April 3, 2003

Embedded Reporters

Impressions: The Game of Telephone

The Game of Telephone

At times, as anchors tried to interpret the limited but direct information from reporters, it seemed a little like the children's game of telephone, in which a first message is translated into something even more dramatic with time.

Consider Fox News' coverage on March 22nd of the grenade attack in Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait.

At first, reporter Doug Luzader in Kuwait quotes the Associated Press and Reuters to anchor Tony Snow that "apparently one or more terrorists infiltrated the perimeter of this camp." He went on to speculate that the incident "indicates not only are these camps somewhat vulnerable, but also the fact that they may have terrorist operatives, perhaps even coming in from Iraq over the border." However, despite his own speculation, Luzader added, "Now, there's no indication that's what happened here."

A few moments later, Snow turns to Sky News reporter Stuart Ramsay by telephone from Camp Pennsylvania itself. By now, what was only a possibility a moment ago is becoming alleged fact from Ramsay, and one or more perpetrators has become two foreign nationals.

"It seems that two Kuwaiti or Arab nationals entered the headquarters tent in Camp Pennsylvania….It seems, and this is not confirmed at the moment, that these two foreign nationals, were possibly on the translating staff or working at the headquarters tent. Now that's not been confirmed, but it seems that they may have had a reason to be in the camp."

Then Ramsay dresses them. "These two men were apparently wearing desert camouflage gear, one apparently was wearing a helmet."

Snow then summarizes for viewers who tuned in late. "Once again, we have reports that at Camp Pennsylvania…there has been an attack, presumably by a couple of men, who were serving as translators."

Within a few hours, it would turn out, the U.S. military took a lone U.S. soldier into custody for the attack.

Obviously, one of the tensions here is trying to balance the desire of journalists to get a story out quickly and the responsibility to verify what you report. At minimum, journalists need to be careful to leave no false implications. It is best to be as clear as possible about what has been verified and what has not. The usual journalistic qualifiers, such as "indicated," "said to be" and "reportedly," may not be adequate.

Through the Soda Straw

The most common criticism of the embedded reports is that they are only isolated pieces of a larger mosaic, and that relying too heavily on them would thus skew the picture viewers get. A review of the 108 embedded stories examined here suggests that there is validity to this.

"We've never had a war like this," Nightline Executive Producer Tom Bettag told the Los Angeles Times. "We got inundated by close-ups. Somebody's got to take a step back and give a little perspective."1

ABC Pentagon Correspondent John McWethy was quoted in the Washington Post April 1 as saying, "Riding around in a tank is fun, but you don't know [expletive] about what's going on."2

Greg Mitchell, the editor of Editor and Publisher magazine, which covers the newspaper industry, on March 27 identified 15 different stories in which the media got it "wrong or misreported a sliver of fact into a major event."3

Many of these stories, if not all, involve the embedded reporters and their organizations trying to sift through all the reportage flowing into their news desks.

Among the stories, Mitchell cites: Saddam may have been killed the first night (March 20); even if he wasn't killed, Iraqi command and control was no doubt decapitated (March 22); Umm Qasr has been taken (March 22, March 23, March 24); most Iraqi soldiers will not fight for Saddam and instead are surrendering in droves (March 22); Iraqi citizens are greeting Americans as liberators (March 22); an entire division of 8,000 Iraqi soldiers surrendered en masse near Basra (March 23); several scud missiles have been launched against U.S. forces in Kuwait (March 23); Saddam's fednyeem militia are few in number and do not pose a serious threat (March 23); Basra has been taken (March 23); a captured chemical plant was likely to have produced chemical weapons (March 23); Nasiriyah has been taken (March 23); the Iraqi government faces a major rebellion of anti-Saddam citizens in Basra (March 24); a convoy of 1,000 Iraqi vehicles and Republican Guard are speeding from Baghdad to engage U.S. troops (March 25).

The challenge for news organizations and for viewers is knowing how to leaven the embedded reporting with the other information available. This, to a large degree, is what we saw the networks moving toward doing in their half-hour traditional nightly newscasts.

PBS's News Hour with Jim Lehrer was particularly effective in doing this with repeated summaries by Ray Suarez during the newscasts reminding viewers of the larger developments of the day. Nightline developed a similar feature during its newscast called "Big Picture." MSNBC has done a similar thing each half hour.

This challenge, however, is obviously far greater for the cable channels, and, in some ways, easiest for print organizations.

Indeed, in the age of the new media culture, not being on 24 hours a day is now offered as a value. ABC News began producing promotions for its evening newscast by advertising that ABC News was covering the war 24 hours a day and that viewers could get that reporting on World News Tonight in 30 minutes.

Reality Television

When Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer created a short-lived entertainment show called "Profiles from the Front Line," it suggested that war in Iraq would become the ultimate reality TV.

If so, embedded reporters might become the central characters, or at least the program hosts.

Watching the embedded reporting so far, it is becoming clear that the war is less like reality television than reality itself-confusing, incomplete, sometimes numbing, sometimes intense, and not given to simple story lines.

Live reports in particular often lacked the things that make reality television such a draw – time and editors. Reality television works because the producers who stage the shows together wait until they have hours of tape, then cull through the footage to find the plot, the critical turning points, the compelling characters. Such luxuries, and such manipulations, are missing with war.

The embedded coverage has made the war coverage richer, but also more difficult to absorb. It may be leading to more snap judgments. It also may prove much harder for military planners and message managers to contain. The battle has become more complex than computer generated maps that ex-generals can walk across.

At least in the first week, the embedded reporting seemed at times to gain context. But if these are the first days of a new kind of war, they are also the first of a new kind of war reporting, and more mistakes, and more learning from them, are inevitable.

 

Footnotes

1. See Brian Lowry and Elizabeth Jensen, "The 'Gee Whiz' War," Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2003, page E1

2. See Howard Kurtz, "Away from the Battlefield, Covering the Big Guns," Washington Post, April 1, 2003, page C1.

3. See Greg Mitchell, "15 Stories They've Already Bungled," Editor and Publisher online, March 27, 2003.