The case against embedding war reporters

In a story for the UK’s The Independent, veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn chastises the media’s
over-reliance on embedded journalism
provides a candid look at the reality facing war reporters: reluctant
newsrooms, overzealous security details and rookie reporters spoon-fed
military propaganda.

Cockburn has reported from conflict zones since 1979 for the Financial Times, and now, The Independent, but never as an ’embed’.”Over-reliance on “embedding” as the primary method of gathering information may have been inevitable, but it produces a skewed picture of events,” he writes. “Journalists cannot help reflecting to some degree the viewpoint of the soldiers they are accompanying. The very fact of being with an occupying army means that the journalist is confined to a small and atypical segment of the political-military battlefield.”

The limitations of embedding extend to movement as well. In guerrilla wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, commanders choose to attack weak points in an army’s position. “This means that the correspondent embedded with the American or British military units is liable to miss or misinterpret crucial stages in the conflict.” As result, Cockburn writes, the media consistently misses the big stories in favour for the ones in front of them: “Problems are often reduced to quasi-technical or tactical questions about coping with roadside bombs or lack of equipment. Until recently, there was little reporting or explanation of how the Taliban had been able to extend their rule right up to the outskirts of Kabul.”

It also means that if a major event happens and there are no troops around, no journalists will be around to report on it (You have to read Cockburn’s account of a largely ignored attack on Mosul in Northern Iraq — which happened in concert with the US’s so-called military victory in the country — for the full impact of what this means to the media’s ability to help readers understand the war.)

Of course, not all the disadvantages are as obvious, Cockburn writes. Embedding “leads reporters to see the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts primarily in military terms, while the most important developments are political or, if they are military, may have little to do with foreign forces.” He wonders if the average newspaper/TV consumer understands what’s been happening in either country in the past decade. He writes:

“War reporting is easy to do, but difficult to do well. Wars rouse such passions that editors and senior producers in home offices seldom retain healthy journalistic scepticism. They develop oversimplified ideas about what the story is, be it “hard-won victory” or “bloody stalemate”. Viewers and readers expect drama from conflict and think they know what it looks like. The first pictures from the wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 were dominated by shots of great gouts of fire rising from missiles exploding in Baghdad and Kabul.

“But this melodrama was deceptive, obscuring what had really happened. The most important fact about these two wars was that, in their first, conventional warfare stage, they barely took place at all. Taliban fighters faded away to their villages or moved across the border into Pakistan. In Iraq Saddam Hussein’s most elite and pampered units dissolved and went home as soon as they could.

“It was very difficult to tell all this to news desks at the time. News organisations get geared up for war and feel short-changed when told that not much is really happening. I had followed the retreating Taliban from Kabul to Kandahar in 2001 and saw little fighting along the road. In a substantial city such as Ghazni there were half a dozen Taliban dead, mostly killed in gunfights over ownership of government cars. In Iraq 18 months later, there were plenty of burnt-out Iraqi army tanks on the roads but, when I looked inside, most had been abandoned before they were destroyed by air strikes.”

Cockburn notes that the best reporting has come from reporters familiar with Iraq before 2004. “After that, it became very difficult for young correspondents to have any sort of “learning curve” because anybody hoping to “learn from their mistakes” in Iraq was not going to live very long. Halfway through the Iraq war, one bureau chief lamented to me, saying: “The only fairly safe place for me to send young reporters, who haven’t been to Iraq before, is on ’embeds’, but then they drink up everything the army tells them and report it as fact.”