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Embedded Reporters: What Are Americans Getting? by PEJ
Embedded Reporters: What Are Americans Getting?
PEJ looks at embedding
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?"
"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.
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.
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.
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.
The study examined morning and evening newscasts on March 21, 22, and 24, 2003.
For the morning newscasts, it examined the period of 7:00 A.M. to 9:00 A.M. on each day. The specific programs studied were ABC's Good Morning America, The CBS Early Show, NBC's Today Show, CNN's American Morning, and Fox News' Fox & Friends. To remain consistent, it did not include a third hour of the Today Show or American Morning.
For the evening newscasts, the study examined the first 30 minutes of ABC World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and the NBC Nightly News on each night. For CNN and Fox News, on Friday (March 21) and Monday (March 24), it looked at the signature pre-prime time news shows of Wolf Blitzer Reports (5:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M) and the Fox Special Report With Brit Hume (6:00 P.M. to 7:00 P.M.). On Saturday, March 22, it examined CNN and Fox Coverage from 6:00 P.M. to 7:00 P.M.
The morning of Saturday, March 22nd, the CBS affiliate in Washington D.C. aired local news from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. and CBS network news from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. The local news was not included in the study. Also on Saturday, due to the NCAA Basketball Tournament, which aired on CBS, the CBS Evening News was abbreviated to an update totaling 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The study included that update, which contained one embedded report, in our study.
All broadcasts were monitored from videotaped segments of the programs as they aired in the Washington, D.C. market.
Within the hours selected, the study examined all stories from embedded reporters that were 20 seconds or longer. Embedded reports were identified through the station's own on-air identification and secondarily through a list published by the Washington Post, "The Network's Heavy Artillery: Who'll Win the Battles of Tag Lines & Toys," John Maynard, March 21, 2003.
CBS reporter Lee Cowan was not officially categorized by the military or CBS as "embedded." But in two stories, he temporarily attached himself with a unit and produced pieces so similar in nature to other embedded pieces that these pieces were included.
This resulted in a project universe of 108 stories, all of which were fully coded and are included in the final data analysis.
A team of four researchers worked with a detailed, standardized codebook. Each broadcast was initially screened and pre-coded by a single coder. The pre-coding process confirmed whether a story was embedded or not. For embedded stories, the date, outlet and timeslots were determined. Next, stories were fully coded by a single coder via multiple story viewings. All stories were coded for the following variables:
Live Versus Taped: Whether the report was completely live, had some editing or was fully taped.
Place of Origin: The country from which the reporter filed his or her report. Embedded reporters on ships were noted as being at sea.
Topic: The topic that received the most seconds of coverage in the story. If two topics received equal attention, coders deferred to the lead topic.
Source of information: This is a hierarchy variable that captured the highest authority used as an on camera source within a story.
On Camera Action: This is a hierarchy variable that captured how close the story's visual images came to depicting front line of action.
Level of Reporting: This indicates whether a story is mainly fact, analysis, opinion, or color commentary by tallying the total number of statements for each category, and seeing which category predominated for that story. If two types of statements received equal number of tallies, coders deferred to the lead statement.
Length in seconds: This variable captured the total length of a story, rounded to the nearest five seconds. Lead-ins were not included.
Researchers analyzed each news story in its entirety, working through the sequential variables. Project Rules for Coders were established prior to beginning that process, and were applied during all phases of coding. Intercoder reliability was established by training and testing the group beforehand. A series of test stories were fully coded by each member of the coding team and then results were compared until the team was coding each variable identically. In addition, all subjective variables were reviewed and confirmed by a senior manager. No systematic errors were discovered.
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.