AS YOU have certainly already seen, reports about the war in the Persian Gulf will be interrupting or replacing shows on television, especially during these first few weeks of fighting.
The three major networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, and the all-news cable channel CNN, all have many reporters and cameras around the area of the fighting. Since their reports can be sent back to the United States over satellites, this is the first time that it is possible for people back home to see live pictures of a war as it is being fought.
Remember, when a bulletin or some type of special report interrupts a TV program, this does not mean that something terrible or dangerous has necessarily occurred. It only means that something has happened that the people in charge of news at the network think you should know about right away.
But, as you watch these reports, you should keep in mind that the speed with which they are coming to you has an effect on their accuracy. Trying to get something done fast often means making mistakes, as was the case last week when it was wrongly reported that nerve gas was on some of the first missiles to land in Israel.
As a viewer of the news, you should learn to listen carefully to the reports so you can begin to judge for yourself how correct they are. Most good reporters will tell you where their information is coming from as they pass it along.
Sometimes the reporter admits that he is simply telling you the rumors that are going about, something that should not be taken as the truth. Sometimes his information might be from a so-called source in a government or military unit, someone telling the reporter something that has not been officially released to the press.
Even if the report is based on an official statement, listen to where the statement came from. Certainly the governments of the countries involved have different reasons for wanting different statements to be reported.
There is no doubt that reports from the Iraqi government have been lies, but even reports from the United States government sometimes will not contain complete information. For instance, the U.S. military has released videotape of bombs and rockets hitting targets perfectly. There is probably also some videotape of weapons missing targets, too, that the military has not given out to be shown on television.
Remember also that in times of war information will be kept secret to protect the people doing the fighting. Much of the videotape of soldiers in action that you see must be approved by the military before it can be shown. When it is broadcast, it should always be labeled as approved by military censors.
And always keep in mind that television will provide a distorted picture of the war because it will exaggerate the importance of anything that its cameras can take a picture of, and anyplace where its correspondents happen to be. That's why we've seen much more about the Iraqi Scud rockets and the damage they have done in Israel and Saudi Arabia than we have about what has happened inside Iraq, where the damage from bombing is certainly much greater.
Some reporters and cameramen will put their own safety at risk in covering this war, as you have seen with those who go to the roof to get pictures when an air raid siren sounds, warning them to go to the shelter in the basement of their building. Others seem to ignore regulations requiring them to put on gas masks.
Currently, one journalist, Peter Arnett of CNN, has been allowed to stay in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq. He has chosen to do so despite the intense bombing of the city, and the reports he is sending back must be approved by the Iraqi military censors.
Reporters take these risks -- and they will certainly take many more as the war goes on -- because covering a war and getting information about it back to the people at home is considered one of the most important jobs a journalist can ever do.