The Iraq War of 2003 brought unprecedented access to combat operations for journalists who embedded with the military. The popularity of the program—it is estimated that between 500 and 750 reporters were embedded at the height of the war—was rivaled only by the controversy that arose from it. Although many embedded reporters argued that they were able to maintain objectivity and independence, journalism scholars and professionals leveled criticism at what they saw as professional and ethical lapses in journalistic standards involved with the practice. This project identifies the basis for these criticisms, and argues that the embedding program as it was practiced during the Iraq War was inconsistent with the professional standards long held by journalists.
Early in the second Iraq War, the American military gave journalists what they had been asking for since the first Gulf War, and more recently, the Afghanistan War—direct access to the troops and the battlefield (Katovksy and Carlson 2003, xiii; Lundberg 2010). Embedding presented the military with an opportunity to enhance their public affairs profile; military relationships with the press in previous wars had shown that the press had an enormous influence over public opinion, and military officials wanted instead to take advantage of this influence rather than suppress it outright (Paul and Kim 2004, 24). In a way, the embedding program allowed the military to have a more direct, positive conversation with the American public about the war in Iraq (Paul and Kim 2004, 24).
For the media, on the other hand, the embedding program was an extraordinary opportunity to see into the inner-workings of the military apparatus. There were many potential benefits to embedding; for one, embedding was relatively inexpensive in comparison to sustaining an independent reporter in a foreign country for weeks at a time (Lindner 2009). Also, the newness of the practice would attract many viewers, which would increase the market share of news organizations that embedded reporters with the military (Paul and Kim 2004, 27). This, coupled with the press’ perception of their obligation to serve the public as witnesses of war, led over 600 reporters from across the country and the world to embed with the American military during the six weeks of official combat operations (Paul and Kim 2004, 54).
Journalists were given the choice between being stationed in Iraq’s capitol city as “Baghdad-based” reporters, acting as “unilaterals,” operating and traveling independently of the military in Iraq with no particular home base, and being “embedded,” observing, living, and traveling with a specific military unit over the course of their operations in Iraq (Lindner 2009). Many journalists took advantage of the chance that embedding brought to observe combat operations firsthand, although the practice was and continues to be highly controversial (Lundberg 2010).
This paper explores some of those controversies. It will review the social, psychological, and practical considerations that embedded reporters faced, and evaluate them for their ethical implications. Along the way it will argue that the nature of the program—with reporters relying almost completely on the soldiers they embedded with, unable to come and go as necessary—profoundly affected the program’s ethical and professional feasibility.
To be clear, this is not an argument for extremes; the outcome is not either-or (that embedding is either acceptable or it is not). What I argue is that an embedding program is problematic as it was practiced during the Iraq War, and that certain changes can and should be made to the application of embedding before a similar program is employed in the future.
Purpose, Scope, and Method
The purpose of this project is threefold: to investigate the social, psychological, and professional challenges reporters faced as a result of the embedding program during the 2003 Iraq War; to help the reader assess the impact these issues had on embedded reporting by measuring how each challenge currently holds up against an identified set of ethical reporting standards; lastly, to provide specific suggestions for how a future embedding program can be improved using lessons learned from the system employed in Iraq.
Because the number of reporters embedded with the military was highest during Operation Iraqi Freedom, this paper will primarily focus its analysis on reporting that occurred during the period between March 19 and May 1, 2003, when official combat operations took place (versus the following occupation and anti-insurgency campaigns).
Using current, relevant communications literature as a body of evidence, I conduct a detailed qualitative study of the most controversial features of the embedding program as practiced in Iraq. Specifically, I address how journalists may have bonded with troops and been indoctrinated as members of the military unit, how they may have reacted to and been affected by the trauma they witnessed and experienced as war reporters, and how the content of their reporting may have been practically affected by these challenges. I illustrate the significance (or insignificance) of these factors by comparatively examining to what extent they may have also affected unilateral and Baghdad-based journalists. Finally, I will turn my attention to four basic tenets of ethical reporting, to which I will apply and dissect the findings from my study of the three challenges to embedding, in an effort to determine whether the program was compatible with established standards of professional journalism.
All resources collected over the course of this project’s development were carefully evaluated and verified as authoritative scholarly or professional works. Evidence for this argument was gathered through a detailed review of a number of resources, mostly in written formats such as scholarly books, journal articles, trade conference presentations, and news media websites (among others).
While much of the research covered in this project relates to communications and is written by media professionals, works on organizational culture, attachment theory, military practice, psychology and psychological trauma were also consulted. Some anecdotal evidence (such as from journalists who provided first-person accounts of their experience) are used in support of the paper’s argument; however, use of this kind of evidence is infrequent and supported with verifiable scholarly evidence whenever possible.
Over the course of my review of embedding, I make specific assumptions regarding a standard code of ethics and its value within the field of journalism, specifically that:
- The public benefits when journalists follow a code of ethics, as such standards improve the quality and transparency of reporting.
- Therefore, to be considered professionals, journalists should adhere to a code of ethics.
- It is possible, through examining a sample of codes developed by instructional materials, news organizations, and trade groups, to identify a set of ethical standards common to the industry.
Although assumptions one and two could each support a detailed debate of their own, the primary focus of this paper is to examine the embedding program as it relates to a set of journalistic standards, and so my ability to thoroughly explore these two items is limited. Instead I will briefly expand on these assumptions only where needed to clarify or support my analysis. These short reviews are intended to equip the reader with the tools they need to evaluate and accept or reject these assumptions as they are applied to this paper’s argument.
The third assumption, however—that it is possible to identify a set of ethical standards widely applicable to the journalism industry—requires more detail, as this effectively lays the groundwork for my qualitative analysis of the embedding program in Iraq.
The Common Ethical Standards
In order to most effectively demonstrate the positive and negative characteristics of the embedding program as it was practiced during the 2003 Iraq War, it is necessary to develop a set of standards upon which the embedding program can be compared and weighed for its ethical and professional merits. Any set of standards used to evaluate the embedding program should be modern but not brand new, so that the results of the ethical analysis of embedding remain applicable to both past and future programs. Criteria should also be commonly relevant to the diverse range of embedded media who operated in Iraq, so as to reduce claims of special circumstances that could negate the application of certain ethical standards. Accomplishing this accurately means determining which ethical standards (if any) are widely used across reporting mediums, and researching the standards to ensure their longevity.
