6.3.1 Activity: Reporting the spectacle
We now turn to two readings on embedded reporting that illustrate some of the complexities and ambiguities of this role. In 'Embedded Lines in the Sand in Basra', journalist David Smith deals with the ambiguities of 'embedded reporting'. The second reading, an extract from Lewis et al’s Shoot First And Ask Questions Later: Media Coverage of the 2003 Iraq War, considers research undertaken by a team led by Lewis at Cardiff University that examined the role of embedded reporters operating in British and US military units in Iraq.
Activity 23 Shoot first and ask questions later: Media coverage of the 2003 Iraq War
, while the extract from Shoot First And Ask Questions Later can be downloaded from the link below.
Read both pieces now and consider the following questions, taking notes as you go:
- What do you consider to be the strengths and weaknesses of 'embedded' reporting?
- How does the account of embedded reporting offered by Lewis et al compare with that offered by Kellner?
When you have finished taking notes, reveal the discussion.
We might argue that the strengths of embedded reporting lie in its ability to convey detailed and direct accounts of events as they happen and unfold. Embedded reporters are not only closer to military action but have daily interactions with commanders, soldiers and 'media ops.' – vital resources unavailable to unilaterals. Thus, if they are able to maintain their objectivity, embedded journalists are able to provide a much more accurate and close-quarters version of war events than their unilateral counterparts.
The main weakness of the embedded model is that it leaves journalists open to accusations of being in the control of the military. Romilly Weeks's and Juliet Bremner's accounts in the Lewis reading reveal how the military have tried to directly censor ('blue-pencil') or control journalists' reporting. Furthermore, the military may try and influence the news agenda by providing certain 'positive' stories which are fed to journalists in an attempt to present military activity in a favourable light. Censorship can also occur more indirectly through the ways in which journalists' movements may be restricted by military command – reporters such as Mark Austin commented on the routine use of 'safety' and 'operational security' as explanations for preventing access to sensitive areas.
A second major weakness of embedding is it raises the fear that journalists will lose their objectivity and 'go native' (as Smith describes), coming to over-identify with their military protectors, so losing sight of their apparently neutral and objective status. When journalists' find themselves protected from injury or death by the military, or – as in the case of Clive Myrie – contributing first-hand to a military skirmish, they may find it difficult to maintain the detached objectivity that their work requires.
Contrary to Kellner's claims that embedded reporters are strongly censored and controlled by their military hosts, both Smith and Lewis reveal how the job of mediating war is a complex process where embedded journalists must balance the necessity of working 'on the inside' while retaining their professional commitment to producing impartial and objective reporting. The accounts of reporters interviewed by Lewis's team reveal the difficult tension of maintaining journalistic impartiality and integrity amidst the very real necessity of relying on military hosts for personal protection and safety. While censorship (both direct and indirect) and pro-military reporting are not uncommon (as both Kellner and Lewis describe), the Lewis reading also reveals that embedded journalists often fight hard to protect their independent credentials and strive to provide factual rather than partial reporting.
This is further made difficult by the fact that while embedded reporters may well strive to file impartial reports, the final decisions of how those reports are edited and used often rests with editors and executives located ‘back home’. As Kellner argues in the US case, network executives themselves often have ‘embedded’ relationships with the military and government – yet Lewis and team refuse to discount the possibility of embedded journalists producing (and eventually broadcasting) objective and balanced reports.
A further contrast between Kellner and Lewis is that the former argues that only unilateral reporters can provide objective, untainted reports – yet Lewis reveals that unilaterals are often undermined by their physical distance (their disembeddedness we might say) from military operations and their subsequent lack of insight into the day-to-day operations of the war zone. They too are also 'fed' positive stories designed to promote the military in a favourable light – and (unlike the embeds) may not be in a good position to see through this.
Overall, we might conclude, then, that while (as Kellner suggests) many journalists can be said to somewhat cosily 'embedded' with the military, it is perhaps too simplistic to argue that embedded journalists lack the potential to provide impartial, objective or (even) critical reports – or to suggest that unilaterals always provide the most accurate and objective coverage.