Tarnished: The hazards of embedded journalism

Posted on June 30, 2010

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Ben Brown reporting from Iraq (pic: BBC)

The embedding system introduced prior to the Iraq war was symbolic of new, friendlier relations between the army and the military. Prospective embeds were required to receive ‘a crash course in all things military’. The US army was keen not to repeat the experience of the Vietnam War, when the military believed that the press had ‘lost’ the war by showing negative images back home. In the end, more than 500 reporters were embedded in Iraq. Yet debate continues to take place over whether or not the system has worked from the journalist’s perspective. Undoubtedly access to the forces operating in Iraq has been a positive thing, but there is certainly evidence that the embedded reporter does not see the full scope of the situation, and perhaps unwittingly becomes a propagandist for the army. This is certainly good from the military’s point of view, but it is my opinion that reporters have become too reliant on the embedding schemes, and that reporting has suffered as a result.

It is certainly true that embedding has allowed reporters to see an aspect of the war that might previously have been closed to them. The scheme offers ‘unprecedented access to the frontline’, and Andrew Jacobs has been proved correct with his 2003 suggestion that ‘the Pentagon’s boot camps and the extensive embedding process that is now under way too will radically alter the relationship between the military and the media’. Access is greater and far more intimate, offering a new perspective on stories. Audrey Gillan has noted that embedded reporters ‘must ride in the back of tanks and know that under the road they travel people have buried lethal threats’  but I do not see why embedded reporters face any more risk than those reporting independently from a warzone.

Embedding has been criticised, however, for inspiring many more pro-military stories than we would expect to see otherwise. This probably explains why the American military is so pleased. As Adrian Lindner notes: ‘While Bush administration officials hailed it for its intimate access to soldiers’ lives, media watchdogs criticised its often restrictive nature and publicly worried reporters would do little more than serve up rosy stories about soldiers’ courage and homesickness’. These fears proved to be grounded. Captain Victoria Wedgwood-Jones has stated that ‘the British army needs the media on side. It is our voice to the people back home’. Studies have suggested that the media has indeed become the military’s ‘voice back home’ on the back of the embedding process. In such an environment, it is inevitable that reporters would develop relationships with the soldiers- ‘in a very real sense, they become part of the military unit to which they are assigned’– and studies showed that embedded reporters focused on the horrors of the troops rather than Iraqis. Though they were provided with an inside look at the military experience, the embedding process ‘blocked them from providing much coverage of the Iraqi experience of the war’. While this was an opportunity to analyse the war from both sides, it was not taken, as the majority of reporters in Iraq were embeds, and hence the majority of stories were written by embeds.  Studies in 2005 and 2006 showed that embedded reporters were more positive towards the military, noting the human cost of the war less, and when these reporters represented 64% of those in Iraq and were writing 71% of the front page stories on the war then it is clear to see that people back home were not getting an objective view of the war, but rather the view that the military was hoping to promote.

Independent reporters were found to have produced the most balanced pieces on the war, but funding roaming reporters is expensive and the job itself perhaps more dangerous than the embedding method. Yet independent reporters probably had a grasp of the wider picture that embedded reporters did not. Embeds ‘could not jump off the tank to follow up the story’, nor meet any Iraqis. This was not aided by restrictions on what embedded reporters could write about. They were ‘forced to sign a contract and agree to the “ground rules”- allow their reports to be reviewed by military officials prior to release, to be escorted at all times by military personnel, and to allow the government to dismiss them at any time for any reason’. Indeed, ‘embeds inevitably became adjuncts to the forces’. This is hardly the hallmark of good, independent reporting. There is no doubt that the scheme allowed far greater access to the military during wartime than had ever been possible before. A whole new side of warfare was opened up to reporters. Yet this side of the war seemed to be reported at the expense of other sides, and embedded reporters fell into the trap of identifying too heavily with their hosts. Embedding is here now, and will not leave us in a hurry. But honest, independent reporters are still needed to roam, to make sure we hear other opinions and see war through different eyes. As Stuart Hughes notes, ‘embedding has definitely worked but its limits haven’t been tested. We will always need people on the ground, independently forging ahead, finding the stories, it’s too early to draw conclusions- the post-mortems are still going on’.

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Posted in: Issues, Media, Politics