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Embedded Reporters Draw Mixed Response - 2003-04-13


As the war in Iraq continues, more than 500 reporters are providing coverage as they accompany or are "embedded" with American and other coalition forces. The program has drawn a mixed response from journalists, academics and the American public. What role are these embedded correspondents playing in the efforts of U.S. officials, politicians and journalists to present their views of the war?

This report from war correspondent Kerry Sanders of the NBC television network is typical of the coverage that has riveted millions of American TV viewers. By providing "close and personal" views of life and death on the Iraqi battlefield, George Washington University Professor Janet Steele says the U.S. military's program of hosting embedded journalists appeared at first to provide a fresh perspective on war. "One might say it was a brilliant public relations move to say, 'Fine, here we are. We have no secrets. Travel with us, see what we're doing. We're an open society; our military is open.' In that regard, it's a major, progressive development," she says.

Professor Steele's colleague, Steve Roberts also in Washington, offers a similar view of the embedded correspondents. "They've shown a lot of courage. I think they've brought vivid, real-time scenes for the first time in war coverage. By and large, the military has been reasonably good at giving [journalists] access. The new technologies have been well-deployed and are stunning," he says.

But as the days -and now weeks- passed and the pace of the U.S. led invasion became the focus of public debate, Professor Steele says she has detected a change in the relationship between the embedded reporters and the military: "Perhaps the role of the embedded journalists is a little different than what the Defense Department had at first anticipated. We're at an interesting period right now, where the journalists have a potential for showing what's going wrong with the war," she says.

A study by the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism concludes that 94 percent of the stories presented by embedded reporters in the first week were factual. The report's initial conclusion says that "Americans seem far better served" with the embedding system in the current war than the limited press access provided in the 1991 Gulf War. And it adds that fears of the military's embedding program misleading the press appear to be unfounded.

But George Washington University Professor and veteran New York Times journalist Steve Roberts says the U.S. military's openness may begin to wane. "Some of our fears about the temptation to restrict access and restrict coverage have started to prove justified. The Pentagon's request not to broadcast the tapes of the POW.s, I think, was inappropriate," he says. "Certainly, to take a short period of time to insure the families were notified was a reasonable request. But they [the Pentagon] did not want to show it at all."

The Excellence in Journalism study noted the concerns of embedded journalists' objectivity with the subtitle: "If They're Shooting at the Troops, They're Shooting at Me." The report suggests that, quote, "the embedded reporter surrounded by U-S troops may need to be careful about adopting terminology carefully chosen by military strategists to win hearts and minds" unquote. Media professor Janet Steele says this issue continues to surface. "Here you are with a unit: our fate is their fate; their fate is your fate. It would be very hard not to sympathize. It's really the same as the problems that occur with ordinary journalists who operate on a beat who report on the police department or something like that," she says. "However, as the war is lasting longer than perhaps the more optimistic people in the administration had expected, there's now more potential for journalists to be reporting on things the Defense Department hadn't expected to be reporting on. I think it's happening."

But colleague Roberts says it's important not to view war correspondents as being all alike: some are prone to editorialize; while others retain a solid dedication to objectivity. "I don't think every reporter is operating in the same way. If you look at [the] Fox [network] which has been overtly cheerleading for this war, their reporters are happily taking the side a viewpoint of the soldiers they're covering," he says. "Other reporters, such as [ABC News'] Ted Koppel, who is a very seasoned reporter, is not going to be seduced into unbalanced coverage. He, for example, made a valuable contribution insisting that it was important to show the pictures of American POW.s. As he said, it would be a mistake to 'sanitize' the war."

Whether or not the embedded journalists are seen as valuable sources of information or not, Janet Steele says what is clear is that their reports provide interesting insights of the Iraq battlefield and will likely continue to attract many American TV viewers. "The interest is endless. There's something mesmerizing about it. I know a lot of my students are watching it virtually around the clock. I find I'm always checking on the Internet to see if something has happened," she says.

George Washington University Professors Janet Steele and Steve Roberts, providing their perspectives on the embedded journalists program, which allows reporters to accompany coalition units in covering the Iraq War. A recent poll says that a majority of Americans like the embedding war coverage, but the process continues to spark criticism as well as praise on university campuses, as well as in home living rooms.

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