The concept of journalists accompanying troops into combat is not new, but the scale and manner of media operations on the battlefield transformed in the 2003 Iraq war. The change in terminology from “war correspondent” to “embedded journalist” gave rise to debates among media, military, and other commentators about the implications for the coverage of current and future conflicts.
The origin of the term “embedded” is unclear but not specific to the Iraq war. Some Pentagon officials suggest the term originated with units having a distinct mission placed within a larger force, but others (ominously) suggest it involves fixing or placement so deep that the element is hard to get out.
Within the Iraq context, “embedded” combined with “journalist” to denote a correspondent traveling with and reporting on the activities of a military unit, especially one engaged in direct conflict, for the duration of the operation. Journalists not embedded with the troops (unilateral correspondents) were free to investigate and file reports from anywhere in the region, without military reporting restrictions but, importantly, without agreed military protection. They were like any other civilian on a battlefield the military aims to control.
Military organizations have grown aware that global, 24-hour news can be a weapon as well as a way to avoid conflict. US and UK forces pursue what they call information operations, with the media playing an integral part. Coverage of professional, effective combat operations not only deters adversaries but also bolsters domestic opinion, an important factor given worldwide opposition to the 2003 war. The scale of the media operations in Iraq represented a shift away from overt censorship toward a more subtle technique of media management. Such concerted effort may be propaganda by another name (Miller 2004), but may reflect an increasing sophistication and media awareness among military elites (Lewis et al. 2006).
Among the thousands representing world media organizations in the Iraq region during the 2003 invasion, between 600 and 700 were embedded with Coalition forces. Some 80 percent of those the American organizers placed were US nationals, and British officials required that all embedded journalists they placed hold a British passport. The one embedded reporter from the Arabic network Al Jazeera said he met with such suspicion that his reports were no more informative than others from the Coalition press centre.
Embedded reporters gained unprecedented access to personnel and their strategic plans and received logistical assistance from the military. The American media abandoned the pooling system, and British networks, after initially agreeing to pool material, eventually followed suit. Military officials rarely subjected material to security review, and embedded journalists recalled an unprecedented degree of cooperation and openness from the military. Officials required every embedded journalist, however, to sign a document outlining restrictions on the content of reports, principally for reasons of operational security. Reporters relied on their units for transport and safety and therefore could rarely conduct independent investigations (for example, to interview Iraqi civilians).
News organizations feared that “embed” could become “in bed,” sacrificing journalistic perspective by becoming so close to and reliant on their units. There is little evidence to support the concern. On occasion an embedded story originating from military sources was incorrect. Reports of a popular uprising in Basra implied initially that the war was a liberation rather than an invasion, but Al Jazeera reporters inside the city quickly discredited the story. Embedded journalists were, however, free to clarify official briefings.
Embedded reporters brought viewers closer to combat than ever before, but the absence of images depicting casualties and death was still notable (Aday 2005; Lewis et al. 2006), partly because of military restrictions to maintain secure operations and to protect combatants’ next of kin. Even so, the news culture of western media organizations arguably shies away from portraying the brutalities of war.
Embedded journalists on the whole gave a dramatic but narrow view from the front lines, focusing on individual engagements with greater freedom, but supplying only part of a larger picture. Intrinsically, embedding results in personalized stories and reports of individual skirmishes at the episodic and tactical levels (Aday et al. 2005; Tumber & Palmer 2004). The strategic picture required independent reports from unilateral correspondents. The three weeks of official combat operations saw a startling casualty rate among independent reporters, with at least 14 killed and many more injured, the majority as a result of so-called blue-on-blue (or friendly fire) incidents. The American administration had warned media organizations that the military would not take responsibility for, and actively discouraged the presence of, non-embedded journalists.
The risk for journalism is that embedded reporting may become the only option in conflict coverage. News organizations find embedding attractive because it can supply compelling footage, but unilateral reporters who supply a broader view of events face greater danger. During asymmetric warfare, regular troops cannot clearly identify their adversaries in civilian dress and civilian vehicles, and the casualties may include not only unilateral reporters but also the larger picture of the military conflict.
- Aday, S. (2005). The real war will never get on television: An analysis of casualty imagery in the American television coverage of the Iraq war. In P. Seib (ed.), Media and conflict in the twentyfirst century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 141–156.
- Aday, S., Livingston, S., & Hebert, M. (2005). Embedding the truth: A cross-cultural analysis of objectivity and television coverage of the Iraq war. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(1), 3 –21.
- Katovsky, B., & Carlson, T. (2003). Embedded: The media at war in Iraq, an oral history. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press.
- Lewis, J., Brookes, R., Mosdell, N., & Threadgold, T. (2006). Shoot first and ask questions later: Media coverage of the 2003 Iraq war. New York: Peter Lang.
- Miller, D. (2004). Tell me lies: Propaganda and media distortion in the attack on Iraq. London: Pluto Press.
- Thussu, D. K., & Freedman, D. (eds.) (2003). War and the media. London: Sage.
- Tumber, H., & Palmer, J. (2004). Media at war: The Iraq crisis. London: Sage.