Journalists balance access and freedom in war reporting
By Gena Mangiaratti
When Hart Seely, reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard, traveled to Iraq in the fall of 2005 as an embedded reporter with the U.S. Army’s 1-71 Cavalry, his days were totally immersed in the lives of the troops. He got up with them, ate with them, rode with them on convoys through the streets of Baghdad. They did their best to keep him out of the line of fire. At the end of each day, after the soldiers had gone to bed, Seely stayed up past midnight to write the story of everything he had seen—and file it by 5, 6 or 7 p.m. Syracuse time.
As with all soldiers and embedded reporters, Seely wore extensive body armor for protection that included a bulletproof vest, a helmet and goggles. There were moments when he faced close to as much danger as the soldiers. He recalls riding through the streets of Baghdad and seeing an improvised explosive device (IED) that had gone off, leaking.
“When those things go off, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a reporter or anybody else,” Seely said.
From Operation Desert Storm in 1991 up through the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, journalists covering the war from press pools were limited to daily military briefings. According to Maj. Chris Perrine, a Pentagon spokesman, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon began embedding journalists with military units following a long effort to get as much information to the American public as quickly as possible. The Department of Defense documents state embedded reporters live and travel alongside the military in order to provide “in-depth coverage of U.S. forces in combat and related operations.”
Seely was with the troops when, after searching a house in an Iraqi neighborhood, shots were fired at their convoy. He remembers the biggest member of the troops yelling one word: “Run.”
He ran until the men got him safely back in their truck. They told him not to come out. The troop commander told him that the men were to under no circumstances let anything happen to him or the photographer, the Syracuse Post-Standard’s Li-Hua Lan.
Too Close, Too Far Away
Upon return to Syracuse, Seely faced the constant question from others: “What do the Iraqis think of the war?”
He said he couldn’t begin to answer this question, as traveling alongside U.S. military members made it difficult to gather information from Iraqi civilians.
“I had opportunities [to speak with civilians], but it would all have been done under enormous duress,” Seely said. “I mean, you’re talking about armed military guys surrounding some poor civilian while I interviewed him. I actually sort of did that a couple times, but I just felt so bad for the people and I didn’t feel as though I was getting anywhere.”
Todd Pitman, Bangkok bureau chief for the Associated Press, has been an embedded reporter in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He said that while being embedded has been the only way for reporters to get to the frontlines in some parts of the war, this type of reporting has constraints.
In addition to always being surrounded by U.S. military, he has found that one obstacle to gathering information from Iraqi civilians is that in traveling alongside military units, a reporter cannot control the amount of time spent speaking to civilians in a given area.
“Being embedded is not ideal,” Pitman said via e-mail. “You are constrained very much by what the military wants you to see. You do not have much freedom to move around. You move when they move.”
Pitman has found that the number of civilians an embedded reporter can speak with depends on the location, how often the reporter goes out on patrol, as well as whether civilians have fled the fighting.
“But it is always worth it to talk to civilians,” Pitman stated. “This is another major aim of being embedded — to talk to people you could not reach otherwise. I have also found that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, civilians would often speak openly, sometimes criticizing the Americans even while the Americans stood by and listened. I’m sure they would say even more if the American troops were not around, but we didn’t have that luxury.”
In the years following the invasion of Iraq, journalists—some professionals, others just concerned individuals with equipment—have traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan to report on the war without being embedded. These reporters, referred to as “unilateral, ” “unembedded” or “independent,” are not attached to military units, and are able to move independently through civilian neighborhoods.
Independent journalist Jeremy Scahill, national security reporter for The Nation Magazine and author of Blackwater, has been an unembedded reporter in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Scahill explained how embedded reporting can be limiting in gathering information from Iraqis, as the only civilian contact is with armed soldiers nearby.
“The testimony of those civilians is often crafted with that factor in mind,” Scahill said via e-mail. “The chances of it being tailored or tainted is very strong—either for fear of reprisal or to curry favor with the occupation forces.”
Scahill stated that ideally, news organizations should use both embedded and unembedded reporters in covering war, making clear the restrictions involved in embedding.
“Embedded journalism is one very small aspect of reporting and should always be viewed through the lens of what it is: providing a controlled and sometimes censored version of what is happening on the battlefield,” Scahill stated. “It necessitates making agreements with military and government entities that place their pursuit of the mission—whether just or unjust—over the pursuit of the truth.”
