Running head: Media Pools

 

 

 

 

Media pools: A critical analysis of the effectiveness of the relationship

between the military and the media

 

BABS ANGEL

KEN CARTER

ERIC PARRIS

PAUL VILLAGRAN

DOD Joint Course in Communication

University of Oklahoma, Norman

 

 

Abstract

The historical relationship between the military and the media on the battlefield is evolving. Media pools, a relatively new concept most effectively used during the Persian Gulf War, provided comprehensive around-the-clock coverage for the world to witness a war in progress. However, maintaining a balance between the publicís right to know and safeguarding national security interests comes with its share of challenges. The military and the media have agendas and practices to accomplish their respective objectives. It is how the two cooperate in meeting their objectives simultaneously that sets the stage for mutual accomplishment and respect for one another.

Media pools: A critical analysis of the effectiveness of the relationship

between the military and the media

The purpose of this research project is to provide a critical analysis of the working relationship between the military, primarily public affairs professionals, and the media during military contingencies throughout the world.

Numerous articles and reports concerning the relationship of the military and the media during military contingencies were analyzed to determine the state of the relationship between the two entities and to contribute to potential alternatives to enhance this relationship.

As such, the independent variable for this project is the release and flow of information by the military, specifically public affairs professionals, on the dependent variable, the effectiveness of media pools during military operations to act as a the gatekeeper of information to the public.

The primary theoretical tools used to evaluate the dynamics between the military and the media pools used during military contingencies will come from the mass communication perspectives of agenda setting, uncertainty reduction and diffusion. In this case, both organizations can be seen as assuming a portion of the agenda-setting role while acting as gatekeepers of information to the public.

The agenda-setting theory describes the very powerful influence the media can have in determining the issues that are important to the public. Coupled with the gatekeeping role as agents of controlling the flow of the information to the public leads to the edict that the media does not always control what the public thinks, but has certain influence on what the public thinks about (Infante, Rancer, & Womack, 1997).

To fully understand the nature of the relationship between the two organizations, a brief review of recent history and the U.S. Constitutional support for both organizations as a necessity for the sovereignty of our society must be conducted.

The U.S. Constitution was written by the framers as a working document designed to provide a system of checks and balances in order to maintain an effective functioning government (Helm, Hiebert, Naver, & Rabin, 1981). These checks and balances, coupled with the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, states that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the exercise of freedom of speech or the press, coupled with the militaryís need to safeguard information for national security during military actions, can lead to a dialectical strain between the military and the media. While the U.S. Constitution makes an argument for the need of a free press, it provides support for a strong military for the defense of the nation and the freedoms of the American people.

Ultimately, while perhaps a bit oversimplistic, the military and the media often have different objectives as to the flow and control of information. This can lead to different assessments of military events during crisis situations (Mould, 1996). It can also cause tension between the military and the media in their roles as gatekeepers of information to keep the public informed with accurate, up-to-date information concerning military actions worldwide (Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 1992).

Legal precedence for the right of the media to cover military operations is, in general terms, based on the majority opinions in the cases, New York Times Co. v the United States and Globe Newspaper Co. v Superior Court. Both cases limit the military on how they can restrict media access based on national security issues. While, at the same time, increasing the burden of proof to justify the use of prior restraint and the denial of access in order to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information rests squarely on the government (Douglas, 1992).

A historical synopsis shows that much of the dialectical tension between the media and the military can be traced directly to the Vietnam conflict. The militaryís high level of antagonism towards the media is arguably the direct result of the militaryís perceived notion of the mediaís negative news coverage of the war (Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation,1992).

Many Vietnam-era officers believed the mediaís negative news coverage had a profound effect on public opinion resulting in the lack of public support. This they believed was because of the perceived negative coverage which they felt undermined the militaryís ability to achieve victory (Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 1992).

This military mind set and belief carried forward to the invasions of Grenada and Panama where the press was virtually barred from any coverage. Indeed, when U.S. troops invaded the island nation of Grenada, the Navy cordoned off the entire island from the press (Lubow, 1991).

