April 3, 2003

Embedded Reporters

Impressions: The Potentials and Risks of Embedded Reporting

Looking beyond the numbers, analysts at the Project reviewing the stories developed several more subjective impressions about the potentials and the risks of the embedding system. Here are some of those impressions.

Edited Taped Packages Offer the Power of Story Telling

One of the most effective reports the Project saw was a traditional taped package by Bill Neely on CNN on Monday, March 24. Here viewers benefited not only from having a reporter embedded on the battlefield. They also benefited from the reporter telling the story after the action was over, from an eloquently written script and carefully selected video images that put the battle into context. If the embedded reports are only "slices," this piece showed the power of a moment.

"Early morning and the land that the Royal Marines have taken could be a scene from World War One. Mud, barbed wire, bomb craters, and trenches – the first thing they and we do is to dig in."

Neely's was one of the few reports that included images of dead Iraqis on the battlefield, (though after the combat was over). These casualties were photographed almost poetically: a tight shot of an outstretched mud-caked hand, a boot, a helmet next to a scorched mark on the sand.

There were intricate and tragic details, such as a white flag of surrender near an Iraqi body, which Neely makes clear war planes who killed these troops could never have seen from so far above.

And viewers saw Royal Marines sifting through the remains of an Iraqi bunker, finding gas masks.

"These masks don't prove Saddam has chemical weapons, but Britain and the U.S. don't use them, so why would Saddam issue these to his troops?"

Neely concluded:

"The Iraqis were well dug in. These trenches go on for miles but their weapons were weak and these positions, dug possibly 20 years ago during the Iran-Iraq war, are no defense against far deadlier firepower…"

It's the Content, Not the Technology

Many of the stories that stood out in reviewing the reports were delivered with the least fanfare and technological flash.

Though he was not on camera, for instance, CNN viewers could hear an edge in the voice of correspondent Walter Rodgers on Tuesday, March 25, as he and the 7th Cavalry moved down a highway across the Euphrates River through a fierce sandstorm. All viewers can see is the back of a military vehicle rolling down a dusty road, but Rodgers' audio narrative is powerful:

"We have been under heavy fire for the past couple of miles. Mostly, a small arms fire, but the sandstorm has enabled Iraqis to come very close to the road. And if I sound a little nervous, it's because we're in a soft-skin vehicle and everybody else is in armor…."

"If you imagine yourself standing on a football field, the sandstorm is so dense that if you were on the goal line, you probably couldn't see much beyond midfield at this point, just yellow sand everywhere…

"It's possible for an Iraqi to creep on his belly through these alluvial fields, these agricultural fields and come within, oh, 100 yards of that vehicle…"

On Monday March 24, correspondent John Roberts' on the CBS Evening News delivered, in effect, a radio report, using taped footage from another network and a graphic of his face on a map. But his compelling summary of the day's battle, while not entirely contradicting the official version of events, made clearer than other reporting that day the intensity and impact of the battle that was still not entirely over and that would force "significant delays" to the U.S. battle plan.

After being attacked by Iraqi troops who appeared to be surrendering but then picked up their weapons and opened fire "cutting a Marine column to pieces," Roberts reported:

"Some Marines expressed anger today that they were waved off of any danger in An Nasiriyah, that the Army's 3rd Infantry Division had come through the city on Saturday and declared it safe….

"After 30 hours of wearying house-to-house fighting on the streets of An Nasiriyah, the Marines decided to do it their way, sending a massive column of tanks and armor north toward the city. And while the Pentagon says the Marines now control An Nasiriyah, the glow of mortars and artillery still lights up the night sky. And it has thrown a shock into the Marines who now call the area where their comrades were killed 'Mogadishu Alley'…."

Although he is not an embedded reporter, but rather a so-called unilateral journalist, New York Times reporter John Burns' telephone reports from Baghdad on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather also gained praise for their specificity, insight and prescience.

Production Techniques Work When Serving the Content

For most of the first Gulf War 12 years ago, the viewer's perspective tended to be either from the briefing room or the camera on the tip of a guided missile.

In this war, while some of the embedded reporting has had a "Gee Whiz" or "Boys with Toys" quality, it is also true that some of the pictures taking viewers to the battlefield have been noteworthy all on their own.

We have seen what it looks and sounds like to be on a military convoy, to be stuck in a sandstorm, and have sensed the vastness of the desert and the real meaning of hurry up and wait. We have seen what it takes to put on a chemical suit, to sweat and shiver on the same day, to sleep in the shade of a tank or the seat of an armored personnel carrier.

We also have heard soldiers reflect on what it feels like to decide whether to shoot at someone who is dressed as a civilian.

These are visual "slices" that are hard to assimilate as you see them, but become more powerful when they are catalogued together.

At times, too, the networks used some production techniques to give the isolated images more meaning. Here, again, editing, transformed elements of news into something more-journalism more as a finished product.

In one case, for instance, on Tuesday March 25, MSNBC used the time-honored technique of time lapse to explain with pictures, rather than words, what was happening on the battlefield. As a major sandstorm blew in, producers edited together several clips of on-camera "stand-ups" by correspondent David Bloom. The first scene showed Bloom standing in the morning sunlight amid armored vehicles. As the storm blew in, it became darker and darker until Bloom could be seen only with the aid of a "light stick" he held next to his face. It had taken 30 minutes for the sand storm to turn day to night in the desert. Using time lapse, MSNBC producers in Secaucus, New Jersey retold the story in about 30 seconds.