Journalists or reporters had in the past wars, scarce information with reference to operations of the military. The military provided neither protection nor any form of assistance to the reporters despite having common roles in advancing information dissemination and enhancing democracy. At most times, due to inadequate communication from the military, the media broadcasted erroneous accounts regarding the operations of the military. With reference to the 1st amendment, reporters have been granted free press rights to enable them inform the public on facts but the military personnel believe that disclosure of some of the classified documents would bring risk to the soldiers and jeopardize the defense system.
However, presently the military acknowledges the need for media coverage on its wars. For example, the Iraq invasion in 2003, the U.S military gave the media the go ahead to cover the war. This system where a journalist is attached to some military units so as to guarantee better if not full coverage of the war is referred to as embedded journalism. Unlike the times of the world wars when the U.S. army relied heavily on its weapons for victory, military strategies have nowadays changed and become information warfare.
Effects of embedded journalism
Embedded journalism has both positive and negative effects on both the media and the defense system. The free press concept is not currently held highly by many countries of the world and it has been documented by the United Nations that only a few governments actually have a free press. In fact, in some of the underdeveloped third world countries, heads of state sarcastically point out that in a country whose population is characterized by an illiteracy level of over 90 percent, a free press is irrelevant. Both the media and the military are key elements of democracy; one is involved in protection and preservation of democracy with the constitution inclusive whereas the other is concerned with press freedom under the 1st amendment ensuring that the public knows the truth.
Permitting the journalists to accompany the military units can positively enhance the military’s image. As a plan for public relations, embedded journalists can give a hand in military credibility build up as they are always entitled to get verified accounts as it pertains what truly happened. In their quest for news, the media often rub shoulders with police operations while on the other hand, the police occasionally ignore the potential contribution and needs to be achieved by having the media give out factual information and help in dispelling rumors. This is true particularly in situations where barricades and hostages are involved.
The personnel managing police have largely criticized the media for the manner in which it portrays terrorists and/or their operations. Each of the police departments in the world can give an account of experiences where the media has obstructed the hostage negotiation teams simply for a story. The daring reporters appear ready to endanger the lives of hostages in the hope that they will get an exclusive story.
Giving the media a chance to have access to war zones is advantageous in that it helps the military unit tell its version of story about the war. For example, journalists were embedded by the American military to the troops in the in the 2003 invasion of Iraq following complaints from the U.S. news media about inadequate coverage of the 1991 gulf war. This was also replicated during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 which was U.S.-led. Embedding journalists to military troops helps the military public relations personnel regulate what the media can broadcast in that they classify information as releasable or non-releasable. Releasable information is information that is open for the public to get via the media house. Examples of such information include; military target location and objectives, friendly casualty figures, approximate force strength figures, figure of captured enemies or those who have been detained. Non-releasable information is not open to the public because its broadcast and/or publication could in one way or another jeopardize the accomplishment of the missions of the military unit and therefore may endanger the lives of people. Examples of such information include; aircraft numbers, number of units involved in the venture, critical supplies and equipment numbers e.g. tracks, tanks, ships (TISS 2003)
Embedded reporters usually cover news which is friendlier to the military and troops than the non-embedded journalists since they are thought to be more trusting of military people individuals than their non-embedded counterparts. An embedded reporter is entitled to spent twenty four hours each day of the week in the company of his soldier teammates probably under the same field conditions which are imposed by the combat and at most times are demanding. Therefore, there is a likelihood of the development of a sense of comradeship resulting into more military friendly news coverage.
A disadvantage with embedding journalists is that the news they cover is always from the Army’s point of view. The reporters usually have a lot to report about but it originates from one side of the warring parties, this leads to biased reporting. In some cases the reporters will require translators and this coupled with differences in world views affects what the journalists cover. For reporters, of most importance are the facts, but so are the points of view from the people and how the facts are covered. Having taken this into account, journalists still face a stiff challenge in presenting the whole facts and information in a manner that is interesting and accessible to the people.
Embedded journalists put the authorities on the spot. This is because they are expected in a war setting to put aside their loyalties and give a thorough coverage of the events taking place indiscriminately. They need to extract information from the people by asking questions for example meaning of the event, who is supposed to benefit and how, who are behind the events e.t.c. They are supposed to internalize what’s going on, people’s opinion from both sides and generate a fair picture. For example, the media helped expose an instance which occurred during the Afghanistan invasion by the U.S. A wedding party had been mistakenly bombed by the military and internal investigators involved the U.S. journalists in probing the attacks. It was reported that the military wanted to do away with the evidence of the mistake but it was ‘headed off’ by journalists when they publicized the incident and therefore filed pressure on the military to take responsibility of their actions (Kuo 2003).
More often embedded journalists’ objectivity has been called into question. This has been brought up not so much of a direct attack on the 1st amendment (in reference to law guarding reporting of certain issues by journalists) as it is against the principles of free speech behind the 1st amendment which preserve the independence and integrity of a watchdog press. Usually the concern is not about the embedded journalists becoming propaganda machines for the government, but that by so closely associating themselves unconsciously with the military units; they have been rendered unable to objectively report on the happenings during war without leaning on the side of the military.
It has been reported that some journalists cross the line and actually participate in the activities of the military units due to the closeness they have. The kind of relationship between embedded journalists and the military units is not a mere friendship; there is a linkage between their survivals. Those travelling with the units have linked their own survival with the well being of the unit in a manner that is identification inevitable. This unconscious identification poses a risk that the reporters may compromise their independence which is fundamental to the press in executing its duties as either an informer or a watchdog. A reporter who has leaned on one side can not objectively and accurately report information and so is a watchdog press which can hardly be effective since it considers itself part and parcel of the group under scrutiny.
Embedded journalists end up inadvertently promoting the media position preferred by the government since much of the news they cover are sourced from the commanders of the units who were assigned to them. Other reporters from outside the program who were assigned to supplement the information are often not relied upon or are incapacitated and cannot find coverage materials potentially damaging to their countries with ease like the embedded reporters.
Additionally, the competence of embedded reporters in accurately covering the conflict is questionable since they cover only one side of the story, the soldiers’ perspective. Journalists who lack context cannot maintain a neutral position in terms of reporting the war.
As discussed, the role of media in covering the events at times of war can not be overlooked. With reference to the 1st amendment, the press is supposed to have a free hand on the choice of materials for reporting whether as a watchdog or as an informer press. However, there is also a clear need to regulate what the media reports since some information once exposed can lead to breach of national security and may put the missions of military units in jeopardy. Therefore, there is a need to strike a compromise whereby the media is given a chance to select what to report and how to do it, but should also exempt reports on areas which may expose the operations before they occur since this may lead in one way or another to boycotts and the operations become unsuccessful.
Donnelly et al (2003). “Embedded Journalism: How war is viewed differently from the Frontlines versus the Sidelines.” Department of Defense Joint Course in Communication, Department of Communication, University of Oklahoma.
Kuo, Keming. (April 2, 2003). “Iraq War’s Embedded Journalists.” Iraq Crisis
TISS (Triangle Institute for Security Studies). (2003). “The American Media and Wartime Challenges Conferences Summary and Papers.”