`Embeds' get high marks

Think tank's study finds `factual,' straight news reporting from Iraq

April 03, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Their stories may be giving top military officials fits, at times. But the hundreds of reporters integrated into U.S. and British combat units in Iraq are providing a valuable service with their accounts from the front lines.

That's the first take of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a Washington think tank with ties to Columbia University's journalism school.

The project commissioned a study of the first few days of reporting after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The overwhelming majority of stories from "embedded" journalists - 94 percent - were factual, avoiding commentary or analysis, according to the study. About 60 percent of all such reports were live and unedited. And eight in 10 involved only reporters and not interviews with troops.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the journalism project, said that the big three networks - CBS, NBC and ABC - tend to execute more complex stories than cable channels, and that those shown at night are often more nuanced than those in the lighter-toned morning news shows. But overall, he said, the embedded reports are well worth the effort. "If you can find the right balance between detail and perspective then you're getting a pretty good sense of what's going on with this war," Rosenstiel said. Nonetheless, the immediacy of the "embed" reports often overwhelms the needed context for the larger stories, researchers found.

The Defense Department created the "embed" program to ensure that positive stories were told about the hard work of U.S. troops during the conflict and also to inoculate the military against false Iraqi accusations of atrocities.

The proliferation of Arab-language television outlets, such as Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi Television, have meant that Western media outlets have no monopoly on war coverage. But military officers at Central Command headquarters and the Pentagon have found themselves challenged on the official account of events by correspondents armed with reports from the field.

In recent days, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has expressed mounting frustration at the fragmentary nature of "embed" stories. Accounts of battlefield confrontations too often left viewers with an anxious feeling about the war, he said, when, in fact, the armed forces have made great progress.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, president and CEO of the Media Access Project, said the Pentagon has been "forced to be more honest" because of the presence of the "embedded" reporters with combat units.

"It's a net plus" for viewers he said.

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