While the findings from this research project support the importance of embedding reporters within a military unit, the scope of this project serves also to point further research in an appropriate direction in order to reveal further trends. To ensure future research is as reliable and valid as possible, the observations and limitations of this project must be noted so they may be properly addressed in future studies.
As Americans have become accustomed to the 24-hour news cycle, people in this society expect their news to be immediate and personal. Having an embedded reporter with a military unit during a conflict opens opportunities for both the media and the military. As the military and the media must rely on each other to achieve their missions, the quality of the relationship greatly affects each other's success. As a result, the media meets its goal of near-immediate coverage of the conflict as it happens and is able to put a personal face on the American fighting machine. The military benefits in the psychological arena by quickly having stories of American military might published and in the hands of the potential adversary. An additional benefit is the personal coverage of the people in uniform helps cultivate American support for the troops.
In this project, the major findings support our hypothesis that coverage from embedded reporters is more positive than coverage from unilateral reporters or staff compilation stories. In addition, coverage from embedded reporters during Operation Iraqi Freedom is more positive than coverage by unilateral reporters or staff compilations during the Persian Gulf War of 1991 or the Kosovo Conflict of 1999. A variety of applicable communication theories can help explain the potential reasons and theoretical implications of these results.
The most significant explanation for the support of our hypotheses comes from the theories of symbolic convergence, uncertainty reduction, social penetration, and social exchange. These four interpersonal relationship theories examine the early stages of relationship development and continue by tracking the development of the relationship through various stages explained in each theory. While other theories could be included in future studies, the researchers selected these four as being the most applicable to the emerging relationship between the military and the media on the most basic level.
The basic premise behind symbolic convergence theory as it applies to this study is the connection the embedded reporter develops with the military unit they cover. Because of the close and sometimes dangerous working environment, a reporter entering into a unit as an outsider will try to adapt to their new, unfamiliar surroundings. This effort of trying to “fit in” among new people and new surroundings could cause an individual to put objectivity aside for the desire to adapt. As long as the reporter stays immersed in that new culture isolated from their own culture, they will begin to coalesce more into the new military culture.
When two people meet and interact for the first time, their primary goals are to reduce uncertainty or raise the predictability about the behaviors and attitudes of the other individual. Uncertainty, a cognitive response that refers to the inability of an individual to predict or explain the behavior of others, exists at a significant level during the initial phases of interaction between two strangers. Uncertainty reduction theory applies to the analysis of embedded reporting in the way that the intimacy level of communication content and liking are positively related. An embedded journalist not only covers the activities of the unit, the reporter shares the difficulties and hardships of the troops, and lives under the same conditions as the rest of the military members in the unit. Over time, according to the theory, the journalist will develop a rapport with unit personnel by cultivating friendships, trust, and dependence that may eventually result in a more positive tone to stories they submit from the field.
Yet another interpersonal relationships theory, the social exchange theory, explains the rewards and costs of embedded reporters and military members developing interpersonal relationships. Social penetration theory also explains the evolution of interpersonal relationships. However, these relationships change, either negatively or positively. Relationships can become deeper and more trusting when interaction and self-disclosure becomes more active and as each person reveals more about their particular attitudes and beliefs. One could classify the inclusion of media embeds and military units as special contextual group where there is a strong dependence upon one another. Within the scope of Operation Iraqi Freedom, these two groups were isolated and, by situational interdependence, forced to bond and form relationships. This positive interaction can be seen as development of bias with the embedded media. If someone is supposed to be objective, but sees the other in positive light and begins a relational development, then it may become difficult to be completely objective.
The social exchange theory states that people will accurately anticipate the rewards they can receive and the costs they will pay out in relationships. The costs are those elements in the relationship that have negative value to a person, such as stress, time, or energy. The rewards are parts of the relationship that have positive value to a person, such as fun, loyalty, or attention received. Viewing a relationship as an economic transaction, researchers of the theory claim that the social reward one person receives represents a cost to another person. Similarly, a relationship where the rewards outweigh the costs will be continued while a relationship where costs outweigh benefits will be terminated. In the context of the relationship the media member develops with the members of a military unit, the exchange is apparent in that the military members provide food, shelter, transportation, protection, and direct access to stories. The researchers’ assumption then is that the media members reward the members of the unit by writing positive stories about the unit for publication.
While several factors presented challenges throughout the scope of the project, the researchers identified several limitations to address before any researcher begins future research. Some limitations the researchers identified during this project include the amount of time allotted for the project, experience level of the coders, and the military status of the coders.
In a true academic environment, researchers want to ensure they publish their work in a timely manner, but they are not usually under a deadline for a particular study. In this setting, time became a factor, as the team had to complete the project within the confines of the course dates. An additional time limitation was one imposed by the researchers themselves in the scope of the number of days examined. While the researchers needed to narrow the scope of the study to complete it on time, selecting only four days of news coverage limited the power of the results. By only using two days prior to the start of ground hostilities, skipping three days, and the selecting the next two days of coverage, many stories were excluded from before and after the commencement of hostilities that could add additional power to the results. By enlarging the scope of coverage dates to examine, future researchers can build a more accurate and powerful collection of data.
The lack of content analysis experience by the research team members was a significant limitation. In Measurement of Communication Behavior, a chapter on content analysis by Kaid and Wadsworth (1989) explains that coders should be experienced and of a similar academic background. While there was a lack of coding experience among the coders, the team did attempt to achieve a level of inter-coder reliability so that individual skills and judgments became secondary to the categories with the goal of essentially coding through the articles as if it were one judge instead of four.
The fact that the coders were military members could also be a limitation in that they evaluated the coverage of military topics. Whether the military members would be more critical or lenient of the coverage cannot be determined, many may be disparaging of the fact that military members even do the coding.
The code sheet used for the project could have made better use of the variable options. Prior to embarking on further uses of this survey, all independent and dependent variable possibilities should be clearly identified. With only a minimum of time allowed for the entire project, the researchers were not able to identify additional coding opportunities that would have helped reveal additional trends. For instance, having a convention on the code sheet to identify stories that reporters from wire services such as the Associated Press or Knight-Ridder News Service wrote could have been valuable in addressing reasons for the particular tone and tenor of some of the articles. Having that information could be useful in evaluating differences in coverage between smaller newspapers and those from major media markets.