Embedded War Reporting Cannot Escape Its Own Bias

MEDIA, 26 Apr 2010

Alison Banville – The Guardian

Television news reports from journalists embedded with the military have become familiar to us in recent years. The journalist lives with the troops, sleeps where they sleep, eats what they eat, faces the same dangers they do and gets to know them as individuals. They are humanised, and surely that is a good thing – what could possibly be wrong with that? Nothing at all, if you are unconcerned about seeing impartial and balanced news coverage. But if you value these things, you should be worried. The praise heaped on embeds both by their colleagues and their audience for delivering to us “the reality of war” discounts one very important fact: that those journalists are invariably embedded with one side only. And that, in no shape or form, is balance – the very principle our major news channels claim underpins everything they do.

The boast of “greater reality” attached to embedding is a falsehood which actually clouds the vision of anyone attempting to make sense of a conflict. News channels showing reports from journalists embedded with British troops while failing to give equal airtime to reports from embeds with opposing forces or civilians qualifies not only as blatant bias, it is fertile territory for propaganda. So why are we so eager to accommodate embeds?

The BBC’s John Simpson gives us a clue: “I don’t want to spend my whole time with people to whom I owe my safety, my protection, my food, my transport, and then be expected to be completely honest about them, because there’s always that sense that you’re betraying a trust.” The difficulty a journalist might experience in being “completely honest” about men he or she has bonded with is understood well by those who allow access to troops. US journalist Norman Solomon also addressed this issue in the 2007 documentary War Made Easy. Commenting on US embedded journalists openly telling audiences how they had bonded with troops, Solomon says it is “all very nice, but it has nothing to do with independent journalism, which we never need more than in times of war”. In 2004 Solomon wrote that the Committee to Protect Journalists had reported that “the close quarters shared by (embedded) journalists and troops inevitably blunted reporters’ critical edge” before quoting LA Times reporter David Zucchino, who was embedded with the 101st Airborne: “Often I was too close, or confined, to comprehend the war’s broad sweep… I was ignorant of Iraqi government decisions and US command strategy.”

And on the other side of the debate, John Michael Turner, a young US Iraq veteran, stated: “Any time we did have embedded reporters with us our actions would change drastically. We never acted the same, we did everything by the books.” Turner made this statement at the Iraq/Afghanistan Winter Soldier hearings in 2008. It is one of the most moving and affecting things I have ever witnessed. Bravery comes in many forms in times of war, but the particular brand required to face the world and admit to atrocities one has personally committed must rank among the rarest – and most precious.

All of these statements are the missing pieces of the picture we need if we are to make up our own minds about whether any war fought in our name is just. But we are not encouraged to seek motivations, to see complexity or cause and effect, we are only seen fit for the most simplistic propaganda – and we lap it up, because we want so desperately to believe our sons and daughters are fighting and dying for something worthwhile. No one is denying the bravery that can be displayed by our troops, as well as by the journalists who embed with them. But we never need truth more than in time of war. It’s time for the British public to start asking the difficult questions of both their government and their media; questions mothers like Rose Gentle, who lost her son Gordon in Iraq, have had the courage to ask. Because the truth, however painful, will not only set us free – it will bring our soldiers home.




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