If the United States is going to war—and seemingly every day, someone predicts that it's any day now—reporters from the U.S. and worldwide, will be going with them. And, although the Pentagon promises to let the press "tell the factual story, good or bad" and let reporters report from the frontlines with soldiers, how it will play out is still a good question.
"I don't know if it will be safer or more dangerous for the reporters to be with the troops when they're going to fight a war," says Parisa Khosravi, CNN News Group vice president. "Being on the frontlines is nothing new to us, but this is an interesting and new one. And we'll have to reserve judgment until we've been through it."
Khosravi has been involved with CNN's coverage of the Somalia and Bosnia conflicts, and she and CNN have learned firsthand the dangers war coverage brings. Seven Somalian CNN employees were killed by gangs during that war; in Bosnia, a CNN camerawoman was shot in the face by a sniper (she survived, still works for CNN, and still requires reconstructive surgeries). Those were brutal war zones, free of frontlines, and considered more dangerous than traditional wars. If there is a conflict in Iraq, the nature of the fighting remains to be seen: Some predict prolonged street fighting in Baghdad, while others believe it will be a short conflict.
As it stands now, more than 600 members of the media will be embedded, says Bryan Whitman, Department of Defense deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. About 80% of those, he says, will be representing U.S. media outlets, and 10% of the domestic media embedded will be from stations located near major military-population centers. Each of the networks is expected to have about a dozen embedded.
The embedding process began with the military's assigning slots to military units and then offering slots to each organization. Whitman says each major news organization has the opportunity to embed journalists with every major military unit.
"It's up to each network to then staff all or some of the available opportunities," says Sharri Berg, Fox News Channel vice president, news operations. "We took advantage of all the embedded opportunities we were given."
Says ABC News spokeswoman Su-Lin Nichols, "It's a bit of a mixed bag. Assignments [include] aircraft carriers, frontline troop placement, airbase assignments, supply units."
The decision to embed reporters came about in response to media requests to cover conflicts without filters, and it answers complaints about how the media were frozen out of coverage of the first Iraq conflict, in 1991. The military consented because, it says, journalists close to the action will be fairer and will fight the untruths sure to be spun by anti-U.S. propagandists.
The new rules of engagement between the military and the media do seem likely to create a few battle lines between the media and the military, but, according to the military's own rules, officials are supposed to help journalists get information, not find ways to frustrate them (see box below).
Many journalists take a wait-and-see attitude on that. "We expect the Pentagon and the military to work with us on our goals of reporting independently," says Nichols.
But, if there are problems, one interesting story development could be how the media covers any censorship. "Our journalistic standards will stand, and, if we're censored, we'll say we're censored," says Khosravi. "We'll be very transparent with our audience."
But there may be pressures to keep a hands-off approach as much as possible, particularly given the potential for Iraq President Sadaam Hussein to spin any censored material.
"Our potential adversary is a master of disinformation and a practiced liar," says Whitman. "If his past behavior is any indication of his future behavior, there is no doubt that he would use the media to try and paint false pictures of what is happening."
The TV networks are embedding two-person crews—a correspondent and a technician/cameraperson-within the military units. Those crews are outfitted with small DV cameras, laptop editing systems and satellite transmission gear. Because they're responsible for carrying their own equipment, it's as light as possible. Typically, stories will be edited in the field before transmission to the U.S., where they will be stored on video servers for playout.
Unlike the Vietnam War, when reporters spent a day at a time with a unit before heading elsewhere, the embedding this time is more similar to media coverage of WWII, according to Whitman. At that time, media personnel would spend weeks and months with one unit, something Whitman believes gives the reporter a better understanding of the mission objectives.
Even if the results aren't good?
"If things go bad," says Berg, "no one can guarantee what our cameras will be allowed to take pictures of."
Live reporting will be possible, but the regulations make it clear that the safety of a mission takes precedence.
"Based on the tactical situation, there may be times when there can't be live reporting," says Whitman. "But that goes to the beauty of the embedding situation, because relationships are built and the reporter comes to a common understanding with the unit. And I don't know of any reporter who wants to compromise a mission—particularly if he's on it."