Embedded Broadcast Journalists:

Reporting Operation Iraqi Freedom from the Frontline


The notion of embedding reporters with military units is as old as the United States Civil War and was the way most wars were covered through Vietnam. In the spring of 2003, the face of combat reporting changed when the U.S. military implemented a systematic program to identify, and proactively facilitate the embedding of hundreds of reporters with combat units participating in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The unprecedented, broad scope of this initiative included all the armed services, including close combat units fighting Iraqi troops across the desert and through city streets (P. Mitchell, personal communication, November 18, 2003).

Modern-day embedding has its genesis in the aftermath of the invasion of Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury in October 1983 and the invasion of Panama during Operation Just Cause in 1989. News media were completely left out of the planning and execution of these campaigns, and the backlash of their exclusion ripped through the Pentagon. It was the beginning of the end for the military operating in an information vacuum (P. Mitchell, personal communication, November 18, 2003). There was limited embedding during Operation Desert Storm January, 1991 and reporters have banged on the Pentagon’s door ever since (Tomayo, 2003). According to a spokesperson for the Office of Assistant Secretary of Defense Public Affair (OASD (PA)) and United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), the most immediate action was taken by Army and Marine Corps units who began to doctrinally embed media on a smaller scale and most often during exercises. Embedding began to appear as part of units’ Standard Operating Procedures (P. Mitchell, personal communication, November 18, 2003).

Never in the history of warfare have so many media embedded with combat forces than during Operation Iraqi Freedom. The driving force was the realization that Iraq had a large disinformation campaign underway. Victoria Clarke, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs and Bryan Whitman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs et al. realized this early and convinced Donald Rumsfeld, United States Secretary of Defense the only way to defeat the Iraqi misinformation campaign was to have objective, third-party observers on the ground. Otherwise, the information war had the potential of becoming a ‘he-said, we-said’ struggle (D. Hetlege, personal communication, November 18, 2003).

Once Donald Rumsfeld agreed with the plan to embed, OASD(PA) was the central agency for managing and vetting media embeds to include allocating embed slots to media organizations (Secretary of Defense, 2003). The Department of Defense Public Affairs Office, with United States Central Command Public Affairs turned to the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps to see how many media their respective deploying units could take.

The Department of Defense took the 920 media positions designated by the services, and offered them to the news media bureau chiefs who then assigned the reporters with units. Only 775 names were provided by the media from more than 250 media outlets worldwide. Twenty-five percent were offered to international media, and 10% to local media picked by the commands in military-concentrated media markets, with the remainder of the slots being allocated to major networks and publications throughout theater. When ground operations began on March 20, 2003, only approximately 550 journalists reported for duty with the military.
The Department of Defense, commanders and units on the ground and the media, consider the program an overall success. When Muhammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, Iraq’s Minister of Information who was dubbed by Coalition Forces ‘Baghdad Bob/Comical Ali’, went on air April 2003 in a press conference to say U.S. and Coalition Forces were hundreds of miles from Baghdad, embedded news reporters were able to simultaneously show U.S. armored vehicles at the outskirts of the city to refute al-Sahhaf’s claim.
There were several media casualties, and less than 10 media members were removed from the embed program for breaking ground rules. The ground rules were established by OASD(PA) and included in the Public Affairs Guidance on Embedding Media During Possible Future Operations/Deployments in the USCENTCOM Area of Responsibility. The ground rules were agreed to and signed by media members prior to embedding. Ground rules defined releasable and non-releasable information (i.e. preparation for operations, location/proximately of friendly forces). Reporter Geraldo Rivera was removed from the embed program for violating the ground rules by drawing a map of his unit’s location in the dirt. He was subsequently re-embedded.

This investigation measures the impact of embedding and whether this practice changes tone and substance of news reports filed by reporters. In addition, it seeks to gauge military responses to the tone of coverage by reporters. In particular, this study seeks to determine whether reports originating from broadcast journalists embedded with allied forces during the opening days of the ground war of Operation Iraqi Freedom differed from reports filed by non-embedded broadcast journalists. Our assumption is that embedded journalists who traveled and lived with members of the armed forces, were assimilated into the military culture and developed an affinity with these troops, and would file news reports with a more positive tone, and with more episodic framing. We also assume that military members believe that embedded reporters produced more news reports that were favorable to the military. During this study, a content analysis was conducted of news broadcasts which aired March 20 to 26, 2003 from four major television networks to assess whether broadcast news coverage differed from embedded and non-embedded journalists. In addition, a survey was conducted of military members, randomly selected throughout the Department of Defense, to gauge their beliefs regarding favorability of embedded news reports.