Having once been a newspaper desk man, I have a keen appreciation for the exacting and difficult work of the headline writer. He must pack as much information as possible into a very small space. Numbers are ideally suited to headline writing.

The number of home runs, the number of weekend traffic fatalities, and the number of delegates pledged to a given political candidate all are apt subjects for headlines. So are battle casualties in Viet Nam, or the number of Buddhists, or the number of square miles controlled by the Communists.

But, unfortunately, Viet Nam does not lend itself well to numerical reporting, or even to the kind of simple, narrative statement required of the average newspaper lead. There are too many uncertainties, too many shades of gray, too many dangers of applying English-language clichés to a situation that cannot be described by

Alien social patterns

Obviously, there are human elements in Viet Nam that can be described adequately in simple terms, because they are universal. But there are other things so alien to American social patterns and thinking that they cannot be reported simply.

War reporting in itself, for example, is technically fairly simple. Reporting a single clash with X number of casualties is not unlike reporting a sports event. By an adroit use of verbs, the writer can create an impact that comes close to reproducing reality.

But in Viet Nam, the actual clashes are probably less important than the subtle thinking of people and, the social upheaval of the nation. These are difficult to capture in words, and for a reader to digest.

There is nothing very dramatic, for instance, about a water shortage and the red tape in which a well-drilling project was bogged down. Yet this situation probably has a more far-reaching effect on both the military and political status of the area than all the battles fought there to date.

This kind of thing is called “feature material,” or “the news behind the news,” generally published deep inside newspapers, if at all. This is reasonable, since editors know their readers are much less concerned with water shortages than with more spectacular developments.

In short, I believe one of the deficiencies of reporting is in the news consumer himself. He gets exactly as much substantial information as he asks for—neither more, nor less.

Still, the main responsibility for news falls on the correspondent, and part of that responsibility is in keeping his readers interested enough to read on.

Foreign correspondents must work harder than other kinds of newsmen, because they have so much more to cover. Even with the largest staff of assistants of any news organization in Viet Nam, I still have found a seven-day-a-week schedule necessary. This is a country where communications are primitive, and in which different conditions apply in every one of the forty-three provinces.

Many newsmen here have no assistance at all, even though South Viet Nam has dominated headline play for years. Most correspondents wish all news organizations would expand their foreign staffs. But for practical, financial reasons, this usually is impossible. Correspondents are expensive.

Another problem is that newsmen sometimes lack the necessary background in covering foreign assignments, particularly when the newsmen are only given a few days or weeks in a particular country. Resident correspondents have the advantage of on-the-job training and eventually become qualified to do the basic investigation and research themselves. Visitors must rely on translators, official spokesmen, and dozens of other second-hand sources who may or may not be trying to sell them a bill of goods.

I think it is significant that the late President Diem, who so deeply disliked and distrusted the Western press, frequently received visiting newsmen and women, but never granted interviews to resident correspondents. He knew that they knew too much.

The problems that have beset correspondents reporting the crises of Viet Nam are not new, and they will continue in various forms here and throughout the world. Reporting will, at times, be inaccurate, deficient, or misleading. But despite his or her shortcomings, the foreign correspondent, in my mind, is one of the most fundamentally honest and dedicated human beings in the world. He loves the challenge of a really tough story more than any other opportunity, and has given up a lot of comforts to grasp this challenge.

As long as there are men and women who fit this pattern, reporting from abroad will always drag the basic truth from the snares of crisis.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.


Malcolm W. Browne was a reporter and photographer for The Associated Press. He shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his coverage of Vietnam.