The government in 1984, to counteract the backlash by the media to sue it for violations under the First Amendment, formed the Sidle Panel to analyze the relationship between the media and the military. The panelís primary goal was to find a better solution to the working relationship between the two organizations (Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 1992). The Sidle Panel, which was composed of representatives of the military and the media, ultimately recommended the use of media pools in future military actions, to allow media representatives from a variety of news organizations access to front-line units and combat zones.

The Persian Gulf War has provided the most serious test of the relationship between the military and the media. At the onset of the war, both groups agreed the press pools were the best method for determining how the war would be covered and who would cover it. The pools also allowed the military the opportunity to work with a greater number of media representatives. Control of the pools would simultaneously give some assurances that inadvertent release of operational information that could compromise troop security and safety was kept to a minimum. (Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 1992).

Under the guise of protection of national security interests, media representatives argued they were repeatedly herded to unworthy news locations by military representatives. Correspondents complained that the military public affairs representatives constantly manipulated their activities and then attempted to subjugate media materials to a security review (Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 1992).

The limited accessibility to combat units and front-line organizations afforded to the media by the military have led some researchers of the effectiveness of media pools during the Persian Gulf War to label the media-pool members as "Hotel Warriors." The meaning of this label is clear: journalists were only allowed to cover briefings in the hotels, when they were escorted to unit sites, or were only allowed to cover staged activities with little to no news value (Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 1992).

As a result of the constant tension between the media and the military during the Persian Gulf War and the mediaís perceived abuse of military authority to control, manipulate and censor media reports and activities during the conflict, the tension between the two groups increased . This is not how the designers of the pools had intended them to be used in covering military operations (Hickman, 1997).

The Bosnian peacekeeping mission did not play a part in closing the fissure between the military and the media as the Department of Defense opted to not send national media pools to cover the mission citing the fact that there were already a sufficient amount of reporters in country to provide coverage (Hernandez, 1995).

Discussion

Analysis

The theoretical perspectives most applicable to the relationship between public affairs and media pools are "agenda setting" and "uncertainty reduction."

During a contingency, both public affairs and the media have relatively clear agendas which include significant common ground. However, despite the militaryís maximum disclosure/minimum delay policy, national security objectives often dictate releasing information at a pace considered less than acceptable by the media.

The media, dealing with the pressure of network competition, are always looking for new and interesting story ideas. The military generally perceives the media to be more concerned with the publicís right to know than with security issues and the media often cite the First Amendment to justify their tactics and behavior (Aukofer & Lawrence, 1995).

Agenda setting is defined as a function of mass media to influence the relative importance of our attitudes on issues (McCombs, & Shaw, 1972). The perceived importance of issues is related to the attention given to those issues by the media.

The agenda-setting theory suggests a powerful influence of the media Ė the ability to identify which issues are (or should be) important to us. For more than 70 years, people have expressed concerns with how the media presents images to the public. The American public depends on the media to describe important events they cannot personally witness. Experts state, although the media cannot tell us what to think, reporters can be incredibly influential at telling us what to think about (Infante, Rancer, & Womack, 1997). Theorists argue, at least for the time being, the agenda-setting theory remains "within the status of a plausible but unproven idea."

Comparing the role of the media during contingencies since Vietnam, radically different degrees of American public support are evident with the advance of technology and the scope of media coverage. For example, when President Bush took an offensive stance in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, many attribute the general upswing in public support for the Persian Gulf War to the decisiveness of the president and to the fact that Americans could view the war "in progress" live via satellite. The situation in the Persian Gulf was a far cry from the uncertainty associated with Vietnam and other previous conflicts.

In an effort to promote understanding in the relationship between the military and the media, research suggests the uncertainty reduction theory also applies to both groups (Berger, 1979). Theorists say more communication between the parties lessens the need for immediate and equal exchanges of information and sets the stage for an atmosphere of mutual trust.

One core assumption is when strangers meet, they want to reduce uncertainty about each other (Berger & Calabrese, 1975). In this context, when the military and the media come together, the same assumption applies.

Although generally considered an interpersonal relationship theory, its application possibilities are dyadic and the concepts could easily be applied to the military and media relationship. For example, two factors which reduce uncertainty between communicators are information-seeking behavior and the degree of similarity perceived in each other. Furthermore, under conditions of high uncertainty, an imbalance (or perceived imbalance) in the exchange of information may create or increase already existing uncertainty and tension.

