The world is getting an unrivaled look at war as it happens with hundreds of reporters and photographers risking their lives alongside coalition forces in Iraq. Many of the close-up images from the frontline are the result of a bold experiment that “embedded” journalists in tanks, helicopters and aircraft carriers.
Eyewitness reports from journalists bring the world face-to-face with the realities of war. During the Second World War, the voice of legendary US journalist Edward R. Murrow brought vivid images of a besieged Britain into the homes of millions of Americans.
"This is Trafalgar square, the noise you hear is the sound of the air raid siren. A search light just burst into action off in the distance, one signal beam sweeping the sky above me now. People are beginning to enter bomb shelters."
That was then, and this is now:
"The U.S. Army is in control of the west side of Baghdad, while the marines continue to push into the city from the east. We have been told that [ARTILLERY FIRE] Whoa…excuse me, I was not prepared for that. Artillery just fired. [ARTILLERY FIRE] That’s pretty loud, isn’t it? We are shooting back at Baghdad, that’s what’s going on here," said VOA’s Deborah Block.
She is one of nearly 600 journalists from six continents traveling with American and British military forces fighting in Iraq. As in previous wars, journalists often report from battle zones and are sometimes killed along with soldiers and civilians. This war, however, marks the first time independent reporters were literally sent into battle with military forces.
Tom Rosenstiel, Director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a watchdog on the profession located here in Washington says the embedded program is unprecedented in the history of war coverage. "All wars previous to this one underwent censorship review," he says. "The difference is that this is live, and therefore uncensored by the government minders. The embedded reporting system gives us 600 journalists on the battlefield in different places that provide info to us as citizens that we didn’t have before. They provide 600 points of a mosaic."
But critics argue that the mosaic could be flawed. Many observers say it is difficult for embedded journalists to remain impartial and objective. Greg Mitchell, Managing Editor of the weekly US magazine, Editor and Publisher, believes the embedded program has value. But he is cautious in his praise. He says it tests the boundaries of journalistic integrity.
"One has to worry about the embedded reporters objectivity being with the troops, bonding with them and becoming close to the commanders," he says. "If you are traveling with the US Army, you’re being protected by them. So you are reporting on people who you owe your safety to. We saw too much of their reporting during this war where the embedded journalists on TV would continue to refer to the effort as a 'we.' 'We' entered this town, 'we' took fire, 'we' captured prisoners, and so forth."
Mr. Mitchell says this blurs the line between journalist and soldier and may send the wrong message.
But Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism says despite their close contact with allied troops, journalists can maintain a psychological distance from their military escorts. He notes that many embedded journalists have reported unfavorable stories about coalition forces and sometimes even contradict assessments by US defense officials.
One such case happened on April 1st after seven Iraqi women and children were killed in a van at a checkpoint near the city of Najaf. US defense officials said allied troops fired warning shots, but the van failed to stop. Then they opened fire on the passengers. But Mr. Rosenstiel says an embedded reporter on the scene reported something else.
"There was a Washington Post reporter there, and he was actually able to tell the American public that this was actually a ghastly accident that was caused, in part, by the military not following procedures, not firing a warning shot early enough," he says. "And that is very different from what the Pentagon led us to believe in their first account."
The embedded journalist program is a major shift in policy for the US Defense Department. Today’s coverage is significantly more comprehensive than it was in the Persian Gulf War 12 years ago. Back then, most public information came from military briefings and a handful of reporters delivering censored reports.
. "Our objective in executing the Department of Defense embedded program was to dominate the information flow coming out of the region," says US Army Major Timothy Blair, the administrator of the embedded journalist program for the Pentagon. "The reason we wanted to do this was based on the history of lies and misinformation that the Iraqi regime was famous for. By embedding reporters, you would have a first-hand, unbiased, factual account of what is happening on the ground, to counter any misinformation coming from the Iraqi regime."
Some observers say that despite the unfettered access embedded reporters have to military operations, they cannot always grasp the full story. Without the viewpoint of the other side – in this case that of Iraqi civilians or even Iraqi troops– their stories may be incomplete. VOA’s Alisha Ryu is embedded with a US Marine Corps unit that entered Baghdad last week. She says that overall it has been a positive experience but, she feels frustration at times.
"I am completely reliant on the US military to get the story," she says. "There is very little movement outside the military. The restricted movement really makes us stick to one side of the story. We can’t get to the Iraqi civilians. I tried numerous times to try to talk to them. But when you are in a military convoy and you’re sitting in an armored Humvee and you’ve got five or six people around you, it is impossible to get the kind of time and trust you need to build up with those Iraqi civilians in order for them to open up to you and to get their stories."
On the other hand, free-roaming journalists can get different points of view. Greg Mitchell of Editor and Publisher says the problem is that only a handful of these independent journalists have reported on the war. "When we went into this war, the editors said only part of their coverage would be based on the embedded reports," he says. "And they would have many free-roaming reporters who would operate without those kinds of limitations. Because of the dangers, almost no free-roaming reporters were operating except in Northern Iraq, and so almost all the coverage came from the embedded reporters. It’s a concern."
Observers say that ultimately, the embedded program is a tool that can be used effectively or not depending on the media outlet. Mr. Rostenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism agrees and says the key is not to rely too heavily on only the embedded journalists. "The embedded reporter has a limited view," he says. They see it from the GI view of the war. Embedded reporting is valuable only if it is leavened by or mixed with unilateral reporting from reporters elsewhere in the field."
The risks for both embedded and free-roaming journalists remain high. At least a dozen reporters have died covering this war, including veteran journalists Michael Kelly of The Altantic Monthly and David Bloom of the US National Broadcasting Company television network – both of whom were embedded with U-S troops and were hailed for their coverage.
Whatever the future of “embedding,” there’s no doubt that some of the most memorable stories depicting the triumphs and tragedies of this war came from the journalists on the frontlines.