Maintaining Impartiality in War Reporting: Imperative or Impossible?

By Bridges, Richard M. | Army, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Maintaining Impartiality in War Reporting: Imperative or Impossible?


Bridges, Richard M., Army


While CNN-International smarted under the criticism of Arab countries for its pro-coalition news coverage during the latest Iraqi conflict, Qatar-based Al-Jazeera suffered charges of pro-Saddam Hussein coverage from coalition countries and liberated Iraqis. CNN-International did make some clumsy attempts to cover both sides equally, which seemed somewhat moot after CNN was expelled from Iraq in the early days of the war and was forced to rely on Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf for the other side's views. I do not think CNN-International succeeded in distancing itself from the conflict sufficiently to provide unbiased coverage, and I am not sure that the concept of truly independent, dispassionate news reporting, especially from a war zone, is currently technologically possible or perhaps even desirable.

Part of the problem for CNN-International was the presence of embedded reporters moving with coalition units and reporting with relative freedom on the move and in the middle of combat, any one of whom could talk with the CNN anchor from a satellite phone. I have long been a fan of the concept of embedded media with military units in wartime. Embedded reporters, if left with a unit for any length of time, naturally become part of the unit as they get acquainted with its members over time and experience the horrors of war shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers. I heard CNN's Walter Rodgers use the word "we" on April 6 for the first time, and I think that confirms the benefits to the military of embedding journalists in units.

This fraternal bonding with the unit that develops over time, I think, increases the accuracy of the tactical reporting from the reporter with the unit. Viewers watching Walter Rodgers race across the desert with the 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, have a bird's eye view of what these soldiers are experiencing. It does not get much truer than that from a tactical point of view, and Rodgers' reporting got better the longer he spent with the tip of the 3rd Infantry Division spearhead. He came to understand the unit, its mission and the people. He became part of the unit to the point that he could say "we" without thinking.

The media in this conflict has had to come to grips with the degree to which its reporting is unbiased and accurately reflects what is happening on both sides of the conflict. This is exceptionally difficult for reporters embedded in units, as they do not have a strategic view of what is going on, except perhaps for what they get from the unit with which they are embedded. The media can avert this dilemma by shuttling reporters in and out of units, but that is rather impractical, given the risks associated with what would amount to the military having to escort journalists back and forth between units during a conflict. I am not aware that any such movement occurred during the conflict, with the only exceptions being two journalists who were escorted out of theater for violating the ground rules. Impartiality is something that the anchors and editors, who are trying to create a big picture view of the conflict through the reports of embedded reporters, are obligated to achieve, but not something those individual reporters in the field are likely to be able to do. Is impartiality necessary, even at the strategic level?

One media representative I watched on a CNN-International panel suggested that if the nation is in a war for its survival, such as Britain during the Blitz, then the nation's reporters have every right to report the government's side of the conflict and ignore the enemy's. This, of course, would support the Arab media reporting word for word the propaganda of Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed alSahhaf during the conflict; but the conditional nature of this degree of impartiality would also be a little difficult to regulate. Who would define the point at which survival was in question? Impartiality is important from the journalistic perspective since people may depend on the news for information upon which they will rely, possibly in life-or-death situations.

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Maintaining Impartiality in War Reporting: Imperative or Impossible?
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