On keeping one's balance . . .

By

It's hard to keep a sense of proportion amid tempestuous events. In recent weeks we have had to grapple with one explosive event after another: the murder of Philippine opposition leader Benigno Aquino, the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 7, the blast in Burma that decimated the South Korean Cabinet, the bombing of US marines and French paratroopers in Lebanon, the invasion of Grenada - all played out to a backdrop of rising tensions and protests over NATO's long-planned nuclear missile emplacements in Europe.

The cumulative impact is far greater than the sum of the individual events. A mood of deepening apprehension has gripped many people. Some have even asked if tragedies such as the downing of the Korean airliner in Soviet airspace have any parallel with the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire's Archduke Ferdinand, which proved the trigger for World War I.

A newspaper is obliged to report such events fairly. That itself is not always easy. The Soviets are seldom forthcoming, least of all with details of why their military would fire on a civilian jet. And even the US proved initially reluctant to allow journalists to report from the scene of the Grenada invasion.

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More difficult still is the task of fitting the separate pieces into a proper perspective. In part, that is the role of columnists, commentators, and editorialists. But it is also a responsibility of news departments such as this one - a matter of story selection, content, placement, and headlines.

Our aim in presenting international news is to inform accurately, with insight; to be authoritative without being cold, compassionate yet dispassionate; to convey the feelings of humanity without being overwhelmed by them; to record the daily flow of news without, over time, exaggerating or underplaying its overall breadth or depth.

This is all very worthy. Yet perhaps there is also a risk in hewing to the normally laudable path of what someone has called ''inspired moderation'': At moments of genuine national or international danger, loud and forceful words of warning may be the greater need.

In preparing the monthly series of articles commemorating this newspaper's 75 th anniversary this month, several Monitor writers and researchers noted that even as some of history's most terrible disasters were approaching, such as World Wars I and II, the warning reports published during the preceding months were mixed with, and sometimes swamped by, daily reportage of the mundane and (with benefit of hindsight) the comparatively inconsequential. The warning signals were there. But they were muffled.

How much are today's needed warnings being similarly muffled? How many people , who might otherwise act more vigorously to stave off some foreseeable tragedy, are today being left unalerted? When does ''inspired moderation'' - a genuine attempt to avoid generating unnecessary fears - become a failure to warn of some foe in ambush?

In the nuclear age, the answers to such questions are vital. And alongside the immediate issues of global survival, of East-West confrontation, lie the longer-range matters of planetary justice, of North-South brotherhood - which themselves carry the seeds of survival. To report the immediate and neglect the long range is to display another lack of balance.

There are further aspects of this search for perspective. When we dispatch writers to record the anguish in Lebanon or the sudden onrush of big news in little Grenada, dare we ignore what some military experts view as probably an even more potentially explosive front - the tense demilitarized zone between North Korea and its outraged, simmering twin to the south? And, although it is nearly impossible to obtain unbiased reporting of the prolonged conflict between Iran and Iraq, dare we let it grind on unrecorded with its attendant risk of wider Gulf disaster? Choice of coverage inevitably displays editorial judgment.

True, the specter of the Archduke as the trigger of world war is indeed a specter. It is not a valid precedent for today. The global balance of the major powers remains in many ways remarkably unchanged by the plethora of individual events. Above the brush-fire wars and tragedies there is an overarching steadiness.

Yet there probably does come a moment when angry rhetoric and hard-line bargaining over missiles and mutual Central American subversion themselves begin to erode the stability of that global balance. The columnist and editorialist can ask aloud whether that process has already begun. The news writer and editor must ask silently - and try to present the basic facts in such a way that readers can decide honestly for themselves.

Then why are we musing aloud here about all this?

Perhaps by voicing lofty goals, and looking back from time to time with an in-house ombudsman's eye over our success or failure in achieving them, we can give you, the reader, an added sense of being an essential part of the newspapering enterprise - the focus of all our efforts to inform, to encourage, to alert.

In short, we would like to increase communication. And we would hope from time to time to draw upon your thoughts and comments to sharpen the news in these columns and the reflections in this space.

Meanwhile, we will ask ourselves the hard questions - and search for firm ground between the surf of excessive anxiety and the shallows of complacency.

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