Embedded journalists are civilian media volunteers whom the Department of Defense assigns to a specific military unit during a wartime deployment. While embedded, the journalists will eat, sleep, and travel with, as well as live under the protection of the troops in the unit. This type of first-hand news reporting is a drastic change for war journalism, as it provides unprecedented access to behind-the-scenes activity, war preparation, maneuvers, and front-line combat. Journalists also have direct contact in the field with U.S. troops, and possibly enemy soldiers. At the same time, the new practice of embedding journalists within the unit unveils many communication issues that the media and the military will study for years to come.
While front-line media correspondents during Operation Iraqi Freedom had the proximity to tell a more personal story of America’s warriors, researchers in academia, the media, and the military are looking at the deeper impacts of this new relationship. In looking at the closer ties of the wartime relationship between the media and the military, one can only wonder if the proximity of the reporter to the field unit makes a difference in the type of coverage the reporter gives. The two overarching questions for this project focus on that topic: How does embedding a reporter in a military unit affect the tone and tenor of the stories? Did the embedded media program provide for more positive coverage under Operation Iraqi Freedom than under the 1991 Gulf War or the United States involvement in the NATO operations in Kosovo during 1999?
The primary thrust of this study is to provide empirical evidence to demonstrate that the practice of “embedding” results in a more positive tone and tenor to news products. Journalists embedded with combat units, who are required to live and work alongside troops, will frame the U.S. military in their stories more favorably than reporters operating independently or compiling reports at newspaper desks in the United States. This study will also show that because of embedding, overall coverage of U.S. military operations during Iraqi Freedom was demonstrably more favorable than in the other previously mentioned conflicts.
In the course of this project, we employed several communication theories to provide insight into the relationships that were developed between the embedded journalists and their respective military units. Interpersonal relationships that developed in the field were crucial to the effectiveness and accuracy of the embedded correspondents covering the war; thus, we employed the theories of social exchange, symbolic convergence, social penetration, and uncertainty reduction to understand the dynamics of the affects posited in this study.
The term social exchange applies to a relationship in which the giving and receiving of materials or resources is based on the expectation of a return or reward. The theory assumes people will accurately anticipate the rewards they can receive in a variety of situations (Cummings, Long & Lewis, 1987). People review and weigh their relationships in terms of costs and rewards. The costs are those elements in the relationship that have negative value to a person, such as stress, time, energy, or attention given. The rewards are parts of the relationship that have positive value to a person, such as fun, loyalty, or attention received. The formula to “calculate” the overall value of a relationship subtracts the costs involved from the rewards provided. A positive relationship is one whose rewards exceed costs, while costs exceed rewards in a negative relationship. Based on the calculated outcome, a positive relationship is likely to continue while participants, or actors in the relationship, will usually terminate a negative relationship. Much like an economic transaction, researchers of the theory claim that the social rewards one person receives represents a cost to another person (Blau, 1964).
In the relationship between media members and the unit with which they are embedded, the theory of social exchange manifests itself in several situations. First, the Department of Defense recognizes the importance of having media and, in February 2003, published a Public Affairs Guidance (PAG) on embedding media in future operations. In the PAG message shown in Appendix A, DOD leadership stated,
Media coverage of any future operation will, to a large extent, shape public perception of the national security environment now and in the years ahead. This holds true for the U.S. public; the public in allied countries whose opinion can affect the durability of our coalition; and publics in countries where we conduct operations, whose perceptions of us can affect the cost and duration of our involvement. Our ultimate strategic success in bringing peace and security to this region will come in our long-term commitment to supporting our democratic ideals. We need to tell the factual story - good or bad - before others seed the media with disinformation and distortions, as they most certainly continue to do. … We must organize for and facilitate access of national and international media to our forces … right from the start. To accomplish this, we will embed media with our units. These embedded media will live, work and travel as part of the units with which they are embedded to facilitate maximum, in-depth coverage of U.S. forces in combat and related operations. (p. 1)
More than just setting the stage for media operations within military units, the Department of Defense also expresses part of the exchange relationship between the military unit and the embedded reporter: The media will work, live, and travel as part of the unit, in exchange for publishing the American military perspective of the conflict.
The costs and rewards are plentiful for both the media and the military. In rewards, the media gets immediate, front-line access to the unit’s activities and engagements. A cost to the military is that they must provide them with food, shelter, transportation, and protection just as they would for any member of a unit. The media, in exchange, rewards the U.S. military by sending news from the American units around the world as it happens. In the cost category, the media must agree to and abide by ground rules the military sets before agreeing to accept a media member for an embed assignment. While the media members and organizations have the responsibility and goal to publish the news, they must ensure their coverage does not compromise operational security or the personal security of any members of their assigned unit. In a sense, there is an economics-based dynamic in this sort of relationship, and the journalists would be subjected to the influences at work when attempting to strike a balance in that relationship according to Homan’s social exchange theory constructs (1958).