Perrine acknowledged that the information gathered in embedded reporting is very close-range and its content depends on a reporter’s location.
“There’s sort of a trade off between, do you want to have a broad perspective and understanding of what’s going on in the whole operational campaign, or do you want to have first-hand knowledge,” Perrine said. “And if you have first-hand knowledge, it’s going to be limited to where you are.”
Mark Finkelstein, blogger on Newsbusters.org and former host and producer of the Right Angle, embedded in Iraq in November 2006. Besides the troops, he was able to interview the deputy prime minister and also the chief spokesman to the prime minister in their offices.
“I was actually quite shocked at how much freedom I had,” Finkelstein said. “I just asked whatever questions I wanted, and I got to spend about a half hour with each individual alone. It was very free and open.”
Though he was able to speak with civilians, most were part of the effort of rebuilding Iraq, as opposed to Iraqi citizens on the streets.
A Voice to the Voiceless
Having noticed the lack of coverage in the U.S. media of the Iraqis perception of the war, independent journalist Dahr Jamail, author of Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, traveled to Iraq in November 2003. He stayed there for nine weeks and focused much of his reporting on Iraqi civilians. He returned to Iraq in 2004 and covered both sieges at Fallujah.
Previously, he had been a mountain guide in Alaska, and in following the mainstream coverage of the Iraq War, became increasingly frustrated with the dishonesty he perceived in the media’s justification of the war, Jamail told Democracy Now! in 2007.
In an e-mail interview, Jamail explained his motivation for speaking with the civilian population of Iraq.
“The purpose in my goal of focusing my reportage largely on Iraqi civilians was to give a voice to the voiceless,” Jamail stated. “What was largely lost [in the media] was how the Iraqi people felt about what was happening in their country, and even more, how they were affected. Thus, I decided … to report on what I felt was the most important aspect of the entire occupation: How the Iraqi people were affected by the invasion and foreign military occupation of their country.”
Following both battles of Fallujah, Jamail interviewed civilians who were able to flee from the siege, as well as Iraqi non-governmental organizations.
An article by Jamail in 2004, following the Second Battle of Fallujah, stated that according to a Red Cross official in Baghdad, “at least 800 civilians” had been killed in Fallujah. U.S. media outlets only reported the deaths of around “1,200 insurgents.”
“Unembedded journalists are able to mingle among civilian populations and report on their reality in a far more independent and honest manner,” Scahill stated. “They are also able to do their reporting free of military or government censorship and to report facts that may be inconvenient to government or military forces.”
As an unembedded reporter in Iraq, Jamail put himself in the position of an average Iraqi walking through the streets of Baghdad. Without protective armor, he was open to the same dangers. He stated that in the nine months total he reported from Iraq, he has been shot at, had car bombs detonating nearby and was once briefly detained. Yet, he considers himself lucky to have done his reporting without serious incident.
“Generally, getting anything close to factual information from the U.S. military, U.S. government apparatuses in Baghdad or the Iraqi occupation government was nearly impossible,” Jamail stated. “However, getting clear, on the ground information from Iraqis, and often from U.S. soldiers, was easy. It was simply a matter of being willing to go out and talk with people—which of course is something that most journalists who embed never do with Iraqis, for obvious reasons.”
The Entirety of the War
Pitman said that regardless of the constraints that come with embedded reporting, it is still worth it.
“You see how the war plays out beyond the headlines, how troops really interact with civilians You see what goes on behind the scenes. You also see the fighting and sometimes the bloody aftermath. And some of that is not what the military wants you to see. So I believe that despite the obstacles, we are still able to accurately depict the realities on the ground and tell those stories independently.”
Seely was embedded in Iraq for six weeks in the fall of 2005. In the summer of 2006, he returned to cover the same people he had embedded with the first time. After about two weeks—at the end of the soldiers’ deployment, he returned home with them on the same plane.
Having written for the Post since 1979, he said he decided early-on to treat the embedding like he would cover any local story: focusing tightly on everything that folded out in front of him and watching how the events of the war affected the soldiers.
“I felt as though I could never cover the entirety of the war,” he said. “All I could do was take a snapshot of the people and the places that I saw everyday and write about it that night, and therefore I did that every single day.”
Because no reporter can cover the entirety of the war, news organizations should strive to send an equal number of embedded and unembedded reporters to a conflict, in order to relay as much information to the public as quickly as possible, and from both sides of the war.
Gena Mangiaratti is a sophomore journalism major who was not embedded in the making of this article. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.