School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Military-Media Relations in Recent U.S. Operations by G P Bruner

Military-Media Relations in Recent U.S. Operations

Gary P. Bruner
U.S. Army Management Staff College
14 November 1997


There is a tension characteristic of all wars fought by democracies: the military has an operational requirement for information to be made available only on a need to know basis, yet the citizens of a democracy have a right to know about and judge what operations are being planned and conducted in their name. This relationship between the military and the media was examined in four recent U.S. military operations: Operation Urgent Fury (Grenada, 1983); Operation Just Cause (Panama, 1989); the Persian Gulf War (1990-91); and Operation Uphold Democracy (Haiti, 1994). The approach taken in this paper is to first briefly summarize the military aspects of the operation to set the stage. This is followed by an analysis of how the media covered these operations and a review of the successes and shortcomings from the perspective of both the military and media. The paper goes on to analyze why in a free society the media must have access to report on military operations, and discusses the important issue of why proper training of both the military and the media assigned to an operation will be to everyone's mutual benefit.


"The question of media access to the battlefield has regularly generated some form of controversy between the press and the military. After each operation, the Pentagon conducted a review of military-media relations and tried to institutionalize, then to improve, a viable system for granting access to the battlefield...." (Combelles-Siegel, 1996, p. 2). This paper discusses the important events/actions occurring between the military and the media as both sides struggled to develop a mutually agreeable approach to reporting operations without adversely affecting them.

The analysis will sequentially discuss the shortcomings and successes of military-media interactions in four recent U.S. military operations (Urgent Fury, Grenada, 1983; Just Cause, Panama, 1989; the Persian Gulf War, 1991; and Uphold Democracy, Haiti, 1994). Also addressed are the impacts of two key groups that met within this same timeframe: the Sidle Panel in 1984, and a Pentagon-media conference in 1992.

In any operation there are many aspects of military-media relations--operational security, the press pool system, logistics, etc.--each of which could be the subject of further analysis. In this paper, however, the analysis will focus on why a democratic society needs coverage of military operations, and discusses sensitizing the military to the necessity of appropriately dealing with the media. These issues have implications not only for the commanders in the field but on the sustaining base as well.

Operation Urgent Fury, Grenada, October 1983

Military situation. U.S. forces, in conjunction with contingents of the security forces of several neighboring Caribbean states, were called upon to invade the independent state of Grenada. The mission was to oust the revolutionary government (the People's Revolutionary Government), to protect U.S. citizens and restore the lawful government (Gilmore, 1984).

Media situation. No journalists were on the island of Grenada to provide live reporting on the invasion, nor had any been taken along with the invading force. Vice Admiral Joseph Metcalf, in charge of the operation, had originally planned to exclude the media completely from the operation until he was convinced that they could do no harm. As word of the imminent invasion spread, hundreds of journalists moved into the area but were blocked from proceeding to Grenada. Indeed, there were no first-hand reports from Grenada until 2½ days after the operation began. The media, citing the American people's right to know, and frustrated at their inability to provide the current reporting that they would have liked, protested loudly about the military's gross oversight in failure to permit journalists to accompany the operation. Missing the battle meant missing the war (Ricks, 1993; Skinner, 1997).

Sidle Military-Media Relations Panel, 1984

This bipartisan panel, chaired by retired MG Winat Sidle, largely triggered by Grenada events, was formed to address the question: "How do we conduct military operations in a manner that safeguards the lives of our military and protects the security of the operations while keeping the American public informed through the media?" (Combelles-Siegel, 1996, p. 6). The Sidle Panel was charged to determine what the best method was of providing for media coverage of a military operation without compromising operational security. The panel recommended that a press pool system (the DoD National Media Pool, or DoDNMP) be instituted that would limit or control the number of correspondents that could readily be equipped and transported via military assets during the preparatory or initial stages of a military operation. The panel's key recommendation: "Planning should provide for the largest press pool that is practical and minimize the length of time the pool will be necessary before 'full coverage' is feasible" (Machamer, 1993, p. 47). Full recommendations of the Sidle Panel are at Appendix A.

Operation Just Cause, Panama, December 1989

Military situation. U.S. Army forces in a joint operation with the Navy and Air Force executed this invasion of Panama. This was in response to a declaration of war on the U.S. from the Manuel Noreiga regime, and was undertaken to protect U.S. lives and property, to fulfill U.S. treaty obligations to operate and defend the canal, to assist the Panamanian people in restoring democracy, and to bring Noreiga to justice. These objectives were quickly achieved within a matter of a days (U.S. State Department Background Notes, Panama, March 1992).

