April 3, 2003

Embedded Reporters

Impressions: If They're Shooting at the Troops, They're Shooting at Me

If They're Shooting at the Troops, They're Shooting at Me

One concern before the war began was that embedded reporters would inevitably become too sympathetic to the troops with whom they were traveling. Some skeptics believed this was a primary motivation on the part of military planners in designing the embedded system in the first place. Feed the media beast enough stories that cast U.S. troops in the best possible light and the job of managing the media message is all but taken care of.

The review of embedded reports shows that the inevitable bias that comes with point of view is a risk journalists and viewers must beware of.

On March 22, for instance, an embedded Oliver North reporting about helicopter attacks on enemy positions for Fox & Friends talked about a "remarkable display of military prowess and might" on the part of "my marines."

North also covered the marines aiding a wounded Iraqi teenage girl and transporting her to medical attention. "A remarkable display of humanitarianism by our armed forces as well," the Fox anchor added.

Some may question how representative North's reporting may be. North, however, is employed as a journalist by Fox News. Moreover, moments in which concerns about journalistic distance came to mind were not restricted to North.

One area of concern is whether embedded journalists, with a limited vantage point on the war and without complete control over where they go and when, are always capable of fully contextualizing the news they report.

One example was a story March 22 by NBC reporter Kerry Sanders about surrendering Iraqi POW's. Sanders reported the Iraqi soldiers were fleeing Basra. Later we would learn Basra was hardly under coalition control.

Sanders described prisoners who were kept apart from each other as being "given an opportunity to lay down separate from everybody else." As the camera panned over the prisoners, getting close in on their faces, he picked up a small packet of food an Iraqi had been eating and described it as a "humanitarian daily ration, giving them something to eat while they've been here."

The story, coming near the top of that evening's nightly newscast and described as showing "what the U.S. marines are encountering" as they move north, left the general impression of widespread surrender, all of it without violence. A day later, this sense would give way to an impression of greater than expected Iraqi resistance, which military briefers later would also take issue with.

Moreover, the report came only one day before footage from Iraqi TV of U.S. prisoners engendered harsh rebuke from U.S. military officials, though the Iraqi footage included interviews with U.S. POW's, something Sanders' story did not.

The challenges here are myriad. The embedded reporter surrounded by U.S. troops may need to be careful about adopting terminology carefully chosen by military strategists to win hearts and minds.

Indeed, some may question the propriety of two of the networks-MSNBC and Fox News-adopting "Operation Iraqi Freedom" as the slogan of their war coverage in general. Much as "Shock and Awe" was in the first days of the war, this is a phrase repeated over and over in the coverage, not by embedded reporters as much as by anchors and in the logos and graphics, especially on Fox News and MSNBC.

Even the term "embedded" has drawn criticism from some observers who wonder whether it suggests a closeness that may erode the journalist's role as fact checker and observer.

Technology for its Own Sake Is Not Enough

At times, particularly in the first couple days, some reports brought to mind the danger of becoming too infatuated with the capabilities of one's technology. NBC's David Bloom, for instance, was installed with high-quality, high-tech cameras on a tank recovery vehicle, which in turn beamed signals to a second, NBC News vehicle several miles behind. The equipment allowed Bloom to send multi-camera, high-quality pictures from closer to the front than normally would be possible. While a wonderful tool, at least one report on March 21, which went on for more than 10 minutes, focused on what Bloom and his vehicle mates were eating, having soldiers say hello to folks back home, and how the technology worked. While understandable perhaps in the introductory days, the report showed at least one risk of embedding: if you have people out there with new technology, there is a tendency to use it regardless of the news.

The use of split screen, particularly during some embedded reports, was another risk we found, particularly on cable. For a good deal of time the morning of March 21, for instance, CNN maintained a split screen in which the larger image was an essentially unchanging camera shot of the back of a truck in the middle of a rolling military convoy.

The shot itself offered little new information, particularly after a few minutes. The result was largely confusing, as producers also tried to sandwich in reports from embedded correspondents in other places and with other video, along with the crawl and logos the network was employing. Presumably producers were enamored of having live pictures from Iraq, which anchors kept referring to as historic.

Information Overload Equals Noise

At times, the sheer velocity of information and the rush to get it on air created havoc for viewers. Consider Fox News on the morning of March 22. As they conducted a live interview with embedded reporter Greg Kelly, the anchors interrupted to introduce new footage just in of a cityscape in Iraq. The anchors announced the pictures were from Baghdad on delay. Then, moments later, announced they were actually from Umm Qasr on delay. Then, a few moments after that, announced they were live from Umm Qasr.

By then, a "super" reading "Live from Umm Qasr" went up on the screen, but it no longer mattered, since the pictures they were labeling had returned again to Kelly and his convoy somewhere in the desert.

The irony was that the new pictures, while live, conveyed nothing in particular. Such moments, while the obvious result of the difficulty of live television, become only more noticeable when we as viewers are trying to puzzle together the meaning of different slivers of embedded reporting.