Subsequently, the set of ethical standards used in this paper was developed by studying numerous contemporary textbooks on journalism ethics theory and history, as well as a small sample of current ethics codes from major media organizations from each of the communication mediums popular today: print, radio, television, and the internet. Codes were analyzed from the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, ProPublica, Salon.com, the Society of Professional Journalists, and the American Society of News Editors. A sincere effort was made to study codes from the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox) and the major cable news networks (CNN, MSNBC, and Fox), but no codes could be located online or in print. To ensure that television broadcast media were represented, I instead consulted codes from relevant trade organizations, such as the Radio Television Digital News Association and the National Association of Broadcasters.
As a result of the process outlined above, four basic ethical standards were found to be common among each of the codes examined; each was also found to have deep roots in journalism history well preceding the embedding program in Iraq. Each standard will be developed further in subsequent sections. However, as these are the fundamental criteria I use to show how the social, psychological, and practical challenges affected the journalistic suitability of the embedding program in Iraq, I list them here to aid the reader in judging this project as it progresses:
- The media serves the public interest.
- The media has an obligation to the truth.
- The media should commit to an objective method of reporting.
- The media should maintain its professional independence.
The remaining portion of this project is divided into three sections: the literature review, in which the current scholarship and professional opinion on the embedding program will be explored thematically; the discussion section, in which each of the four basic professional standards will be applied to the program as practiced in Iraq; and finally, the recommendations and conclusion section, where I will review the most pertinent parts of this project and pose some basic recommendations for improving embedding as a practice in the future.
The Embedding Program: Context and Practice
Influences by Past American Reporting
The embedding program is the result of a long, complicated, and often strained history of military-press relations during times of war. Professional American war journalism can be traced as far back as the Civil War, and the media were both present and important to the war efforts from the Spanish-American War all the way through to the Korean War (Brandenburg 2007). However, perhaps the most significant dealings between the military and the media—setting the tone for much of their subsequent interactions—occurred during the Vietnam War (Paul and Kim 2004, 175).
The press had a considerable amount of freedom during this period, facing very few reporting and access restrictions (Cooper 2003). And although media coverage was relatively positive at the beginning, the reporting became increasingly negative, often countering information the US government was trying to push to the American people about the war (Paul and Kim 2004, 37). The relationship between the US military and the press soured substantially (following the public’s poor opinion of the Vietnam War), so much so that the military’s treatment of the media in every subsequent conflict would hinge on the lessons learned in Vietnam (Brandenburg 2007). Military leadership blamed the media for the decline in public support for Vietnam, so in an effort to control media coverage—and, they reasoned, public opinion—they banned the media from 1983 combat operations in Grenada entirely (Paul and Kim 2004, 39).
A highly restrictive press pool system (in which a select group of press was allowed access to certain areas, who would then distribute gathered information to the remaining reporters) was instituted during the Panama action in 1989, and a less restrictive press pool during the first Gulf War (Paul and Kim 2004, 42; Brandenburg 2007). Although the tension between the press and the military seemed to ease somewhat during 1991 Gulf War, it wasn’t until the US military’s humanitarian mission in Somalia in 1992 that the media regained mostly free access to military operations (Paul and Kim 2004, 46). Finally, a system of press access was introduced during the Bosnian War in 1995 (and again in Kosovo in 1999) in which journalists lived and traveled with a US military unit for a short time; this is the closest relative to the embedding system used during the 2003 Iraq War (Paul and Kim 2004, 46-48).
The Embedding Program in Practice
The embedding program was primarily the outcome of two events: the first was a fundamental shift following the first Gulf War in the attitude of the Department of Defense (DOD) toward the public affairs benefits of having media present during combat operations (Brandenburg 2007). The second was a conference in 2002 between DOD representatives and 50 bureau chiefs from prominent media organizations to establish a press system for future use during US conflicts:
The agreement stated that the embedded reporters are permitted to consult the unit commander before releasing information that may be sensitive; have free access to military personnel at all levels; report general information about troop strength, casualties, and captured enemy forces; report information and location of military targets and objectives previously under attack; and report names and hometowns of service members with their consent. The agreement also stated that embedded reporters are prohibited from carrying guns and/or other weapons, using personal vehicles, breaking away from the unit to conduct off-the-record interviews, taking photographs of defense installations and prisoners of war without permission, using information about casualties before their next of kin are informed, and giving details about ongoing future operations. (Paul and Kim 2004, 53)
These rules, coupled with the DOD’s Public Affairs Guidance (PAG) on Embedding Media during Possible Future Operations or Deployments, laid the groundwork for the three categories of journalists who operated during the Iraq War: Baghdad-based reporters, who reported primarily from Iraq’s capitol before, during, and after Operation Iraqi Freedom; unilateral (also known as independent)reporters, who traveled at their own discretion in and around the combat theater using their own vehicles, equipment, and security; and lastly, embedded reporters, who lived, worked, and traveled with military units throughout the six-weeks of ground combat (Paul and Kim 2004, 54-55; Lindner 2009).
The Embedding Program: Primary Issues and Concerns
The Sociological Considerations
The DOD strongly encouraged journalists (with and without prior wartime experience) to receive basic military survival and security training before taking assignments with specific units. Of the roughly 650 embedded journalists (although embedded press estimates vary according to the source), 238 attended a military-sponsored boot-camp-like training (Pfau et al 2005). Many argue that, for these journalists, it was there that the socialization process into military culture began.
According to theories on military culture, most new recruits come into their military training with certain expectations and motivations. In some cases, this is enough to kick off their socialization into military culture. In other cases, such as for those who don’t come into their training with a personal familiarity with the military or a strong desire to serve, socialization must occur through their experiences at rigorous training or education programs (Soeters 2000). This latter avenue of socialization was more likely to occur with journalists, who went into boot camp with a desire to learn, but likely without any desire to become part of the organization.
Military boot camps across the services are intended to be “total institutions”—a process through which new recruits are stripped of their old identities and completely immersed in the aims, values, and culture of the military organization (Soeters 2000). Although the abbreviated programs journalists attended were likely much less focused on the total institution concept, they were still highly focused on military doctrine and the military way of survival. These courses covered basic military awareness about rank, weaponry, and general military operations (Brandenburg 2007). Surrounded by uniformed culture, these journalists were still “exposed intensively to the norms, authority relations, and disciplinary codes of the organization” through their participation in the training (Soeters 2000).
Once these journalists left the boot camp environment, they joined the military unit with which they would travel throughout the Iraq conflict. According to the relational cohesion theory of attachment, which Beyer, Hannah, and Milton (2000) used to study how and why people interact in organizations, the more people interact with each other, the more they want to interact with each other (provided those interactions are positive). Of course, the more people want to interact with one another, the more they actually do, and social groups form as a result of the repeated process (Beyer, Hannah, and Milton 2000, 327). In the case of embedded journalists and their military hosts, this was simply a matter of proximity: embedded reporters were not permitted to change units once they were assigned, so reporters were forced to greet and relate with the same people every day for a long period of time. Reporters began to share (and depend on their units for) virtually every aspect of their existence: they began to eat the same food, sleep in the same tents and vehicles, face the same dangers of bombs and bullets. And they talked to each other.