Media situation. Unlike the overwhelming military success, just about everything that could go wrong, in fact did--all related to poor planning, not to swiftly developing events that changed the media situation. The DoDNMP was used, but the media did not witness actual operations. Furthermore, the pool system was activated although there were probably an adequate number of independent journalists in-country. The U.S Southern Command, in charge of the operation, had made no plans for the pool to accompany any units to the fighting; in fact, all independent journalists were moved and detained at Howard Airforce Base, ostensibly for their safety as well as " protect the privileges of a pool which could not accomplish its mission." (Combelles-Siegel, 1996, p. 8). The media were sequestered, receiving informational briefings only (which were not current) from State Department staffers, and following events on CNN. Last, media support logistics broke down: the media center was inadequately equipped, and stories could be not be filed in a timely manner (Combelles, 1995; Crichton, 1990).

Operation Desert Shield/Storm (Gulf War), Fall 1990-January 1991

Military situation. Throughout late 1990 the U.S. and its allies built up its military support in-theater under the banner of Operation Desert Shield, in preparation for possible offensive operations. In January 1991, U.S. led coalition forces (Operation Desert Storm) ousted the invading Iraqis from Kuwait and drove deeply into Iraq, inflicting a resounding defeat on the forces of Saddam Hussein.

Media situation. The Pentagon activated the DoDNMP for this operation, since the area is remote and there were few journalists in-theater. All pool reporters' news copy, video and still photographs were subject to security review prior to being sent back to the U.S. via military transmission means, and the charge was made by the media that the time taken for this review, even when the material was "passed," amounted to censorship since the reporting was no longer timely (Kellner, 1992). Another significant issue was the fact that pool reporters were accompanied by Public Affairs Office (PAO) escorts for operational security and logistical support purposes, but the presence of the escorts was felt to inhibit the ability of the media to perform unbiased reporting (Stanley, 1994). Perhaps being without options, the press generally went along with the restrictions and accepted the DoDNMP system during the Gulf War, but pressed for further dialog on the topic with the Pentagon.

Pentagon-Media Conference, 1992

In 1992 a significant conference with far-reaching implications was held between military and media leaders, hosted by the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, in Wheaton, IL. This successful conference resulted in "Nine Principles for News Coverage of the United States Military in Combat" (full text included at Appendix B). The nine principles have been adopted via DOD Directive 5122.5 (the corresponding Joint Publication 1-07 still remains in draft form as of October 1997). The key agreements were that open and independent reporting is the principal means of coverage; where this is not possible, pools will be established of as short a duration and scope as possible; journalists will be credentialed; military PAOs will facilitate the media but not interfere; and the military will provide, consistent with capabilities, all necessary logistical support to pool reporters (Bridges, 1995; Ricks, 1993).

Operation Uphold Democracy, Haiti, September 1994

Military situation. With the approval of the Organization of American States and the United Nations, the U.S. led a multinational invasion force into Haiti to reinstate the ousted legitimate president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Diplomatic actions headed by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, retired Gen. Colin Powell and Senator Sam Nunn were ongoing even as the invasion force made its way toward Haiti. There was little doubt which force would prevail, but the cost of the invasion was unknown. Fortunately, agreement was reached with the Haitians at the eleventh hour; within hours, the forces which had been arrayed for invasion and battle were now handed another set of peacekeeping orders (Steele, 1994).

Media situation. This first test of the new 1992 military-media guidelines went extremely well (Combelles-Siegel, 1996). A PAO annex to the operational plan, as required by the DOD Directive, was in fact written and done well. Key sections dealt with media access to operations, operational security and logistical support issues. The Annex specified several pools of journalists to accompany the invading force, recognized the fact that there were independent journalists already on site on the island, and planned coverage so it would not overlap. Pool reporters received classified briefings en-route. The military did not perform a security review (other than embargoing the classified data until the start of the invasion), instead relying on "security at the source." Journalists viewed the Pentagon's approach as evidence of good faith in trusting journalists not to reveal classified information that could compromise the operation. Media were authorized to use their own communications systems, though military transmission facilities were provided for both pools and independents. And unlike Panama, it worked--transmission of reports, videos and still photographs was timely, and the American public was kept well informed (Combelles-Siegel, 1996).


There are numerous potential aspects of the overall topic of military-media relations that could be explored in-depth. The focus here will be twofold: first is the importance in a free society to have media access to military operations; secondly, the training/education aspect of military-media relations will be discussed and its relevance to the sustaining base.