Once the relationship parameters develop between a reporter and the members of a unit, the symbolic convergence theory helps explain how the relationship builds between them. Ernest Bormann defines the symbolic convergence theory as an approach to understand how humans communicate through the sharing of stories. He looks at humans as social animals who are social storytellers (1985). The sharing of fantasies through stories helps storytellers connect with their audiences. This theory explains how and why people unite. The root concept of the theory is the fantasy. Bormann (1983) describes a fantasy as “the creative and imaginative interpretation of events that fulfills a psychological or rhetorical need” (p. 434). In more understandable terms, one can think of it as a story that sparks one’s imagination and/or memories.
In the relationship between the embedded reporter and the military unit, symbolic convergence theory helps explain the process of how an embedded reporter will, after time and through close contact with service members, begin to unite as a part of the larger military group. Shared hardship and danger can function to facilitate communication as a fantasy theme, which serves the purpose of reducing anxiety within a group, relieving tension, creating a sense of well being within the group, and bolstering individuals in the group’s collective self-esteem (Mohrmann, 1982a). This connection can possibly affect the news coverage from the embedded reporter’s perspective as he or she begins to identify more with the unit through the telling of stories. This tightened relationship could explain a difference in the coverage an embedded reporter gives when compared to a staff compiled story or from a unilateral media reporter in country who has no connection with the service members about whom they are writing.
The social penetration theory provides another explanation for personal relationships that could develop between the reporter and members of the unit. The theory refers to the development, maintenance, and deterioration of relationships. The relational development is a linear process divided into sequential stages: orientation, exploratory affective exchange, affective exchange, and stable exchange. Each stage describes the levels of the growing relationship as the members get to know each other better and develop a deeper understanding of each other (Heath & Bryant, 2000).
The social penetration theory explains the evolution of interpersonal relationships. These relationships are continually subject to change, negatively or positively, as the involved members elect to or refrain from revealing their own deeper layers of their personality or inner self (Altman & Taylor, 1973). The relationships become deeper and more trusting when interaction is positive and members reveal more of their attitudes and beliefs (Altman & Taylor, 1973). As the interacting members peel away the layers in a reciprocal manner, relationships can develop and become deeper.
Personality characteristics are items of the personality that make up a person’s character. These can include an individual’s ideas, beliefs, feelings, and emotions about himself, other people, and the world (Altman & Taylor, 1973). These items can also represent a number of commonalities among individuals such as work, sports, religion, politics, and their concept of right and wrong. These personality characteristics are the breadth of category. Military units and embedded media in the theater of Operation Iraqi Freedom probably held these same characteristics; however, field environment, risk of life, quality and quantity of food, amount of sleep, and mode of transportation would probably better describe a more applicable breadth of category.
The number of these items that are easily relatable between individuals and are more accessible in self-disclosure is the breadth of frequency. This could also mean the amount of interaction between individuals. According to Altman and Taylor (1973), these concepts of self-disclosure are where the beginning stages of relationship development begin. However, some items of the personality may have a different location within the layers of the personality. For example, risk of life is probably located somewhere near the central core of person’s response set. If individuals share this experience and it is close to both individual’s central core of their response set, then there may be a deeper relational development (Altman & Taylor, 1973).
An important facet of the social penetration theory is situational interdependence. Altman and Taylor (1973) explain situational interdependence as, “the more a situation involves interdependence among group members, the more extensive will be social penetration process” (p. 163). As the media member depends more and more on the military to provide them with not only situations to cover, but also food, shelter, transportation, the reporter will grow even closer to the members of the host unit.
An article by Cozby (1972) brings social penetration into a more personal focus. In the article on self-disclosure, reciprocity, and liking, Cozby states that there is a correlation between self-disclosure and liking. If a person likes another person, then there will be an increase in self-disclosure. Therefore, if there were an attraction between the two people, then there would be a heightened state of reciprocity. Much like Cozby’s (1972) assertion that self-disclosure has a reciprocating affect, Altman and Taylor (1973) believe that reciprocal disclosures is orderly, systematic, and occurs gradually in support of the social penetration theory. They broke down the type of disclosures into high- and low-revealers and studied them under isolated group conditions with missions incorporated into the scenario. This study shows that self-disclosure under isolated conditions did produce more opportunities to interact, which produced greater amounts of disclosure (Altman & Taylor, 1973). However, the study produced evidence that high revealers who under disclosed and low revealers who over disclosed had a greater chance of not completing their missions (Altman, Taylor & Wheeler, 1973). They found that environmental conditions and interpersonal compatibilities affected the social penetration process.