As in any organization in which the stakes are high and the quarters are close, bonds began to form between the embedded reporter and his soldiers. This is particularly true in frontline military organizations, because of the nature of what Soeters termed the “hot organization,” which comes into play when military units “have to perform in critical, dangerous, violent, ambiguous, and hence stressful situations” (Soeters 2000). In these conditions, “there is a strong need for a so-called collective mind. Every individual plays his or her own role, but in doing so…each person has to interrelate heedfully with the others” (Soeters 2000). Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer posit that this bonding process, what they call “swift trust,” tends to accelerate in groups in exactly the kind of situation that triggers the hot organization: conditions that are high-risk and high-stress, and that are accompanied by a great deal of uncertainty (Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer 1996, 177).
Both the reporter and the soldier existed in the high-risk, high-stress situation, and they had to rely on each other despite the uncertainty surrounding their relationship and the war environment. The embedded reporter had to trust that the soldier would protect him from harm and tell him the truth. The soldier, on the other hand, had to trust that the reporter would conduct himself well during combat situations and would treat the soldier’s story fairly. These bonds of trust had to be formed to deal with the risks of the situation, and they needed to be formed quickly, because in hot conditions such as theirs there was no capacity to learn about the other person’s trustworthiness over time (Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer 1996, 170).
The bonds of trust left an embedded reporter open to becoming attached to the military unit, which also left him open to the effects of the unit’s values, ideas, and cultural norms: “In cultural terms, when people identify with and attach themselves to a cultural group, they tend to adopt its ideologies” (Beyer, Hannah, and Milton 2000, 336). Although this process may have impacted the embed’s independence and objectivity, it was not necessarily an entirely negative outcome. In fact, adopting the ideologies of the unit aided the embedded journalist in preserving his own personal safety as well as group cohesion, which in turn made it easier for him to get the story. Organizations, particularly those that are based on bonds formed very quickly, tend to have strict cultural norms and values (Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer 1996, 190-191). So although trust may be granted quickly, it can just as quickly be taken away. “Deviations from or violations of group norms and presumptions about competent role behavior call into question the professionalism of the transgressor. Not only are they noted and frowned upon, but they are likely to be punished” (Meyerson, Weick, and Kramer 1996, 190-191).
In this case, a journalist’s punishment might have come in the form of loss of access, either directly (by being removed from the unit), or indirectly (through being denied information or fed misinformation). Consequently, in order to maintain access and fulfill his professional purpose, the reporter had a strong incentive in this context to demonstrate a clear understanding of the unit’s norms and values and to remain a member of the group. In this way, the embedded journalist’s socialization into military culture came full circle: he was introduced to military doctrine through a training program; he lived and interacted daily with members of his unit, developing bonds out of mutually-shared trust, norms, and values; and lastly, he was incentivized to maintain his status as a member of the group.
The impact of the socialization process on the ethical practices of embedded journalists will be discussed further in later sections. For now, however, this examination of the social aspects of the embedding program has raised questions about the psychological concerns of the program. If embedded reporters bonded closely with the military members of their unit, were they more likely feel secondary trauma when witnessing the pain and suffering of their friends? Also, if the idea behind the embedding program was to get reporters as close as possible to the frontlines, does their increased exposure to violence make embedded media more likely than their independent counterparts to suffer lingering stress or psychological trauma from the experience? The following section will address these questions, as well as the other psychological issues that war reporters, including those embedded, might contend with as a result of being first-hand witnesses to violent conflict.
The Psychological Considerations
Once embedded journalists have been admitted into military culture—however conscious of the process they are—they may find themselves psychologically affected by their wartime experiences (or by witnessing the wartime experiences of others). This section will look at literature dealing with issues like trauma, stress, and psychological disorder found in domestic and war correspondents in general and Iraq War correspondents specifically (Lundberg 2010).
To put the psychological hazards of war reporting in the proper perspective, it is important to understand how chronicling even routine traumatic events—things like car accidents and violent crime—can take a toll on the psyches of the regular ranks of reporters who cover them. Journalists and photojournalists of all kinds have reported feelings of numbness, detachment, sadness, exhaustion, excitement, guilt, apprehension, anger, and fear for themselves or their family following reporting traumatic events like executions, car crashes, murder, rape, and natural disasters (Frenkel, Koopman, and Spiegel 1994; Simpson and Boggs 1999; Newman, Simpson, and Handschuh 2003). Although the majority of these studies demonstrate that most reporters’ psychological trauma was short-lived (the symptoms usually resolved themselves spontaneously in a matter of weeks), there is also some evidence that the greater the exposure to work-related trauma a journalists receives, the greater their risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (McMahon 2001).
So if routine exposure to relatively minor traumatic events can have a significant enough impact on a journalist to cause such emotional responses, then what effects might the acute violence of war have on the media? And, again, were certain types of Iraq reporters at greater risk for psychological trauma than others?
First, it is helpful to have an idea of how this psychological trauma comes about. A journalist can be exposed to trauma in three ways: directly, as the victim or witness of the event; secondarily, through interviewing a victim about their experience of an event; and vicariously, through observing images or video or audio recordings of a traumatic event (Cameron 2007). In the case of Iraq War reporting, an embedded journalist could have been repeatedly exposed to trauma through any of these means, as could his unilateral and Baghdad-based counterparts. This trauma could have also manifested itself through increased stress, depression, or even psychological disorders.
Although this paper focuses primarily on American journalists, one study on occupational stress among media from the United Kingdom operating during the Iraq War can be useful in understanding the qualitative dissimilarities in the experiences of embeds and unilaterals (Greenburg, Murphy, and Dandeker 2007). This study showed that while embedded and unilateral UK journalists shared similar pre-deployment anxieties (about such things as the length of time they would be away and the welfare of their family members), they experienced stress for very different reasons during their assignments. Embedded journalists tended to feel stress over the tough living conditions, the lack of control over their reporting choices, and the difficulty in forming relationships with their American military hosts (Greenburg, Murphy, and Dandeker 2007). This last stress factor is in direct contrast to the findings regarding embedded socialization within military units. However, as the study authors speculate, this could be explained by the fact that the reporters themselves were not American, a theory supported by embedded UK journalists who confirmed the ease in which they formed bonds with their British military units (Greenburg, Murphy, and Dandeker 2007).
