Academic journal article Parameters

Reporting from the Sandstorm: An Appraisal of Embedding

Academic journal article Parameters

Reporting from the Sandstorm: An Appraisal of Embedding

Article excerpt

"The reasons behind US actions and the types of actions being taken are increasingly discussed in public and the media. The result is that military secrecy is becoming increasingly rare."

--Lieutenant Colonel Beth Kaspar, USAF

"A Bradley under fire cannot be covered dispassionately, like a news conference or a political rally."

--David Zucchino, embedded reporter, Los Angeles Times

On several occasions during Operation Iraqi Freedom, sandstorms obscured the live coverage for hours, and yet the television audience in the United States still had a clear and current idea of what was happening in the war. In an age of the continuous media cycle and information transparency, Operation Iraqi Freedom marked the first time so many reporters were provided so much relatively unrestricted front-line access. Journalists who signed a contract with the military were embedded with units in every military branch. All news media--the major US television networks, 24-hour cable news stations, print, radio, and comparable international outlets carried exclusive coverage from their embedded reporters. While most thought the "embeds" enriched the coverage, two criticisms were frequently repeated: the embedded reporters were compromised by their relationship with their units, and the focus of their reports was too narrow. And one haunting, hovering question was raised: If the war had gone very badly for the United States and Coalition forces, what would have happened to the embedding program?

In order to address how the military can obtain the most beneficial coverage in the next conflict, this article explores how the media intend to improve their wartime reporting. An initial brief review of the history of war reporting, followed by an examination of the Operation Iraqi Freedom coverage, demonstrates a trend toward greater media-military cooperation. This trend analysis is followed by an appraisal of the embedded reporter program, with a careful look at the postwar critiques. An attempt to peer into the future is then made through the example of the financial news media's coverage of the last years of the 1990s bull market. This comparison shows how bad news caused a sea change in the attitude of financial and business news and illuminates the potential pitfalls of embedded war reporting: understanding, not mere information, makes the difference between fair coverage and a negative feeding frenzy.

The media will have to be granted greater access to future military operations if they are to reach this higher plateau of understanding. Reporters must appreciate the operational level of war in order to place the minute-by-minute events in context. Since both the media and the military positively evaluated the recent embedding experiment, it is a fair assumption that the Department of Defense will try to accommodate the media in the future by increasing access. Some might argue that the military and the media will never be able to agree on the ground rules of such an arrangement, but the affiliated trends of greater media-military cooperation and information transparency point toward greater embedding of reporters in the future--perhaps even in the drafting as well as the execution of operational war plans.

A Brief History of War Reporting

Embedding reporters with the military is a natural outgrowth of a relationship between the two organizations dating back to the Crimean War. Since then, the interaction has waxed and waned between adversarial and symbiotic, but the general trend has been toward greater cooperation. In tracking this trend, it is interesting to note that the fundamental obstacle to a close working relationship has not changed much over time. In times of crisis, the military experiences a greater urgency to conceal its strength, location, and intent. This runs squarely counter to journalists' desires to quickly report what they see and hear.

The type of media-military compromise brokered in the Crimean War would be frequently repeated to solve the issue of how bad news from the front was to be reported. …

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