A Contemporary Deep-Dive Into Embedded Journalism

Embedded journalism emerged as a wholly Western practice envisioned by the US military as a post-Vietnam response to develop 'independent' and 'objective' reporting of on-ground war narratives. The Vietnam War made the US military hyper-aware and critical of war reporting because to succeed in a foreign war the support of the national public is crucial. The US military learned the lesson that if independent media was allowed to report everything about the US military's actions without any filter, then it could undermine public support like it did in the Vietnam War. Embedded journalism came into being as an experiment of the US military to provide the media on-ground access, but do so with utmost military control.

Military correspondents are frontliners risking their lives to provide independent coverage even in the most high conflict zones of the world. They have many categories of reporters, even on-ground. Uniformed personnel make the first category, who are given the duty to become in-house commercial reporters for hard news from the military's perspective. Then comes the accredited reporters from independent news agencies and organisations who receive access to military briefings and movements. Lastly, there are the unaffiliated individual reporters who aren't necessarily attached to any military unit or agency, and only accompany troops individually into battle.

Embedded journalists are different from every one of the aforementioned categories of war reporters. They are media personnel invited explicitly by the military to cohabitate with the troops in combat for a long period of time. Embedded journalists are required to have a symbiotic relationship with the troops on-field while in combat zones. They get access to all kinds of military action on the frontlines and everything going on in their backend support. From planning, execution, till D-day, embedded journalists get the most amount of reportable access from the inside. However, to gain this sort of access and dependability, embedded journalists have to work alongside the military with a huge list of terms and conditions attached to ensure that their respective journalistic narratives conform to the military's interpretation of on-ground combat experiences, rendering a third man's perspective unreportable. Thus, the rise of embedded journalism raises questions on military propaganda, event objectivity, and conflicted war correspondence. 

Newsgathering in Modern US-Induced Warfare

Post-1975, increasing technological advancements led to a rise in photojournalism and video journalism. Individual reporting on visual aspects of war and conflict led to public scrutiny on military decisions and defence tactics in general. Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs such as the napalm bombing of Trang Bang and the Mai Lai massacre are examples of how visually powerful reporting can undermine the war sentiments of a developed democracy like the US. In 1968, the Tet offensive was a victory for the US and the South Vietnamese, but the then primetime journalist Walter Cronkite went onto the newscast to broadcast the offensive as the war was being lost. This developed an unprecedented opposition to the US military and their war methods.

Thereafter, during the 1982-83 Lebanon conflict, the 1988 invasion of Granada, the 1989 invasion of Panama, the 1991 Gulf War, the 1993-94 Haiti intervention, and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the US military informed news outlets that it could not provide them with security and denied journalistic access to conflict zones. Correspondents and civilian journalists wholly relied on heavily filtered military briefings, which were very obviously sugar-coating the military’s methods, intentions, and war reasoning.

However, it couldn't keep up its false justifications for warfare, conventionally grey reasons for 'conflict', or the increasing lethality of both high and low technology weaponry. Journalists had to be embedded in order to avoid further public scrutiny and gain back the public's trust. 

In the early 2000's, Iraq and Afghanistan made it a standard practice to kidnap and kill foreign journalists sent by insurgent forces. This forced a deeper symbiotic relationship between the troops and embedded journalists. A quid pro quo increased their rapport, as it even led to opening the doors for interviews with senior military figures and command-level briefings. To date, more than 750 journalists have been embedded with US military units in Iraq. Increased respect for embedded journalism has made it a standard media approach to covering war.

The Evolution of Embedded Journalism

By the later half of the 2000's, war stories weren’t that appealing to the public. A global sentiment of pacification was being given much more importance, and war journalism was at the receiving end of public condemnation. Financial crises, economic changes, human-interest stories, climate change issues, and various other issues across the globe started garnering more importance.

It was General Stanley McChrystal and General David Petraeus in the US Afghanistan command that made an attempt to change the notion of embedded journalism itself. They allowed news-gatherers to report from inside the command headquarters and expanded the definition of embedded news coverage from the basic tactical operations. They encouraged the embeds to report on strategic policy-making and thought-led ground structures. They encouraged an asymmetric approach to support international corroboration and the multiplicity of state involvements. The narrative of embedded journalism suddenly shifted from a 'grunt' level perspective in conflicted warzones, to the strategic logic of high-commanders, military leaders, and the politics of senior-level generals. With the cooperation of the commander base and face-to-face interaction with these commanders, embedded journalism expanded onto the broader contours of international interests in different conflicts, a multi-layered game that was not as soldiers fighting each other.

Embedded journalists started interviewing soldiers, questioning troops, and provided compounded perspectives on government policy in many publications such as the Public Broadcasting System, Pacifica News Network, and Rolling Stones Magazine. Embedded journalism became the Trojan Horse of military campaigns.

Corporate Media and Military Interests

When embedded journalism and the US military worked together to give a positive outlook on combat, it was a profitable return on investment for corporate media. However, as public scrutiny increased for the US military, and ratings-driven profits started coming from elsewhere, the interests of corporate media and the military diverged. The anti-US readership increased whether through Al-Jazeera's coverage of US policy in Muslim-dominated nations in the form of interventions, or through WikiLeaks expositions through combat documents, or otherwise. Corporate media never wanted to overlap its interests with the military, not when it didn’t profit them.

The military then sought a strategy to influence embedded journalism and put their perspectives in their reports. Thinking that this could curb uncontrolled reporting within embedded journalists, however, this strategy backfired on the military itself. Press freedom and respect are what every type of journalism demands, and the lack thereof resulted in heavy consequences for the ones trying to control it.

In today’s world of twitter and camera phones, it is difficult to predict what embedded journalism will evolve into in the future. Will it survive as a journalistic practice in more than one guise? Many nations are still run by authoritarian governments, and all democracies, old or new, are plagued by PR and propaganda, suffering ethical decay, and are full of institutional corruption apart from other maladies. The need in today’s day and age is to have the journalistic objectivity, unbiased reporting, and honest media focus on rendering institutional accountability for warfare. But will this need materialise into a reality? It is not something that we can determine given the current trends. Speculation into this matter gives us an ambiguous view of the future of journalism. Let journalism take its course, and all shall be clear then.


Saachi Gupta Ghosh

A keen Journalism undergraduate from Delhi University, continually striving to learn and explore. I like to read, write, and contribute to the society in a way that leaves a profound and lasting impression. Provoke thought, and incite change!

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