who can afford to read about these atrocities in the “briefs” section of a newspaper. For Iraqis, Afghans, Palestinians — and I could add many others, sadly — there is nothing non-newsworthy about what’s going on around them, and they don’t get to choose what kind of picture gets taken in their immediate environment either. For them, life is unforgiving, amoral, and unedited. Kids in war zones are growing up with severed bodies around them, the very images that "cannot" be printed, and there is no editor above them telling them to look elsewhere for something brighter, more uplifting. They as they might, news outlets can only come so close to reality.

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