They’re in the Army Now

The Ethical Quandary of Embedded Journalists

Do “embedded journalists,” that is, those assigned to cover and travel with a particular military unit, make for balanced war coverage?

As a journalist I believe embedding journalists with our troops is higly problematic.

Say the word
To begin with one needs only to look at the military term: “embedding.” The military’s selection of that word says it all; by definition it sets up a troubling precedent. When you ’embed’ something you “introduce it as an integral part,” according to the Websters Third International Dictionary.

Should war journalists ever be an integral part of any military unit? Once they are, wouldn’t they lose their impartiality? It seems that a journalist that is an integral part of any military unit should be writing for Stars and Stripes and not the New York Times .

The Rules Agreement
Even more troubling is the fact that the military makes all embedded journalists sign what’s called a ” Coalition Forces Land Component Command Ground Rules Agreement .”. Part of that agreement forbids the release of information pertaining to “ongoing engagements.” Don’t get me wrong, no journalist ever strives to divulge sensitive information whose release may cost the lives of soldiers.

However, no self-respecting war journalist should sign an agreement that doesn’t specify what an “ongoing engagement” is in fine print. Think about it?an “ongoing engagement” could be anything from the striking of a match to the totality of the war. Who gets to decide what qualifies as an “ongoing engagement”? An editor, say? No. Discretion is left up to a unit commander.

In short, that’s military censorship.

And for those that refuse to sign the “Rules Agreement” document and go it alone? Interference.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, in an open letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld protesting the military’s stance on non-embedded reporters, said that the the Pentagon has offered “no convincing guarantees that unilateral reporting [non-embedded journalists]…will be allowed to proceed without interference.”

What we don’t see
As a result, you’re not likely to see too many images of wounded GI’s being Medevaced onto helicopters or burned bodies (see Arab News ) of dead Iraqi civilians after a precision bombing raid. These were images that the American public saw daily on their television sets during the Vietnam War. And these images help created a groundswell of protest against the Vietnam War.

Count how many times you’ve seen either image in this war.

We are getting some fantastic images of firefights between U.S. soldiers and unseen Iraqis. But we’re also getting endless shots of the back of tanks rolling through the sand. Is that telling me anything?

Where are the images of Baghdad being bombed?from inside? Where’s the coverage of what’s afoot on Baghdad’s streets? Where can we get accurate information on civilian casualties that are a certainty in any bombing campaign, that are a part of how we morally evaluate a war? Al-Jazeera ? Good luck. That news organization’s English web site has been curiously jammed by hackers for the last several days. More censorship?

Stockholm Syndrome
Another problem with embedding journalists is simple human nature. Embedded journalists have no choice but to bond with the stressed out soldiers they suffer with. And every journalist knows that when you bond emotionally with your subject your impartiality goes out the window. We think with our hearts as well as with our minds. I liken the situation to a journalistic “Stockholm Syndrome.” That term was coined in the 70’s to describe the unexpected reactions of four bank employees who were taken hostage in a bank heist in Stockholm The hostages were held for six days by two ex-convicts who threatened them but also showed them compassion.

To the world’s surprise, the hostages resisted the government’s efforts to rescue them, and were even eager to defend their captors. Several months after the hostages were rescued they still had warm feelings for their captors. This bonding under stress was so strong that two of the women eventually got engaged to the captors.

Do you still think embedded journalism is a good thing?

Think of what the reportage would be like if reporters had been embedded with Iraqi forces only. That biased story wouldn’t paint a pretty picture, would it?