In approaching the sometimes delicate issue of what information is or is not releasable and what information isnít during a contingency situation, pro-active interaction and education prior to a conflict could go a long way toward understanding and maintaining harmony.

Many public affairs professionals enjoy positive working relationships with the local civilian media who cover their respective military locations. However, during a conflict, these professionals are much less likely to work with media that they know (Aukofer, 1995). The key to success for military and media both to meet their objectives during a contingency without the otherís effectiveness being diminished is through two-way interaction and mutually discussing the situation prior to the contingency.

This interaction would focus on the balance between release of information to the media and the publicís right to know as well as the dynamics of national security and the needs of the military to not release vital information which could give the enemy with a strategic advantage.

Solution

The working relationship between the military and the media for potential future contingencies is guided by the following nine principles agreed upon after the Persian Gulf War.

  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. Pools 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 at those 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 security 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 journalists 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 the transportation of pools.
  8. Consistent with its capabilities, the military will supply public affairs officers with facilities to enable timely, secure, compatible transmission of pool material and will make those facilities available whenever possible for filing independent coverage. In cases when government facilities are not available, 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 Department of Defense National Media Pool system.

These principles were established to help facilitate the flow of information during contingency operations from the military to the media and subsequently to the public. Proponents for a free flow of information understand that the United States must have both an effective military to protect the peace and effective media to provide the public with the information it needs to assess the actions of the government (Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 1992).

To increase the effectiveness of these principles, the military and the media must follow some basic criteria to enhance the flow of information. First, the principles must have a wide distribution within the military and media. This means that not only should military public affairs professionals know them, but members of the command at all levels. Second, the military and the media need to discuss themselves how to implement the principles during the next conflict. Third, it is important to practice using the principles and to ensure they are followed. This can be accomplished by allowing media to participate during military training such as the Armyís Warfighter exercises. There is also need to keep the channels of communication open between the military and the media (Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 1992).

The negotiation process can be accomplished through military and media representatives meeting after a crisis or conflict for a thorough, objective "lessons learned" analysis of the media coverage and the way it was accomplished (Aukofer, 1995). This will allow for a thorough critique of how the military and the media carried out their roles and if the ultimate goal of getting information back to the public was handled accordingly. Military public affairs professionals should also be involved in this process.

The military should continue to enhance the effectiveness and prestige of public affairs officers in order to make the public affairs career option an attractive one. Public affairs professionals need to be involved in operational planning for crisis/conflict situations (Aukofer, 1995).

Training is an essential part of the process to improve this relationship. Military public affairs professionals receive substantial training at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Md., but a vital concern is what type of training do commanders receive? Research suggests the Professional Military Educational System (PME) should adequately prepare military officers to assist the media in their role of informing the American public on the activities of the armed forces (Aukofer, 1995). This should help ease the anxiety among senior officers regarding the "bad press" some units may get. Efforts are underway to require commanders to provide access and support to the media. Most military commanders are fully aware that a healthy military-media relationship is as crucial to success as the latest weaponry (Offley, 1994).

Training for journalists is also essential . The first proposal involves a university-based, continuing education program for journalists interested in military reporting. An undergraduate-level journalism university course on coverage of foreign affairs and national security issues should be offered. Journalists should be invited to a military-sponsored program of training exercises to have them participate. Journalists are allowed to attend some service colleges such as the National War College. This practice should be expanded to other military colleges (Aukofer, 1995).

While it is understood that not every news organization can have a full-time defense correspondent, he or she certainly can perform a valuable role. The knowledge this person has based on training and experience enables him or her to become both a guardian of the taxpayers and the military interests (Hooper, 1982).

Another recommendation would be for veteran military reporters to form a network or military reporting peer group that could serve as a forum for inexperienced reporters. The network or group would help identify problems and solutions in the military-media relationship (Offley, 1994).

Having the military and media better informed about each other is one way to improve what has been described as a somewhat "tense" relationship. Knowing more about each otherís culture and how the groups are somewhat alike is a positive sign. There are striking similarities between military members and those in the media. People in both are bright, technically proficient and dedicated to their professions (Thompson, 1991).

