Embedded Reporting influences war coverage, study shows

A Penn State study shows that the use of embedded reporters by major newspapers did affect the number and the type of stories published, resulting in more articles about the U.S. soldiers' personal lives and fewer articles about the impact of the war on Iraqi civilians.

"The majority of war coverage in the study heavily emphasized the soldier's experiences, of the war while downplaying the effects of the invasion on the Iraqi people," said Andrew M. Lindner, a graduate student in sociology at Penn State.

"This study offers the first systematic documentation of the substantive content of the war coverage," he noted. "Many critics of the embedded reporting program rely on individual anecdotes or stories, but no one else has completed a thorough analysis of the coverage itself."

Lindner analyzed 742 print news articles by 156 journalists from the major combat period from the beginning of the Iraqi war (March 19, 2003) until the "Mission Accomplished" speech by President George W. Bush (May 1, 2003). He presented his findings at the annual conference of the American Sociological Association.

The study examined reports from 67 news sources including the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and the Associated Press. The researcher studied articles written by only those reporters based in Iraq and not by reporters based in surrounding regions. Electronic media broadcasts also were not studied.

In 2003, the Pentagon introduced a program allowing journalists to be "embedded" with military units during the invasion due to media complaints about restricted access during earlier conflicts. The news reporter usually undergoes some boot camp-style training before being attached to a military unit.

The Penn State sociologist defined three categories of journalistic vantage points within Operation Iraqi Freedom: embedded reporters, reporters stationed in Baghdad hotels only, and independent reporters. Article topics were combat, military movement, soldier deaths, soldier source and soldier human interest.

"People do ask whether embedded reporters are less objective and can provide neutral reporting?," Lindner notes. "But the question may really be whether embedded reporters had the access or opportunity to talk with people other than the soldiers."

Combining all types of reporters, stories quoting soldiers made up 71.6 percent of the stories in the study, followed by combat and military movement stories at 46 percent each, nearly 24 percent on soldier human interest and 16 percent on soldier deaths, according to the study.

Breaking down the categories, embedded reporters published stories with soldier sources in 93.2 percent of the stories analyzed. Military movement stories were at nearly 52 percent, combat stories at 46 percent and soldier deaths at nearly 16 percent.

Baghdad-stationed reporters split topics more evenly with 34.6 percent on combat stories, nearly 28 percent on military movements, 24.4 percent with soldier source stories, 10 percent for soldier deaths and no solider human interest stories.

For independent reporters, the breakdown was 46.2 percent (combat), 42.8 percent (soldier source), 41.4 percent (military movement) and 1.4 percent (soldier human interest).

"Now from the Iraqi perspective, the analysis found that the same reporters mostly covered property damage with 45.3 percent of their stories, stories with Iraqi sources at 41.2 percent, bombing stories at 30.2 percent, civilian deaths at 21.6 percent and Iraqi human interest stories, 20.9 percent," Lindner says.

Independent reporters, who worked for the major media but were not assigned to a military unit or located in Baghdad hotels, had the highest amount of stories quoting Iraqi people (73.1 percent); stories on property damage (nearly 47 percent); Iraqi human interest (43.4 percent); bombing stories (41.4 percent) and civilian deaths, (29.7 percent).

Baghdad-stationed reporters were at: 75 percent (Iraqi sources); 66 percent (property damage); 49.6 percent, civilian deaths; and 45.7 percent (bombing stories); and 41 percent (Iraqi human interest).

Studying the front pages of selected newspapers, the sociologist found that 71 percent of the stories published came from the embedded reporters. Similarly, 69 percent of the stories in the front news sections were written by the same group.

For example, the New York Times did establish the three groups of reporters: embedded, Baghdad-stationed and independent. The study shows that 52 percent of the Times' published articles came from the independent reporters, 37 percent from embedded reporters and 12 percent from the Baghdad-stationed group.

That compares with the Washington Post with 55 percent of its articles from embedded reporters, 29 percent from independent and 15 percent from the Baghdad-stationed reporters.

On the West Coast, 60 percent of the Los Angeles Times stories came from embedded reporters, 40 percent from Baghdad-stationed reporters. In the Midwest, the Chicago Tribune had 64 percent from embedded journalists, 33 percent from independent and 13 percent from the Baghdad-stationed group.

For USA Today, 100 percent of its articles during that period came from embedded reporters, the study shows.

"The goal was to provide sound data and evidence when the media are arguing about the value of programs like embedded reporting and whether to participate," Lindner says. "Although the media were aware of the effects of such reporting, articles by embedded reporters were both more prominent and more widely available than other types of reporting."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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