General Attitudes, and Why the American Public Needs Media Coverage of Military Operations

There has historically been animosity between journalists and the military. The military frequently views reporters as offering only potential harm, not benefit (Machamer, 1993). The press, on the other hand, has a history of being critical of the military: "How many of the stories broadcast by '60 Minutes' has ever accepted a capable American military as a basic premise? Even Operation Just Cause....drew only the charge that the U.S. military covered up civilian deaths." (Silverberg, 1995, p. 33)

U.S. media and professional associations insist that the military must accommodate the press in "wartime" situations, for three reasons: the press has always been present when U.S. troops have been involved; the public has a fundamental right to know; and restrictions violate the First Amendment. Yet somewhere between the military operational requirement for information to be made available only on a need to know basis, and the right of the citizens of a democracy to know about what their military is doing, lies a middle ground, if not a happy medium (Dandeker, 1995; Noyes, 1992).

Soldiers understand fighting, journalists understand communicating ,yet neither knows that the political impact of combat depends on how the fighting is communicated. Thus both sides need one another. Our key civilian and military leaders have now recognized that successful inclusion of the press to ensure adequate coverage is not an optional luxury, but rather is a necessity born of today's information age and the expectations of the American public.

The Need for Leader Training

According to Ricks (1993, p. 6), "Guidance and training for the tactical commander should become a regular part of operational preparations. The education process should begin with a simple orientation to the military-news media relationship in the officer basic course and continue with increasing complexity through the advanced courses to the senior military schools." Pilnacek (1991) recommends a similar pattern part of the education system for NCOs. Such education is in fact being institutionalized by the Training and Doctrine Command. Commanders should accept the fact that their unit is likely to encounter the press in an operation, and should focus their concern on their role in ensuring stories reflect accurate reporting. To be blunt, in the priorities of a commander, public affairs are logically lower than operations. However, to preclude problems and attempt to strike a balance, changing one's attitude and proper planning are the keys--the commander must be as proactive as possible in planning for the public affairs aspects of an operation. Then when dealing with the media, per Ricks (1993, p. 25): "Thinking forward takes the initiative by seeking confident engagement with the news media rather than uncertain avoidance or defensive conflict."

The Need for PAO Training

It behooves a commander to ensure that his PAO staff undergo as realistic training as possible, to include media scenarios in all contingencies. The PAO staff needs to sharpen their media relations skills in live field exercises that resemble as closely as possible those required for an actual mission (Aswell, 1990; Ricks, 1993). As above, planning is the key; the military literally spends years developing contingency plans for any possible combat scenario, but plans for media access and support have frequently been neglected. The important caveat remains - while PAO planning must ensure that media coverage is adequate, accommodating the media must not in any way interfere with or endanger the mission or military personnel.

One additional area that should be addressed in the PAO annex to an operational plan is the PAOs providing refresher training to soldiers on how to cope with the media in general and specifically how to handle press interviews. Ideally the rank and file soldier should have received basic instruction in this area, but it should be reinforced as part of the actual operation.

Training for the Media

Ricks (1993, p. 19) asserts: "Both the military and the news media are woefully deficient in their knowledge of the other institution and in their training for those tasks necessary to make and report news during a military operation." Both sides thus have a vested interest in ensuring that their counterparts are well trained. Ricks further makes the case for the media actually training with the military during operations and exercises, to understand basic military organizations and doctrine, to develop their own field skills, determine their own personal equipment needs, etc. Aswell (1990) goes further and suggests that as a condition of accreditation, journalists be required to accompany U.S. forces during exercises or training deployments, to the extent of living with and "reporting" on the units as though it were a real operation. This would give the journalists the sort of realism in training that could prove invaluable in the event they actually are assigned to an operation.


The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Shalikashvili sets the tone from the top: "I am convinced that the press should be free to go and do its job with restrictions only where safety and operational security are truly of concern and that these restrictions be lifted just as quickly as possible." (Shalikashvili, 1995, p. 6)

For this to occur in a manner acceptable to both the military and media, thorough training must be undertaken at all levels of the military, not just for the PAOs whose job it is to deal with the media, but for all personnel to prepare them for possible encounters with the media. Understanding is the key to success: both sides--military and media alike--need to know their counterparts to realize the benefits that can come from reporting on our military operations.


Aswell, Paul L. (1990). Wartime press censorship by the U.S. armed forces: A historical perspective. Masters Thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (available from Defense Technical Information Center, Report # AD A227 383).

Bridges, Richard M., COL. (1995, August). "The military, the media and the next conflict: Have we learned our lesson?" Army, 29-39.

Combelles, Pascale. (1995, May-June). "Operation Just Cause: A military-media fiasco." Military Review, 77-85.

Combelles-Siegel, Pascale. (1996). The troubled path to the Pentagon's rules on media access to the battlefield: Grenada to today. (20 Oct 97).

