Media Perceptions of Military Public Affairs

The job of the military public affairs professional extends to disseminating information to the civilian populous by way of civilian media outlets. However history has shown that what the military public affairs profession intends to disseminate is not always what is given to the public. This may stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the PA's job by the media. As Jordan (1993) writes, although the military and the media have symbiotic needs in that the military needs public support and gets it best when the public is properly informed, often the public viewpoint is distorted.

Most of the research available in this area comes after armed conflicts. Following Desert Storm in 1991, researchers began looking even more intently at how the media and military interact. Comparisons also are made between how the media reacted during the Vietnam conflict as compared to Desert Storm. The importance of this is magnified when one realizes how much influence the media has over much of the American population. Those perceptions of the military are not relegated to wartime situations only, however, and do bleed over into peacetime. Because the military public affairs professional is often the link between the military and the civilian media, their role is a key factor in what perceptions are ascertained by the media and subsequently the American public.

The amount of information released is often just as important as what information is released in both war and peacetime situations. An ongoing battle between the military and media has been waged in order to determine how much information should be released to the public as well as whether or not a security review of news footage and information is necessary before it is released to the public. Following the Gulf War, the media and military managed to agree on for news coverage of battlefield operations (Gersh, 1992). One point in the agreement is that the military will supply public affairs professionals with timely, secure, and compatible transmission facilities for news pools. Another important factor is for both the military and media to promote the role of the military public affairs officer as a prestigious career option (Hernandez, 1995). This will enhance the relationship between the media and PA when information releases are made and avoid the perception of the public affairs person as just a low-level mouthpiece for the military.

Jordan (1993) states that it should be the goal of both the military and civilian media to make sure the complete truth is presented for public review. However, if the media does not see the public affairs professional as a credible source, the perception of the story being released may be skewed. Both military and civilian sources have made suggestions as to how those misperceptions can be avoided. Those suggestions still revolve around the job of the military public affairs professional. Many times the relationship between the PA and media have a direct effect on how the story is reported. When journalists are escorted by public affairs professionals they may feel as though they are being censored or in some way prevented from getting the 'real' story. However, Jordan (1993) states that is not the case. The job of the escort is to facilitate news gathering, especially in combat situations. Many times the public affairs escort is a journalist in their own right and is dedicated to the principle of the public's right to know what is going on as well as being able to fill the void that many journalists share about military operations (Jordan, 1993).

If both the civilian journalists and public affairs professionals understand each other's role, principles can be followed that will allow for not only the dissemination of information to the public, but also the safety and integrity of the military mission. The military has an obligation to ensure a free and timely flow of information about its activities; therefore military public affairs officers should be prepared to tell the truth in all instances. However, they should not necessarily tell all they know if it would compromise operational security (Jordan, 1993). Some media representatives maintain that the development of a "tier" system may bridge the understanding gap with the military. The tier system would allow for access to certain military operations to be given based on the audience size of the organization (Hernandez, 1995). The system would be worked out during peacetime but would not replace the current DoD pool, which would still be used in certain situations. Each tier in the system would contain about 50 news people, with those organizations that have the largest audience getting in first. A certain number of positions would also be reserved for free-lance and foreign journalists (Hernandez, 1995). The tier system is still aimed at the same goal of the media, which is to have complete access to covering military situations and operations without security reviews prior to release. The military and media remain divided on the issue of security reviews. The media maintains that journalists covering U.S. forces must be mindful of operational security and the safety of American lives at all times and that journalists will indeed abide by these rules. Therefore the security review is unnecessary (Gersh, 1992). The military argues that they must retain the option to review inadvertent inclusion of information that could endanger troop safety or the success of a mission. That review would be imposed only when operational security is a consideration (Gersh, 1992).

It is another perception of the media that the military unilaterally imposes new rules without consulting news bureau chiefs or others in the media (Hernandez, 1996). This practice in turn can be inferred to instigate a distrust of the media by the military. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Bureau Chief Frank Aukofer says that if new rules that establish restrictions on the press are instituted without mutual agreement it sends a signal to the rest of the military people that the media is not to be trusted (Hernandez, 1996). Because many times the public affairs professional must, as a military member, abide by these rules from higher up the chain of command, they are perceived personally as the instigator of the sanction. Their personal relationship with the media can then suffer and lead to problems with future interactions involving news coverage.

It is the job of the public affairs professional to walk this fence and balance the needs of the military with the interests of the media as well as the public's right to know. It is essential therefore, that a good relationship between the PA and the media is first established, then maintained. Only when both sides of the fence understand the needs, as well as restrictions, of the other can the two work hand in hand to disseminate information to the public without compromising mission security.

While media and military relationships are fairly well documented, the internal relationships between commanding officers, their public affairs representatives, and the internal audience are not. To establish a starting point for a research question, a mini convenience sample was conducted. The results of this pilot survey will point the way for a larger scale research project that will be used to guide solutions geared towards fostering uniform perceptions of the function of public affairs. The populations for the mini convenience sample were 15 military public affairs professionals, 15 internal public members and 5 military commanders.

The questionnaire for all four populations featured the following three basic questions:

1. In your opinion, what is the primary function of the military public affairs office?

2. In your opinion, what is the overall role of public affairs in the military?

3. In your opinion, what do you think commanders use public affairs for?

The results of the initial survey were then compiled and categorized into three areas: Military public affairs professionals perceptions, military commanders' perceptions, and internal publics perceptions.