April 3, 2003

Embedded Reporters

Overview

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has suggested we are getting only “slices” of the war. Other observers have likened the media coverage to seeing the battlefield through “a soda straw.”

The battle for Iraq is war as we’ve never it seen before. It is the first full-scale American military engagement in the age of the Internet, multiple cable channels and a mixed media culture that has stretched the definition of journalism.

The most noted characteristic of the media coverage so far, however, is the new system of “embedding” some 600 journalists with American and British troops.

What are Americans getting on television from this “embedded” reporting? How close to the action are the “embeds” getting? Who are they talking to? What are they talking about?

To provide some framework for the discussion, the Project for Excellence in Journalism conducted a content analysis of the embedded reports on television during three of the first six days of the war. The Project is affiliated with Columbia University and funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The embedded coverage, the research found, is largely anecdotal. It’s both exciting and dull, combat focused, and mostly live and unedited. Much of it lacks context but it is usually rich in detail. It has all the virtues and vices of reporting only what you can see.

In particular:

  • In an age when the press is often criticized for being too interpretive, the overwhelming majority of the embedded stories studied, 94%, were primarily factual in nature.
  • Most of the embedded reports studied-6 out of 10-were live and unedited accounts.
  • Viewers were hearing mostly from reporters, not directly from soldiers or other sources. In eight out of 10 stories we heard from reporters only.
  • This is battle coverage. Nearly half of the embedded reports-47%-described military action or the results.
  • While dramatic, the coverage is not graphic. Not a single story examined showed pictures of people being hit by fired weapons.

Over the course of reviewing the coverage, Project analysts also developed a series of more subjective impressions of embedding. Often the best reports were those that were carefully written and edited. Some were essentially radio reporting on TV. Technology made some reports stand out but got in the way when it was used for its own sake. Too often the rush to get information on air live created confusion, errors and even led journalists to play the game of “Telephone,” in which partial accounts become distorted and exaggerated in the retelling.

On balance, however, Americans seem far better served by having the embedding system than they were from more limited press pools during the Gulf War of 1991 or only halting access to events in Afghanistan. Moreover, the first week of the war hints that fears that the embedding system would mostly just co-opt the press or would fatally risk military security in time may wane.

The study examined stories from embedded reporters in three of the first six days of the coverage (Friday March 21, Saturday March 22 and Monday March 24). These encompass days in which ground troops began their push into Iraq, when they first encountered serious resistance and the first day that some began to suggest that U.S. troop momentum had slowed.

The study examined the traditional key viewing hours for news each day, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., on the three major broadcast networks and two cable channels (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News) as well as the evening news programs for the broadcast networks and the analogous hour-long evening news programs on cable. This consisted of the following programs: ABC’s Good Morning America, CBS Early Show, NBC’s Today Show, CNN’s American Morning, Fox & Friends, ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Reports and Fox’s Special Report with Brit Hume.

In the 40.5 hours of programming examined over those three days, the five networks studied aired 108 embedded reports.

Each story was coded for such items as topic, extent of editing, sourcing, and nature of the footage. In addition to this content analysis, Project analysts also recorded more subjective impressions about the risks and potentials of the embedded reporting based on the stories they saw. These impressions are based on the networks and cable channels listed above as well as two news outlets not included in the formal coding, PBS and MSNBC.

Americans themselves seem to be conflicted about embedding. A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that overall, 58% of Americans said embedded reporters “are a good thing.” Of the 34% who said it was “a bad thing,” most are worried that it is providing too much information that could help the enemy.1

But the tracking survey also found as time went on, people were more likely to say they felt depressed, frightened, tired out, and saddened by watching the coverage.

Footnote

1. See “TV Combat Fatigue on the Rise; But ‘Embeds’ Viewed Favorably,” Pew Research Center For the People and the Press, March 28, 2003.