Unilateral UK journalists, however, expressed feeling stress over the lack of safety, lack of access to combat and military sources, and the pressure to get the best stories (Greenburg, Murphy, and Dandeker 2007). Unilaterals also reported slightly more trouble adjusting to life post-deployment than embedded media, although the authors emphasize that it is a minor, non-significant increase (Greenburg, Murphy, and Dandeker 2007).
Feinstein, Owen, and Blair addressed more serious psychological consequences of violent conflict on the broader field of war reporters in a 2002 report. They studied 140 war journalists and 107 non-war journalists (of multiple nationalities) to learn if there was a difference in the overall psychological health of the two groups (Feinstein, Owen, and Blair 2002). Their results revealed some important findings: first, they found that war journalists showed much higher rates of alcohol consumption and symptoms for both PTSD and major depression than the non-war reporters (Feinstein, Owen, and Blair 2002). These symptoms included intrusive thoughts and memories about war-related experiences, hypervigilance and hyperarousal (being overly aware of one’s surroundings and being unable to relax), and avoidance (of the memories themselves, as well as other people) (Feinstein, Owen, and Blair 2002). Secondly, the rates for major depression among war reporters exceeded those of the general US population, at 21.4 percent and 17.1 percent, respectively. The rates for PTSD were also much higher than those of the non-war reporters and the general population, roughly equal to the rates of PTSD found in combat veterans (Feinstein, Owen, and Blair 2002).
The interviews with 20% of the group revealed that war journalists are profoundly affected by their symptoms of PTSD. While we had no clear way of judging the effects of the syndrome on the quality of their work, every war journalist with PTSD spoke of considerable social difficulties, such as an inability to adjust to life back in a civil society, a reluctance to mix with friends, troubled relationships, the use of alcohol as a hypnotic, and embarrassing startle responses that led to social avoidance. (Feinstein, Owen, and Blair 2002)
Feinstein, Owen, and Blair (2002) speculated that these traumatic effects were a natural consequence of war reporters repeatedly subjecting themselves to life-threatening situations.
In a follow-up study, Feinstein and Nicholson (2005) examined whether embedded journalists in the Iraq War were at greater risk for psychological trauma or disorder than unilateral journalists. Although the study supported their earlier finding that a small but significant number of war journalists are at greater risk for psychological problems, they did not find any significant differences between embedded or unilateral press regarding the reported type or frequency of symptoms of distress, depression or PTSD they experienced as a result of the dangers they faced on the battlefield (Feinstein and Nicholson 2005). The study “established that journalists, irrespective of whether they were attached to a military unit (embedded) or not (unilateral), were exposed to the same level of danger. Of the eighty-five journalists studied, thirty-eight (44.7 percent) were embedded with a military unit, and this neither afforded them protection nor exposed them to greater risk on the battlefield” (Feinstein 2006, 162).
There is a dearth of research regarding the specific psychological trauma experience by embedded reporters in Iraq, but some limited conclusions can still be drawn from the research that is available. While it is clear that Iraq War reporters in general faced greater psychological risks than non-war reporters, there currently is no evidence to support the idea that the embedded press was at special risk because of their circumstances. There is also no evidence that embeds were more likely than unilaterals to suffer secondary trauma because of their close bonds with a particular group; both embedded and unilateral journalists handled the same levels of stress, regardless of whether the exposure was primary, secondary, or vicarious trauma.
However, the embedded reporter’s status as an at-risk war reporter, coupled with his socialization into the military unit, might have still had a discernable influence on his work. The following section will detail several qualitative studies investigating what impacts existed and which—if any—were specific to embedded reporting.
The Practical Considerations
Now that we understand the sociological and psychological issues that arise from embedding, it is important to understand how those issues have a practical effect on a reporter’s work. One of the most prominent avenues of study in regards to reporting in Iraq has had to do with how the different types of media framed their stories.
A frame has to do with how a reporter presents a story to the reader; for instance, it involves the overarching theme that holds the information together, and it also has to do with the facts the journalist chooses to report versus the facts he chooses to leave out. According to Kuypers and Cooper (2005), “when journalists frame, they construct a particular point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be interpreted in a specific way. Thus journalists can, knowingly or unknowingly, guide the interpretation of readers toward a particular point of view.”
Fahmy and Johnson speculate that there are four stages through which frames are built: first, the overarching theme referred to above; second, the inclusion of stereotypes or well-known phrases that guide how a story is understood; third, the personal interpretative process of the reader; and fourth, interpretations and themes that are supplied by culture (Fahmy and Johnson 2007). They also posit that these four stages can be applied to embedded reporting: “Thus, because embeds and unilaterals covered different aspects of the war, it is possible that different individual, media routines, organizational, extra-media level and ideological factors influenced the way they framed the conflict” (Fahmy and Johnson 2007). Because it is often difficult for the average reader to discern how the frame of a story may be guiding how they understand an issue, these concepts provide readers a useful approach to evaluating news. Keeping these definitions in mind will be particularly useful in the following discussion about the comparative differences in embedded, unilateral, and Baghdad-based reporting.
In 2005 Kuypers and Cooper conducted a comparative framing analysis of 66 stories written over several weeks studying how reporting differed between embedded and “behind-the-line” journalists (for their purposes, any reporter stationed away from the frontlines, including journalists out of the country) (Kuypers and Cooper 2005). They were careful to include stories from both embedded and unilateral journalists, and matched the stories by newspaper (the New York Times and the Washington Post), date, and subject matter to allow for the most accurate comparison. Their results showed marked differences in framing between these two categories of journalists. Specifically, stories written by embedded media were overwhelmingly positively framed toward the American military’s point of view, i.e., they wrote stories about Iraqi troops surrendering and deserting, the prowess and accuracy of American military weapons, the good relationship between Iraqi civilians and American troops, and so on (Kuypers and Cooper 2005). Unilateral reporters, on the other hand, wrote stories framed toward the Iraqi, or human toll, of the war. They reported on American personnel and equipment losses, collateral private property damage, and Iraqi resentment towards an occupation force, among others (Kuypers and Cooper 2005). The authors did not, however, contribute these differences in framing to military control of embedded reporters, but rather an inability on the part of behind-the-lines reporters to remain independent from the editorial beliefs of their newspapers, and seem to credit embedding reporting for its line-of-sight access to combat over relying on secondary (i.e. Iraqi) sources.
In a related study, Pfau et al studied not only the influences of framing on four major television networks, but also the tone of coverage (whether the reporting was favorable or unfavorable), and the ultimate role of “affect” (whether the coverage elicited positive or negative emotions) (Pfau et al 2004). In analyzing the coverage of the first 5 days of the war, the researchers found that, compared to non-embedded reporters, embedded media were more likely to produce television news reports that favored individual soldiers and the military as a whole (Pfau et al 2004). They also found that the framing of television news stories was different between the two types of reporters: embedded reports tended to offer brief snippet-like views (what they term episodic) views of the war. Lastly, they also discovered that embedded reporters “elevated the soft dimensions of persona” when interviewing soldiers. In other words, embedded reporters were more likely to relate to soldiers interviewed as friends rather than sources.
