If you do not understand the rules of football it is difficult to comprehend how a punishing blindside hit causing a serious injury is considered hard football, but perfectly acceptable under the rules of the game, while not having seven players positioned on the line of scrimmage at the start of a play results in a penalty. A journalist who is ignorant of the rules of football could not accurately describe a game and would leave readers with a mistaken impression of what took place on the field and perhaps place the legitimacy of the outcome in question.
The same is true of journalists covering armed conflicts. A military attack that results in scores of casualties is a horrific event that may be difficult to comprehend on a personal level, but it could be entirely acceptable under the law of war. On the other hand, an event that makes sense to a majority of the general public could be a war crime. For example, in a survey conducted in 2011 by the American Red Cross (download PDF), a majority of Americans said it is acceptable under the law of war to torture enemy prisoners to make them disclose important military information. In fact, torture is a war crime and a person convicted of torture faces stiff penalties under domestic or international law.
Understanding the basics of the law of war is essential for journalists reporting on armed conflicts to put what at times looks like total chaos into legal, if not rational, perspective.
The percentage of the public with military experience continues to decline just as fewer members of Congress and fewer executive agency officials have served in uniform. They are largely dependent on the media for information about fighting that often takes place in remote corners of the world and involves parties that are not well known who are at war over issues that are ill-defined. The vast majority lack the experience with armed conflict to put the facts and the rules into context.
Reporting the events and their legal consequences accurately plays an important role in informing public opinion and shaping political will. It does not require being an expert on the law of war, but it does require enough knowledge to recognize when there might be issues.