Basic Research and Composition

Research and composition are broadly similar for the college freshman writing a research paper in his or her dorm room, the daily journalist writing to deadline at his desk, and the professional scholar taking notes in an archive somewhere. All three must locate and select primary sources while reading secondary sources to help them understand and perhaps interpret the topic. The college freshman will generally use more secondary sources. The journalist will favor interviews as his primary sources and use secondary sources to verify background information. The scholar prefers to handle primary sources in the form of documents, whether it be a shipping register or a collection of unpublished letters.

I am an ESL teacher at a university in New York and a blogger. I have been a critical reader since I began writing papers in college about thirty years ago now. I consider myself an informed critic of the media and open to new information and new interpretations of the media’s role and performance in general and coverage of Iraq in particular. What follows is a brief account of my research of and writing about one specific episode in the second Iraq War, the looting of the Iraq National Museum and, more importantly, the media’s portrayal of that event. My written response, beginning with Iraq Antiquities Revisited, includes research of both primary and secondary material and the beginning of analysis and interpretation.

One evening about two months ago I read journalist Paul McGeough’s In Baghdad: A Reporter’s Story, in which he recounts his reporting on the story of the looting of the Iraq National Museum. I had followed the story when it first occurred and remembered hearing later news reports that the story had been exaggerated. Reading McGeough’s account of the arrival with John F. Burns at the museum that Saturday made me curious about what had really happened those two days in Baghdad and why the media had failed and why it took them so long to correct the record. After writing an initial blog entry, I decided to concentrate on this story and see what I could learn. I began my investigation, it should be disclosed, with the assumptions that the media had failed and that it took the media a long time to get the full story. Would I have to change my assumptions? A good researcher is always open to having to alter initial assumptions.

Using both Google and LexisNexis Academic, I began by reading a large numbers of articles – two to three hundred -- about the story to get a feeling for the general sequence of events. Then I started to select and bookmark those articles that seemed essential to the story. I created bookmark files for each day. For example, for Saturday, April 12, 2003, I bookmarked at least twenty articles and clipped more from LexisNexis that were placed into Microsoft Word files. I printed out the major articles, dropped them into a manila folder, and re-read them with a highlighter as I rode the subway to and from university.

In this way I started to put together a rough day-by-day chronology that changed as I read more articles and took notes. I also grabbed a bunch of manila folders and began collecting material for separate areas of research. In my “chronology” folder, for example, I created a calendar for the spring and summer of 2003 and also a more detailed daily record. While assessing the general lines of the story, I also started to see the points of conflict and ambiguity within the story itself.

At the same time, along with a chronology, I created a list of major participants (see The Gang’s All Here!) among the Iraqis connected to the museum, Iraqi citizens and eyewitnesses, the thieves, the American military, and finally the most vocal archaeologists and historians.

With a more refined chronology and a list of individuals, I was able to narrow my research and look for more information that would help me understand this fairly complex story.

I also began to read secondary sources that would help me with those areas of journalism that I needed to understand in more detail. I returned to a few books that I had already read and were on my bookshelf, such as Michael Schudson’s Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers and David Mindich’s Just the Facts: How "Objectivity" Came to Define American Journalism. I also tracked down books on the media coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the aftermath. For example, I used Tumber and Palmer’s Media at War: the Iraq Crisis, which offered a good analysis for the question of bias in the reporting of the second Iraq War. Online I found several articles that helped immensely, three of them being Alexander Joffe’s “Museum Madness in Baghdad,” Roger Atwood’s “Inside Iraq’s National Museum,” and Andrew Lawler’s “Mayhem in Mesopotomia.”

I continued reading and researching for a few weeks, creating more folders, and tracking down more details of the story. Finally, I started writing and chose a magazine-style article form with bolded headings for division markers because I thought it would be a good way to tell the story. Later, I could write individual essays on specific areas of interest.

For the next several days, I wrote and rewrote the article when I had time between classes. I wanted to keep the sequence simple and the outlines clear for the general reader. As usual, one of the first questions you need to answer when writing is when the story actually begins. I chose the morning of April 8, 2003, when Donny George and his colleagues decided to leave the museum complex. I selected the following as the basic sequence of events:

A (April 8 - 11)
B (April 12- 15)
C (April 16/17 – May 22)
D (June 7- )
E (analysis)

Then I used a standard in medias res technique, beginning my article with April 12, 2003, the day that the news of the looting exploded via the international media outlets, and then in the second section I returned to April 8 and start the narrative there and proceeded through the April 12 and up to April 15.

B (April 12 – in medias res)
A (April 8 – 15 / B ) “Our heritage is finished”
C (April 16/17 – May 22) New Facts Begin to Emerge
D (June 7- ) “It’s Bollocks”
E (analysis) Disposed to Believe the Worst

After I finished the magazine-style piece, I was able to begin researching other aspects of the story and related issues. Those will be added as I finish them over the next three months.

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