Embedded journalism refers to news reporters being attached to military units involved in armed conflicts.
While the term could be applied to many historical interactions between journalists and military personnel, it first came to be used in the media coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The United States military responded to pressure from the country’s news media who were disappointed by the level of access granted during the 1991 Gulf War and the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan.
The practice has been criticised as being part of a propaganda campaign whereby embedded journalists accompanied the invading forces as cheerleaders and media relations representatives.
2003 Invasion of Iraq
At the start of the war in March 2003, as many as 775 reporters and photographers were traveling as embedded journalists. These reporters signed contracts with the military promising not to report information that could compromise unit position, future missions, classified weapons, and information they might find. Joint training for war correspondents started in November 2002 in advance of start of the war. When asked why the military decided to embed journalists with the troops, Lieutenant Colonel Rick Long of the US Marine Corps replied:
“Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.”
The first journalist to run afoul of US military rules in Iraq was freelancer Philip Smucker, travelling on assignment for The Christian Science Monitor with the 1st Marine Division. Smucker was not officially embedded, but all reporters in the theatre of war were deemed subject to Pentagon oversight. On 26 March 2003, during an interview with CNN, Smucker disclosed the location of a Marine unit, as he had also done during an interview with NPR. He was thereafter expelled.
Just four days later, Fox News Channel correspondent Geraldo Rivera similarly broadcast details from Iraq of the position and plans of US troops. “Let me draw a few lines here for you,” he said, making on-camera marks in the sand. “First, I want to make some emphasis here that these hash marks here, this is us. We own that territory. It’s 40%, maybe even a little more than that.” At another point, complained a CENTCOM spokesman, Rivera “actually revealed the time of an attack prior to its occurrence.” Although Rivera – like Philip Smucker – was not officially embedded, he was swiftly escorted back to Kuwait. A week later, Rivera apologised. “I’m sorry that it happened,” he said on Fox News Channel, “and I assure you that it was inadvertent. Nobody was hurt by what I said. No mission was compromised.” However, a network review, he admitted, “showed that I did indeed break one of the rules related to embedment.”
In December 2005 the US Coalition Forces Land Component Command in Kuwait pulled the credentials of two embedded journalists on a two-week assignment for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia, claiming they violated a prohibition against photographing damaged vehicles.
The ethics of embedded journalism are considered controversial. The practice has been criticised as being part of a propaganda campaign and an effort to keep reporters away from civilian populations and sympathetic to invading forces; for example by the documentary films War Made Easy: How Presidents & Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death and The War You Don’t See.
Embed critics objected that the level of military oversight was too strict and that embedded journalists would make reports that were too sympathetic to the American side of the war, leading to use of the alternate term “inbedded journalist” or “inbeds”. “Those correspondents who drive around in tanks and armored personnel carriers,” said journalist Gay Talese in an interview, “who are spoon-fed what the military gives them and they become mascots for the military, these journalists. I wouldn’t have journalists embedded if I had any power!… There are stories you can do that aren’t done. I’ve said that many times.”
On 14 June 2014, The New York Times published an opinion piece critical of embedded journalism during both the US military occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. It was written by PVT Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. Army intelligence analyst known for leaking the largest set of classified documents in American history. At no point during her 2009-2010 deployment in Iraq, Manning wrote, were there more than a dozen American journalists covering military operations – in a country of 31 million people and 117,000 US troops. Manning charged that vetting of reporters by military public affairs officials was used “to screen out those judged likely to produce critical coverage,” and that once embedded, journalists tended “to avoid controversial reporting that could raise red flags” out of fear having their access terminated. “A result,” wrote Manning, “is that the American public’s access to the facts is gutted, which leaves them with no way to evaluate the conduct of American officials.” Manning noted, “This program of limiting press access was challenged in court in 2013 by a freelance reporter, Wayne Anderson, who claimed to have followed his agreement but to have been terminated after publishing adverse reports about the conflict in Afghanistan. The ruling on his case upheld the military’s position that there was no constitutionally protected right to be an embedded journalist.”
Gina Cavallaro, a reporter for the Army Times, said, “They’re [the journalists] relying more on the military to get them where they want to go, and as a result, the military is getting smarter about getting its own story told.” But, she added, “I don’t necessarily consider that a bad thing.”
During both the Iraq War and War in Afghanistan, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were used extensively against US-led Coalition forces, and accounted for the majority of Coalition casualties. Journalists travelling with ground forces were at the same risk. On 29 January 2006, while embedded with the US Army’s 4th Infantry Division, ABC’s World News Tonight co-anchor Bob Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt were, together with an Iraqi soldier, seriously injured when their convoy was ambushed near Taji, Iraq, and an IED detonated beneath them. At the time of the attack, Woodruff and Vogt were exposed, standing in the back hatch of their Iraqi mechanised vehicle taping a video log of the patrol.
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