Even with these similarities and a better understanding of each other, there is still the issue the military and the media are most likely to clash over: control.

To many journalists, the term control translates into censorship. One key question has been what type of security review should be applied to the media in a contingency environment. One recommendation has been to establish a broad policy of "security at the source" which simply means to have a review process on site instead of having information go through a time-consuming process at higher levels (Aukofer,1995).

One area the military could improve on is "speaking with one voice." Having a strong joint public affairs doctrine concerning review of information would decrease the chance that commanders and public affairs professionals would impose local rules. The establishment of this type of doctrine would contribute to reasonable and measurable standards (Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 1992).

In contingency/war-time situations, control of the environment and providing access to that environment is of utmost importance to military commanders. The advent of the pool system as it was used in the Persian Gulf War, tried to provide the media both access to combat units and control how many journalists would get access to those units. In general, some journalists felt the pool system severely restricted their ability to cover the military first hand. There is also general agreement that pools will be necessary under certain circumstances such as the initial stages of a military operation.

How many journalists should be in a pool? There has been general agreement from the military and media that the media should set limits on itself (Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation, 1992).

Pete Williams, former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, stated the pool system basically did three things. It got reporters to the action, it guaranteed Americans at home received reports from the field, and it allowed the military to accommodate a reasonable number of journalists without overwhelming the units in the field (Smith, 1992). Williams stated a better job could have been done getting reporters to the action. But in the context of this problem and how many reporters should be allowed in media pools, Williams said every contingency/conflict is different. This goes back to the proposed solutions of a better understanding between the military and the media, an emphasis on training and having a set of rules all parties understand and agree on.

In the context of the agenda setting theory, there is a model that characterizes the relationship between the military, media and the public. The model is structured as such:

    1. The military is one group with public affairs being a subset of that group. Public affairs is considered a subset because while it is part of the military, it also serves as a direct link to the media and the public. Within public affairs, there are three sections. They are command information, public information, and community relations.
    2. The media is a group separate from military public affairs and the public.
    3. The public is also a separate group.
    4. The key to this model is the information flow between the three primary groups and the role public affairs plays in that flow. Military public affairs professionals act as "Gatekeepers" of access to the military and the information that is released to the public. In turn, the media also play a gatekeeper role in this model. By gaining access to the military, they gather and distribute information to the public. The public receives the information delivered by the military and the media and provides feedback to these groups. What this demonstrates is a two-way flow of communication between the three primary groups with public affairs acting as the gatekeeper of information for the military.

This model is a description of how the three groups interact with each other. It represents the movement of information from one group to another. The key is keeping the channels between groups open, so maximum disclosure with minimum delay will be the standard.

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

The working relationship between the military and media continues to evolve. Innovation and cooperation on the parts of both groups should lead to even better results with the use of media pools during future contingencies. Although agendas may never be identical, through a better understanding of each other, most objectives should be obtainable. As gatekeepers of information, both the military public affairs and media professionals are critical links to a well-informed public. Both will be instrumental in reducing uncertainty among the national and international publics. Legal considerations revolving around the First Amendment will continue to play a significant role in the dynamics of the relationship between the two groups.

The Persian Gulf War is our most measurable test of the effectiveness of media pools to date. However, the frustrations the media faced under the guise of national security interests combined with poor accessibility to combat units suggests thereís still a lot of work to be done. Research suggests both groups have a lot to learn from one another. Both need to develop a deeper appreciation for and understanding of the otherís processes and procedures. Two-way communication and educational opportunities will be key to the success of mutual understanding among the two during future contingencies.

The nine principles agreed upon following the Persian Gulf War are a starting point. Undoubtedly, lessons learned in future contingencies may prompt modification of the principles. Training sessions will help reinforce the principles, but the ultimate success cannot be determined until after a conflict. The need for negotiation and support from the military and media leaders alike will be critical.

Finally, the issue of control, both with regard to the security review of information before release and to the environment, will be defined through a mutually agreed upon doctrine. The balance of the free-flow of information from the media to the public during a contingency will be a direct result of a well thought out and executed plan. That plan is one that can only be executed within an environment of agreement, understanding and mutual respect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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