In a follow-up study on the first 5 days of coverage in four major newspapers, Pfau et al (2005) again qualitatively examined the effects of framing, tone, and relational bias on embedded news stories. Their results were similar to their 2004 research into television coverage: embedded print media offered a more episodic view of the war compared to non-embedded coverage, and their overall tone was friendlier and more favorable toward the military. However, the authors noted that this didn’t necessarily translate into a greater number of positive stories (Pfau et al 2005).
Yet another comparative analysis of embedded and unilateral print media reinforced Pfau’s findings (although it should be noted that Pfau was involved in this study as well). While they repeated inquiries into framing and relational bias, they introduced a new variable to be studied: news authoritativeness. They reasoned that since embedded media were traveling with the military, they had access to a greater number of sources considered to be experts on military operations. So they sought to measure (using a credibility scale developed by communications scholars) the perceived authoritativeness of embedded news reports versus that of unilateral reports. The results on the first two study variables confirmed the previous research, and so won’t be reviewed here again. The third variable, however, offers an interesting perspective on embedded reporting. According to the credibility scale used, embedded reports were judged to be significantly more authoritative and trustworthy on military matters than non-embedded reports.
Before concluding the review of the how embedding may have practically affected reporting, one last notable study should be related. Aday, Livingston, and Hebert (2005) analyzed 1,820 stories from five major American networks and one Arab network. They also studied variables such as framing and tone, but they did so in order to measure the objectivity of televised coverage of the Iraq War. They hypothesized that among networks that endorsed “a western style of objectivity,” there shouldn’t have been a discernable difference in story tone or framing, and if there was, it was likely due to expected cultural or political beliefs (Aday, Livingston, and Hebert 2005). Objectivity was basically defined in their study as a reasonable absence of bias (this was measured according to a five-point scale, which ranged from biased toward the US, to the middle point of basically neutral, to more critical of the US) (Aday, Livingston, and Hebert 2005). What is pertinent to the discussion here are their findings regarding the objectivity of embedded journalists. Contrary to previous studies, Aday, Livingston, and Hebert (2005) did not find embedded journalists to be any more biased toward supporting the US military or individual soldiers than other reporters.
In fact, embedded reporters had among the highest percentage of neutral stories (91 percent) of any type of reporter. Furthermore, embeds were not appreciably more likely to produce supportive articles even in stories featuring quotes by soldiers, which theoretically might seem a likely place to find evidence of biased reporting given the critiques cited above. They were also no more likely than other reporters to be supportive in stories about battle, strategy, or tactics. (Aday, Livingston, and Hebert 2005)
Despite these findings, the researchers also emphasized the results of their macro-level analysis. Specifically, they noted that while individuals tended to be objective, there were larger trends that could affect the overall neutrality of embeds. Compared to unilateral reporters, embedded media had a significantly higher rate of stories quoting and picturing soldiers, as well as of stories focusing on battles. They produced fewer stories about Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi civilians, and reported less on the casualties of both. They also found that Baghdad-based journalists reported many of these categories, but not to the extent that unilaterals did (Aday, Livingston, and Hebert 2005).
From the body of research detailed above, it is feasible that reporters were not only affected by the relationships they developed with their teams, but that the nature of those relationships (and of the embedding program itself) had a distinct impact on their work, particularly when compared to the work of non-embedded media. What this research doesn’t necessarily show is the significance of these impacts to the field of practical journalism: Why do these issues matter? The following section will answer this question by exploring the ethical and professional implications of the embedding program within the context of the profession.
Professional Journalism’s Four Basic Ethical Standards
The previous sections have reviewed the challenges inherent to embedded reporting: socialization into military culture, the psychological trauma that can result from war reporting, and finally, the practical effects of these challenges on the reporting itself.
As was touched upon earlier, this research requires context that illuminates the significance of these challenges within the practice of journalism. The best way to provide that context is to compare the characteristics of embedding to ethical standards, with the purpose of measuring the embedding program’s suitability for future practice within the profession.
Contemporary journalism standards are by no means set in stone; there has and always will be debate over what constitutes ethical journalism. This is a healthy process. “Ethics for the news media is a set of legitimate but fallible agreements established by fair deliberation between the overarching profession of journalism and the public it serves” (Wilkins and Christians 2008, 58). In other words, media ethics is the product of a constant conversation with the public about how best they can be served by the Fourth Estate.
Despite this constant debate, it is still very possible to identify some core beliefs essential to the field. A recent review of several academic and professional ethics codes have provided four basic tenets of ethical professional journalism:
- The media serves the public interest. The media should act as watchdogs for anything within democratic society that is contrary to the public’s ability to make informed decisions about their lives.
- The media has an obligation to the truth. The media should doggedly gather, verify, and report events as they happened, with context and relevance clearly established. They should openly acknowledge any errors as they occur.
- The media should commit to an objective method of reporting. Every journalist should establish a method through which they find and verify facts, present all sides fairly, and counteract their own bias and opinions.
- The media should maintain its professional independence. Journalists should refrain from becoming beholden to or improperly influenced by any individual, company, or government that causes them to stray from their primary duty to the public interest.
Each of these standards will be thoroughly applied to the challenges posed by the embedding program, beginning with the standard that embedded journalists should serve as a watchdog for the public.
The Embedded Media’s Duty to the Public Interest
In democratic society, journalism’s core duty is twofold: first, journalists need to critically monitor and evaluate the operations of government, and second, they must relate that information as truthfully and promptly as possible in order to facilitate the public’s informed decision-making (Ward and Wasserman 2010, 49).
Did embedded reporters fulfill this duty? One must look at the relationship between the military and the media for the answer. The two institutions have traditionally been at odds for good reason: one organization values security and secrecy, and the other values access and truth. These values are naturally adversarial, and when they collide, they generally result in conflict (Paul and Kim 2004, 37). The military seeks to censor news or restrict access, and the press sneaks around walls and prods sources to avoid these restrictions.
In many ways, the embedding program alleviated this conflict, because both sides were able to meet their goals through the sharing of information. Providing open access to the press gained the military quite a bit of good will and press among the media, and helped build its credibility with the American people (Paul and Kim 2004, 48). The military was also able to support an operational function by using the flow of information provided by the press to intimidate Iraqi military forces and counter their propaganda (Paul and Kim 2004, 48-49). The press, on the other hand, gained unprecedented access the likes of which they hadn’t seen since Vietnam; they were able to build a detailed picture of military decision-making for their readers, as well as provide insights into military operations that had been previously unavailable to the public (Brandenburg 2007).
