I feel a little funny broaching the topic of the war in Iraq because I’m not sure that I’ve done anything to earn the right to weigh in substantively. It’s easy to approach such topics from an academic standpoint (and I’ve done so myself in a previous post on The Bourne Supremacy): issues are cut and dry, not confused by emotion, personal opinion or those sticky moral questions of right and wrong. Even when someone on the outside has the foresight to acknowledge things in shades of gray, theirs is still only a two-dimensional view. The following article about the U.S. death toll in Iraq published in the New York Times reminded me of the distance that always exists between writer and subject.

Only this time, things are a little different. Reporters Lizette Alvarez and Andrew Lehren didn’t take the usual route to mark the new U.S. death toll high in Iraq. Instead, the authors chose to focus upon four U.S. servicemen who died while on duty in Iraq. And rather than tell their stories for them, Alvarez and Lehren integrated the words of these men right into the body of their own report. This had two impacts: first, it was a painful and effective way of reminding the reader that although these guys were in some way speaking, their words were all that remained of them. And second, the integration of the men’s voices into the piece communicated the significance of the number 4000 in way that resonated so much more clearly than a traditional straight news story ever could.

I’m going to include an excerpt here, but I would really encourage you to read the story in its entirety. It’s incredibly powerful. The first paragraph is written by the reporters, the second is taken directly from Myspace and incorporated into the body of the news story.

For the soldiers in Iraq, reconciling Adhamiya with America was not always easy. One place was buried in garbage and gore and hopelessness. The other seemed unmoored from the war, fixated on the minutia of daily life and the hiccups of the famous. The media was content to indulge. …

I was amazed, truly dumbfounded wondering how we as Americans have sank so low. To all Americans I have but one phrase that helps me throughout my day of constant dangers and ever present death around the corner, “WHO THE [expletive] CARES!” Wow America, we have truly become a nation of self-absorbed retards. … This world has serious problems and it’s time for America to start addressing them.

Ryan Wood, Myspace blog, May 26, 2007

The other reason I’m struck by this particular story is that it reminded me again of the ways that our social, cultural, and educational landscape is rapidly changing. I have spent the past couple of weeks preparing for a presentation on integrating blogs into the language arts classroom. As far as my content area goes, this is kind-of a no-brainer: I teach writing, blogs are a vehicle for just that. But they would hardly be worth going to all the trouble of using if they were little more than journals. What makes blogs blogs, so to speak, is the ease with which they allow the writer to synthesize ideas from various sources and provide a digital record of that thought process through links.

What does any of this have to do with a news story on U.S. death toll caused by the Iraq War? The reporters supplemented their story with excerpts taken from texts written by the soldiers themselves, including letters, emails, and Myspace. The Myspace accounts written by the soldiers are particularly interesting because they mark a dramatic shift in the way we communicate and receive information. Previously a soldier’s personal thoughts on the war would have been known only to those people close to him, but with the advent of Myspace, those opinions are accessible to anyone with a computer. In this particular instance, they have been transcribed from Myspace into the body of news article published on the New York Times.

Before Myspace, could this have been accomplished in another way? Certainly. The reporters might have interviewed Specialist Wood and then integrated his comments into their news story. However, Woods’s words are especially poignant this time because he can no longer share his thoughts with the reporters personally.

Besides the tremendous emotion and power that the soldiers’s words carry, what strikes me most about Alvarez and Lehren’s choice to include block quotes from the soldiers themselves is the way that they are mimicking the way that Web 2.0 has revolutionized the web in their print news story. I applaud their choice because I think it makes for interesting reading, and as an educator I must also take note of the way that the digital revolution is changing the way information is exchanged, even in print.

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