November 28, 2007

Journalists in Iraq - A Survey of Reporters on the Front Lines

Embedding

While the program has engendered controversy at home, particularly with those critical of the war or suspicious of the Administration, the journalists in Iraq who are in a position to use it generally view the system of embedding reporters with the U.S. military favorably.

More than eight-in ten journalists (85%) surveyed have embedded with U.S. troops. And most of them see the program as the best available way to report on the actions, both large and small, of U.S. troops. It also is often the only safe way to gain access to Iraqi civilians in cities and towns beyond Baghdad.

A majority of those surveyed (60%) tend to think embedding gives them access to places and people they could not otherwise reach. Only 5% say they see embedding as mostly helping the Pentagon control what is being reported.

The rest, less than a third, (27%) have largely neutral views.

“There is no problem with embedded reporting, unless it is relied on as the primary source of info on Iraq,” wrote one bureau chief. “If used as it should be – to provide another layer of understanding of what’s going on there – it is a very useful tool. And we have to remember that not every embed will produce strong stories.”

“It’s the only real way to get out of the security bubble that we all reside in during stays in Baghdad,” a newspaper correspondent volunteered. “And yet it is wholly limited by what the U.S. military will make happen. Double-edged journalistic sword if ever there was one.”

When asked to volunteer what they see as the advantages and disadvantages of the program, journalists cited access to dangerous places and insight into the life of soldiers as the top advantages.

And they saw restrictions and lack of context and perspective as the limitations. But the bargain, in short, seems worth it.

 

The rules for embedding vary by commander and the circumstances of the day. Most journalists (62%) have not needed officers’ permission to interview individual soldiers, but a substantial number (35%) say they did. Most (59%) have not needed permission to take photographs but, again, many (40%) did. If it is a matter of photographing wounded soldiers, the rules tighten: most journalists (67%) have needed permission in those circumstances.

Having officers monitor conversations or review a story before publication is rare. A small number of journalists surveyed (4%) say they have encountered those restrictions. A handful of those surveyed offered anecdotes of military public affairs officers listening in on their interviews with soldiers.

More of a mystery for journalists is whether the U.S. military screens out reporters from the embedding program if they have previously written stories that were critical about the Administration’s or the military’s policies.

About half of the journalists (49%) say they don’t know or can’t say. Roughly a third (33%) of those surveyed say that such screening takes place. A smaller number (10%) say it does not.

Journalists did describe embedding relationships that have gone awry. “I was kicked off my embed when a new unit I was to go out with suffered its first casualties,” one newspaper correspondent wrote, describing one of the most extreme situations recounted by the journalists. “I was locked in a room for hours and then told I was no longer welcome with unit.”

Another reporter describes being warned by a military public affairs officer that he would be banned from future embeds if took a photo of guards at Abu Ghraib prison roughing up a detainee. Several reporters describe having greater freedom when embedded at the platoon level; when embedded with senior officers, there is “almost none.”

“Limitations are obvious,” a newspaper journalist wrote. “You go where they want you to go, embed with whom they allow you to embed. And they do always ‘spin’ (or the officers do). Advantages are it’s the best or only way to reach ‘real’ Iraqis in their homes.”

The contacts with Iraqis may be the most unanticipated benefit, even if the presence of the soldiers affects the reporting.  “If you speak Arabic it enables you to interact directly with Iraqis in areas that you cannot reach,” wrote another newspaper correspondent. “Those Iraqis you come into contact with act far differently – and less candidly – when U.S. troops are around,” another offered.