Still, there were drawbacks. With embedding, journalists agreed to consult with their unit commander for a “voluntary” security review when sensitive information was involved. And although the press had free access to military members, they were not permitted to hold off-the-record interviews, a tool often used by reporters to get access to vital information not approved for release to the media (Paul and Kim 2004, 53). So while journalists adapted to the military, the military’s behavior remained essentially unchanged, leading to a certain lack of real transparency in and understanding of military processes (or at least an inability to communicate that understanding to the general public) (Paul and Kim 2004, 53; Brandenburg 2007).
As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (2005) noted in their book on the essential principles of journalism, this lack of broader transparency would have inhibited the media’s ability to serve as a watchdog, as it had voluntarily restricted its own capacity for critically measuring the performance of the military and conveying that information to the public. “The purpose of the watchdog role also extends beyond simply making the management and execution of power transparent, to making known and understood the effects of that power. This logically implies that the press should recognize where powerful institutions are working effectively, as well as where they are not. How can the press purport to monitor the powerful if it does not illustrate successes as well as failures?” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2005, 115).
As a result, critics have charged that what the media gained in the bargain was not equal to what they gave up: their dogged determination and ability to keep the government honest (Brandenburg 2007). Getting access to information might have been a struggle under the old press systems, but it was a struggle that served the public. “The problem is precisely that embedding is mutually beneficial for two actors who should, for the sake of government accountability and public opinion formation, be kept apart. Hence, a censored press in wartime remains the less satisfied but more useful servant of the public interest compared with embeds” (Brandenburg 2007).
The Embedded Media’s Duty to the Truth
Any discussion of truth in reporting can be difficult, because the concept is often beaten back to the realm of the abstract: what is truth? Can a journalist really ever report the complete truth of an event? It is a complicated topic, but a study by Kovach and Rosenstiel confirm that it is at least still a solid aim for journalists: “In our survey of journalists about core values, eight out of ten journalists working in national outlets, and more than seven out of ten working in local outlets, said they felt “there is such a thing as a true and accurate account of an event.” The same was true for new media or Internet journalists, where seven out of ten believe arriving at such an account was possible” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2005, 47).
This is good news for this analysis, but one is left with having to define truth in order to effectively measure it. Kovach and Rosenstiel’s theory of journalistic truth, as well as Berry’s correspondence theory of truth as applied to the media, both suggest that truth is not absolute but functional, something that one must be able to replicate in a reliable manner daily (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2005, 42; Berry 2009, 115). In Berry’s definition, truth is a process that “is faithful to objective conditions and that is verifiable by investigative inquiry” (Berry 2009, 115). Therefore for this analysis our basic definition of journalistic truth is the reporting of the facts of an event, verified and provided with reasonable context and clear relevancy, in a manner that can reproduced with similar results if required.
Bearing this definition in mind, is it fair to say that embedded reporters sought and reported the truth? A study by Fahmy and Johnson in 2005 suggests that even embedded reporters themselves were divided on this. Of the 159 journalists who participated in the survey, nearly 90 percent believed that their reporting “provided ‘a narrow slice of the conflict’” (Fahmy and Johnson 2005). Over 60 percent said their reporting was fragmented, and perhaps most surprisingly, only one-third of respondents thought their reporting was thorough (Fahmy and Johnson 2005).
That last figure is particularly telling regarding the position that embedded journalists were in, as access (in almost any journalistic context) determines one’s ability to accurately portray events as they occurred. In most circumstances, embedded journalists could not leave their military units to explore on their own, and they had little access to non-military sources. One reporter likened the experience to being a dog on a sledding team: “You see and hear a lot of the dog directly in front of you, and you see what is passing by on the left and right, but you cannot get out of the traces to explore intriguing sights you pass, without losing your spot on the moving team” (Lindner 2009).
One could argue that despite the narrow access and subsequent narrow focus, embeds were reporting the truth of what they saw as best as they could, and this is a valid argument. Without their role in the military unit, it is certain that the American public would have missed a vital perspective on the conflict. But what the dog-sledding analogy and the survey responses hint at is the importance of placing events in their proper context. This is an essential part of finding truth, because without context there is no end to the ways in which a story can be interpreted, and this flies in the face of another part of the definition of journalistic truth: being able to repeat someone else’s reporting and come up with similar results.
As far as access and placing events in context goes, Baghdad-based reporters had just as many problems (if not more) than embedded journalists: their beat confined them to the city, where they missed most of the official combat operations. Their sources were made up of Iraqi government officials and Iraqi civilians, so while they reported extensively on Iraqi human interest stories (such as civilian deaths and personal property damage) they had extremely limited access to military personnel and events outside Baghdad (Lindner 2009). In contrast, unilateral reporters had more capacity to visit all sides of an issue. They were just as likely to cover military issues as Iraqi stories, and to use sources from both populations (Lindner 2009). Lindner’s study of 742 articles on these journalistic vantage points (the three categories of journalists discussed in this project) identified unilateral media as producing the most balanced reporting of the war among the three, with Baghdad-based reporters stated as having the least (Lindner 2009).
Figures 1 and 2 above demonstrate Lindner’s conclusions: while framing and coverage differed substantially among all three reporter categories, embedded and unilateral media had greater access to a variety of sources and events than did Baghdad-based reporters. Unilateral media were the most likely (based on Lindner’s data) to provide well-contextualized stories to their readers; however, they too faced problems with access. The precarious security situation often precluded even those with private security from venturing close to the frontlines, so unilaterals routinely arrived after the fight was over (Lindner 2009; Fahmy and Johnson 2005). The US military was also extremely hostile to unilateral reporters, and often refused to provide access to independent journalists, sometimes actively trying to obstruct their reporting (Lindner 2009).
Despite the fact that unilateral and Baghdad-based reporters out-numbered embedded reporters (at least 800 of the former are estimated to have been in Iraq during the first six weeks of the war), the novelty of embedding, coupled with the large amount of resources available to those participating in the program, resulted in embedded coverage dominating news cycles during Operation Iraqi Freedom (Lindner 2009). This is a negative outcome for truth, not only because embedded reporting obscured context with fragmented reporting, but also because it skewed the perceived consequences of the war. It is known based on numerous content analyses of embedded reporting that embeds used military personnel for the majority of their sources, and a relatively minor number of Iraqi civilians as sources (Lindner 2009).