While much research focuses on self-disclosure within the study of social penetration, Hensley (1996) looked at the perspective of social penetration and self-disclosure as a self-analysis. Though in social penetration there is a two-way communication where one person self-discloses one thing and then another person reciprocates with a self-disclosure. Hensley believes that through the response of a self-disclosure, verbal or non-verbal, a person receives feedback about the self. In other words, “social penetration as mirrored by relationship satisfaction has a powerful impact on the causal attributions offered in explaining the behavior of others” (Hensley, 1996, p. 303).
This theory is directly applicable to the embedding program in that journalists will inevitably develop relationships with personnel in the unit in which they are embedded. Of particular interest in this study is the correlation between self-disclosure and liking. As relationships develop, the level of self-disclosure and breadth of frequency of interactions between the journalist and troops increases, the level of liking will increase as well (Cozby, 1972). Simply put, friendships will likely develop as time goes on. The question is whether the strength of these friendships colors the tone of dispatches submitted by the journalist.
This project uses a final communication theory to describe the relationship between the reporter and members of the military unit. The uncertainty reduction theory, one of the most influential theories in the communications field, begins with the assumption that in the initial interactions between strangers, people are driven to reduce the uncertainty about each other.
Uncertainty reduction theory is a framework used to explain certain interpersonal communication behaviors during the initial interaction between individuals (Kellermann & Reynolds, 1990). The theory was initially developed by Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese (1975) in order to explain the process in which people go about reducing their uncertainty with others during social interaction. As a result of their study, Berger and Calabrese developed seven axioms and 21 theorems based on those axioms that serve as building blocks on which the theory is based. Uncertainty reduction theory has since been modified, widened in scope and even adapted for use in other disciplines.
Berger and Calabrese initially presented their uncertainty reduction theory in a 1975 effort to establish a model for the process of interaction during the initial stages of relationship development (Miller, 2002). The researchers hypothesize that when two people meet and interact for the first time, their primary goals are to reduce uncertainty and raise predictability about the behaviors and attitudes of the other individual.
When two people meet and interact for the first time, their primary goals is to reduce uncertainty and 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 (Neuliep & Grohskopf, 2000). Uncertainty reduction theory assumes that when strangers meet, their primary concern is one of reducing uncertainty or increasing predictability about the behavior of both themselves and others in the interaction according to Berger and Calabrese (1975). This statement is a major assumption on which uncertainty reduction theory is based. 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 (Neuliep & Grohskopf, 2000). Central to the theory is the assumption that when strangers meet, their primary concern is one of uncertainty reduction or increasing predictability about their own behavior as well as others in the relationship (Berger & Calabrese, 1975). This major assumption provides the basis of the uncertainty reduction theory.
Uncertainty exists when details about a situation are ambiguous, complex, or a matter of chance. Uncertainty also exists when information is unavailable or inconsistent. It is also a matter of perception when people are uncomfortable or insecure about their state of knowledge regarding a person or situation (Brashers, 2001).
Berger and Calabrese base their theory on seven axioms formulated in the post positivist tradition of theory development. These axioms take into consideration the relationships between uncertainty and seven key variables: verbal communication, nonverbal behavior, information seeking, intimacy level, reciprocity, similarity, and liking.
They also developed several theorems to outline the different interrelationships between the axioms. These relationships demonstrated, according to Berger (n.d.), that social interaction rituals were highly predictable and could be viewed in a social scientific context.
Several axioms and theorems of the uncertainty reduction theory apply to the analysis of embedded reporting. A theorem of the theory states that the intimacy level of communication content and liking are positively related. An embedded journalist not only covers the activities of the unit, he or she shares the difficulties and hardships of the troops and lives under the same conditions as the rest of the unit. Over time, the journalist will likely develop a rapport with unit personnel by cultivating friendships, trust, and a dependence that may eventually result in a sympathetic tone to stories submitted from the field.
The primary thrust of this project is to provide empirical evidence that demonstrates that the practice of “embedding” results in a more positive tone and tenor to news coverage. With the goal of demonstrating that through embedding, the overall coverage of U.S. military operations during Iraqi Freedom was demonstrably more favorable than in previous conflicts, our predictions are:
H1: Print news coverage during Operation Iraqi Freedom by embedded reporters will be more positive in nature than unilateral or staff compilation stories.
H2: Print news coverage during Operation Iraqi Freedom was, overall, more positive and favorable than print news coverage during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 or the Kosovo Conflict of 1999.