Crichton, Jane E. (1990). The Department of Defense press pool: Did it work in Panama? Masters Thesis, University of Arizona (available from Defense Technical Information Center, Report # AD A233 148).

Dandeker, Christopher. (1995/96, Winter). "Public opinion, the media, and the Gulf war." Armed Forces and Society, 297-302.

Gilmore, William C. (1984). The Grenada intervention: Analysis and documentation. New York, NY: Facts on File Publications.

Kellner, Douglas. (1992). The Persian Gulf TV war. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Machamer, Richard F., LTC. (1993, April). "Avoiding a military-media war in the next conflict." Military Review, 43-54.

Noyes, Harry F., III. (1992, June). "Like it or not, the armed forces need the media." Army, 30-38.

Panama. (1992, March). Background Notes, U.S. State Department.

Pilnacek, Robert E. LTC (1991). Military-media relations. Student paper, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle, PA (available from Defense Technical Information Center, Report # AD A235 734).

Ricks, Charles W. (1993). The military-news media relationship: Thinking forward. Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute.

Silverberg, David. (1995, February). "60 Minutes"--Why the military can't get an even break. Armed Forces Journal, 28-33.

Shalikashvili, John M., Gen. (4 May 1995) "Humanitarian missions challenge military and media." Defense Issues, Vol. 10, No. 54 (22 Oct 97).

Skinner, Bradley D. Lt. Cdr. (1997). Public affairs: a facet of operational art? Student paper, U.S. Navy War College, Newport, RI (available from Defense Technical Information Center, Report # AD A325 041).

Stanley, Sharon A. (1994). Media coverage and its impact on the operational commander. Student paper, U.S. Navy War College, Newport, RI (available from Defense Technical Information Center, Report # AD A279 556).

Steele, Dennis. (1994, November). "The U.S. army in Haiti." Army, 14-18.

Appendix A

Recommendations of the 1984 Sidle Panel

Source: Combelles-Siegel (1996)

1. Public affairs planning should begin as soon as operational planning begins.

2. When it appears that news media pooling is the only way of granting access to the early phase of an operation, a pool should be used until full coverage is possible.

3. The Secretary of Defense should study the possibility of a pre-established and constantly updated accreditation list of correspondents in case of a military operation for which a pool is required.

4. The basic principle governing media access should be compliance with predetermined ground rules issued by the military.

5. Public Affairs should plan for adequate logistical support, including communications and transport.

Appendix B

Nine Principles for News Coverage of the United States Military in Combat

Source: Conference between military and media leaders, hosted by the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, in Wheaton, IL, 23-24 April 1992. These principles have been adopted via DOD Directive 5122.5; joint doctrine was drafted as Joint Publication 1-07 but still remains in draft form as of October 1997.

1. Open and independent reporting will be the principal means of coverage of U.S. military operations.

2. Pools are not to serve as the standard means of covering U.S. military operations. Pools may sometimes provide the only feasible means of early access to a military operation. Polls should be as large as possible and disbanded at the earliest opportunity--within 24 to 36 hours when possible. The arrival of early-access pools will not cancel the principle of independent coverage for journalists already in the area.

3. Even under conditions of open coverage, pools may be appropriate for specific events, such as those at extremely remote locations or where space is limited.

4. Journalists in a combat zone will be credentialed by the U.S. military and will be required to abide by a clear set of military ground rules that protect U.S. forces and their operations. Violation of the ground rules can result in suspension of credentials and expulsion from the combat zone of the journalist involved. News organizations will make their best efforts to assign experienced journalists to combat operations and to make them familiar with U.S. military operations.

5. Journalists will be provided access to all major military units. Special operations restrictions may limit access in some cases.

6. Military public affairs officers should act as liaisons but should not interfere with the reporting process.

7. Under conditions of open coverage, field commanders should be instructed to permit journalists to ride on military vehicles and aircraft whenever feasible. The military will be responsible for transportation of pools.

8. Consistent with its capabilities, the military will supply PAOs with facilities to enable timely, secure, compatible transmission of pool material and will make these facilities available whenever possible for filing independent coverage. In cases when government facilities are unavailable, journalists will, as always, file by any other means available. The military will not ban communications systems operated by news organizations, but electromagnetic operational security in battlefield situations may require limited restrictions on the use of such systems.

9. These principles will apply as well to the operations of the standing DoD National Media Pool system.

NOTE: It should be noted that there was a tenth issue on the table during the 1992 Pentagon-media conference, on which resolution was not reached: security review. The military asserted its right to do a security review of stories, while the press maintained that it could not submit to censorship (Combelles-Siegel, 1996). This issue has subsequently been resolved more or less to the satisfaction of both parties by implementing the policy of "security at the source."

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