One result of this trend is that the relevancy of the military perspective was overrepresented, while the very subjects of the war were, ironically, vastly underrepresented (Lindner 2009). Had unilateral and Baghdad-based media been more fully embraced by the military as means of information transfer, or at least their reporting given equal prominence to that of embeds in US newsrooms, then Iraqi perspectives could have been balanced alongside the others (Lindner 2009). The fact that this did not happen until well after the occupation began (and embeds began to depart) is one of the more serious reasons as to why the embedding program as it was practiced in Iraq does not sufficiently meet the professional journalism standard of truth (Lindner 2009).
The Embedded Media’s Duty to an Objective Method
Another major criticism of embedding has to do with an embedded reporter’s capacity to remain objective while managing personal relationships and physically and emotionally demanding conditions. Before this ethical standard is explored, however, objectivity must be understood as a concept.
Objectivity is very close to truth in function, and its meaning and value is also disputed within the journalism world. Objectivity is often confused with detachment, fairness, or balance, and while all of these may contribute to striving for objectivity, they do not make up a complete definition of the concept (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2005). Another common point of confusion is how objectivity is applied in practice – are journalists themselves objective, or their reporting methods?
Within this study, the latter is considered to be the correct view. Striving for complete objectivity is not only extremely difficult, but at times even counter-productive; a reporter who pretends that he doesn’t have bias may become blind to that very thing, and in some cases a journalist who abandons interpretation in a story loses an important opportunity to establish relevance and context for his audience (Wilkins and Christians 2008, 77-80). It is much more productive to establish an objective method of reporting than it is to become objective oneself. Kovach and Rosenstiel endorse a definition of objectivity that relies primarily on verification, and that harkens back to the original definition of objectivity that “called for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information—a transparent approach to evidence—precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of their work” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2005, 72). Berry agrees with this definition, albeit in a way that is more simply stated: “Ultimately, to be objective is to be aware of one’s approach to any given subject matter” (Berry 2009, 124).
To be fair, embedded reporters do appear to have been aware of the possibility that they could get too close to the military personnel upon whom they were reporting. Some even confessed it readily, as embedded journalist Gordon Dillow did:
I found myself falling in love with my subject. I fell in love with “my” marines. Maybe it’s understandable. When you live with the same guys for weeks, sharing their dreams and miseries, learning about their wives and girlfriends, their hopes and dreams, admiring their physical courage and strength, you start to make friends—closer friends in some ways than you’ll ever have outside war. Isolated from everyone else, you start to see your small corner of the world the same way they do. (Fahmy and Johnson 2005)
This account supports the theory put forward at the beginning of this project that embedded media were socialized into military culture as a result of their repeated positive contact with soldiers (Beyer, Hannah, and Milton 2000).
Although it would be erroneous to assume that all journalists experienced their time with the soldiers in this way, Dillow’s observation does demonstrate the difficulties the media may have experienced in objectively reporting on people to whom they were so close. As mentioned earlier, not only did this journalist find himself identifying with the goals and values of his marines, but he also explained in part his incentive to remain a part of the group. An embedded journalist running a negative story could suffer a loss of practical access to information, but he would also be at risk for losing an important emotional support system he has come to rely on. This is particularly true given the nature of his surroundings, because the reporter is in a situation where he would be both physically and emotionally isolated from others, which would likely be at the least disheartening, perhaps even traumatic.
Anther reporter gave an equally interesting account of their perspective on bonding with the troops: “We were going to war. It was potentially dangerous. I needed to get to know people to figure out who to trust if things got ugly” (Wong 2003, 14). This journalist went into the conflict knowing that he was going to need to form close relationships with military personnel in order to maintain his access and safety.
This is the challenge to objectivity experienced by embeds, the extent of which was unique to their circumstances: “Journalists likewise must see the persons about whom they report, take some responsibility for the consequences of their words and images, and yet avoid an emotional investment so deep that it precludes the ability to complexly describe multiple perspectives” (Wilkins and Christians 2008, 14). Embedded journalists—due to emotional attachments, travel restrictions, and limits to access—had more difficulty than their unilateral counterparts in complexly describing multiple perspectives. This was evidenced by their overwhelming use of military sources, their emphasis on military-positive content, and their lack of focus on one of the most important issues in any war: civilian casualties. This kind of reporting was left up to unilaterals and Baghdad-based reporters, and it was much harder for those journalists to get exposure for their stories (Lindner 2009).
Allowing journalists to periodically leave the unit and then return (while still maintaining the military’s operational tempo and security) when their additional reporting was complete might have assisted embeds in distancing themselves somewhat from their subject. Limiting embedding periods overall would have had the similar effect of giving journalists perspective and a measure of independence from their military hosts. The last ethical standard of professional independence will explore this idea further.
The Embedded Media’s Duty to Independence
The last challenge embedded reporters faced was to their professional independence. Here the description from the ethical standards list above becomes especially useful: Journalists should refrain from becoming beholden to or improperly influenced by any individual, company, or government that causes them to stray from their primary duty to the public interest.
There are two distinct concerns regarding independence at play here: the first is that the media became a very inexpensive avenue of information operations for the military. As has been noted, “the military seeks to use news coverage to support its military mission in three main ways: by supporting positive public relations and building public support; by building credibility; and by supporting successful information operations against the enemy” (Paul and Kim 2004, 48-49).
Anti-propaganda and intimidation campaigns, normally reserved exclusively for a small group of public affairs and information officers, suddenly became the secondary purpose of the embedded press as a consequence of their closer relationship with military leadership (Paul and Kim 2004, 50). In fact, it has been speculated that (safety considerations aside) the main reason that the military so strongly discouraged unilateral reporting was that it was not able to influence unilaterals’ work by encouraging sympathy with soldiers and claiming security or operational concerns as a basis for informal censorship (Brandenburg 2007). For the government’s part, their move to allow embedding was a smart and understandable public relations strategy. However, for the public, embedding raised some major questions regarding the role of a journalist and to whom journalists owe their primary loyalty. It seems untenable that a reporter could serve both the government and the public equally, so many critics saw a fundamental conflict of interest arise with the popularity of the embedded program.
This leads to the second concern about press autonomy and embedding: that it is very difficult to remain independent when one has essentially become a participant in the organization under investigation:
One might imagine that one could both report on events and be a participant in them, but the reality is that being a participant clouds all the other tasks a journalist must perform. It becomes difficult to see things from other perspectives. It becomes more difficult to win the trust of the sources and combatants on different sides. It becomes difficult if not impossible to then persuade your audience that you put their interests ahead of those of the team that you are also working for. In other words, you might be a secret adviser to those you are writing about or a speechwriter, or take money. But it is an act of arrogance, and probably naïveté or delusion, to think it won’t get in the way. (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2005, 97)
Just as domestic reporting beats can result in conflicts of interest if the reporter gets too close to his sources over a period of time, so can the embedding beat:
Broadly, conflict of interest comprises a variety of instances where undeclared obligations or loyalties exist that might plausibly intervene between journalists or journalism organizations and the public they principally serve. The conflict takes the form of an interposed set of rival objectives, usually invisible to the audience that the journalist would reasonably be expected to be mindful of and which could influence his or her judgment governing the reporting or its presentation. Although the traditional notion of “interests” suggests a material stake rather than a personal bond, the conception is not so narrow; any valued relationship may suffice to produce a conflict. (Wilkins and Christians 2008, 229)
This particular conflict of interest is not by any means invisible to the public. Journalists who depend on their military hosts for just about everything—their food, water, quarters, and most importantly, safety—jeopardize their independence as professional journalists; at the very least, they jeopardize their credibility with a critical audience. Even if the journalist acknowledges that the conflict exists—and anecdotal evidence suggests embedded reporters did—the acknowledgement doesn’t necessarily eliminate the conflict (Wilkins and Christians 2008, 237). The journalist may be able to take steps toward counteracting the conflict (such as reducing how much he socializes with the military group), and the disclosure may ease some of the public’s concerns about the journalist’s independence, but the conflict itself remains (Wilkins and Christians 2008, 237).
There are two main ways to eliminate the conflict of interest: 1) remove journalists from embedding situations completely, effectively shutting down current and future embedding programs; or 2) change the ethically questionable aspects of the embedding system so that the program can continue without jeopardizing the professionalism of the journalists who participate in it.
To move their programs more in-line with standards of professional journalism, both media organizations and the military can make some basic changes in their approaches to embedding:
- Both military and media leadership should encourage journalists to embed for shorter periods of time. When embedding was first introduced in Bosnia in 1996, journalists lived and worked with soldiers for only two to three weeks at a time (Paul and Kim 2004, 46-48), mainly because the focus of their assignments was to produce a feature-length story reporting on the Bosnian conflict, rather than generate news about the war itself (Brandenburg 2007). Although reporters in the future may have a harder time gaining trust and access from military personnel in such a short period of time, the intensity of their relationships may be moderated in anticipation of the reporter’s short stay, and their methods of objective reporting might become more resilient to the pressures of conflict reporting if undertaken in shorter intervals.
- News agencies should strive to provide an equal number of embedded and non-embedded reporters in the war zone, and give their coverage equal space and prominence. While this approach is likely to be expensive in practice for the increasing number of financially-struggling news organizations, the concept of truthful reporting dictates that readers receive consistent information that is accompanied by context and relevancy. As it has been established that each category of reporter has a different approach to wartime coverage, this practice will offer the audience the greatest assurance that they are getting the most reliable and complete information possible by having journalists report from both sides of the frontline.
- Should the previous recommendation prove unfeasible, the military should officially allow embedded reporters to temporarily become unilateral reporters, and vice versa. Although the military would lose a certain amount of control over the media with this approach, it would gain tremendously in public and media good will, as it did after the application of the embedding program in increasing press access early on in the Iraq War (Paul and Kim 2004, 54). It would also allow embedded reporters to gain more than just a fragmented view of the progress of a war, as well as the improved ability to report on how a conflict may be affecting local populations without losing their access to the military population. There is an increased safety benefit with this option as well: of the 13 journalists who were killed during the six weeks of official combat operations in Iraq, all but four were unilateral journalists (Paul and Kim 2004, xviii). This is mostly likely due not just to a lack of proper security, but also to a deficiency in situational awareness regarding combat trends and hotspots. To prevent further loss of life, the US military should actively support unilateral journalists by: allowing them to temporarily attach to military units or stay for an extended time as converted embeds (as the operational situation permits); offering access to communications that would provide frequent updates on the status of security and combat in the region; and providing unrestricted access to soldiers regardless of their embedded or non-embedded status (possibly reducing the risks unilaterals have to take in order to report from the frontline).
- Additional recommendations. Murphy, Ward, and Donovan (2006) have also made several potentially useful recommendations for improving the quality of embedded reporting in addition to those this project made above. Specifically, they suggested that editors should supply the audience with varying sources and ideas in order to assemble the context of a story; that editors be skeptical and critical in their editing of embedded journalists’ work, as well as monitor their progress in the field; that reporters should “show the human face 0f war” in contrast to sterile footage of war technology; that reporters should avoid “cheerleading,” which is a biased method of reporting geared towards raising a country’s morale; and finally, that journalists should “provide the public with transparent (and repeated) explanations about editorial restrictions” (Murphy, Ward, and Donovan 2006).
It is difficult to forecast the future of embedding, partially because its success depends so heavily on the relational climate between the military and press, which is in and of itself unpredictable. As has been explored, the military and the press have historically had very different objectives during wartime, and these differences have often led to hostility and discord. However, a significant change in the wind came with the application of embedding program during the 2003 Iraq War. The military invited the press into its previously restricted spaces to report enthusiastically on what they found, and in return the embedded media assisted the military in spreading its operational and public affairs messages to both the American public and the Iraqi Army. In cooperating to form the embed program, the two previously diametric institutions found some common ground in serving the public.
Although the system did appear to be mutually beneficial, it was not perfect by any means. Embedded media were restricted in their mobility, their viewpoints, and—on rare occasions—even in the content they could report. Many reporters also formed deep bonds with the men and women they were embedded with, and faced challenges to their commitments to objectivity and truth-seeking because of these relationships. Due to the fact that most journalists also depended on the troops for food, water, and shelter, they also found themselves rooted in a conflict that divided their loyalties between the public as watchdogs of authority, and the military as members of the unit.
Any future system of embedding will have to address these shortcomings, as well as the military’s need to ensure operational security. The embedding program, even in the strictly-managed form practiced during the Iraq War, posed many challenges to security; military leadership had to trust that reporters would not divulge privileged information in exchange for a scoop, and that media would not conduct themselves in a manner that would endanger the troops with whom they were embedded. The recommendations made here—to expand access and mobility to include unilateral reporters in addition to embeds—will compound those challenges, as it will increase the number of people to be entrusted with operational information. These challenges can be overcome, but it will require systems for credentialing and managing transitional reporters in a way that will not also unduly restrict their access to personnel and combat operations.
The embedding system was, and has the potential to continue to be, very valuable to the American public. Reforming it to meet professional and ethical journalistic standards will require major changes to the duration, balance, and availability of embedded media positions, and doing this will require serious consideration, patience, and compromises on both sides of the program. In doing so, however, both the military and the press will be able to fulfill the one ultimate duty they share: that of serving the interest of the American public.
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