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George Vlahakis
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Julia Fox
Department of Telecommunications

Last modified: Wednesday, May 17, 2006

IU study finds that news reports by embedded war correspondents in Iraq were objective

May 17, 2006

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- A new Indiana University study of news reports by television reporters embedded with American troops in the early days of the Iraq War found little support for critics who question the journalists' objectivity.

The study, which appears in the upcoming 50th-anniversary edition of the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, found that while embedded reporters described events in very personal ways, their reports were not slanted in favor of Allied forces as a result.

Julia R. Fox, IU assistant professor of telecommunications, and Byungho Park, a doctoral candidate in that department, compared the use of personal pronouns in Cable News Network reports filed by embedded and non-embedded journalists about the Pentagon's "Shock and Awe" campaign.

They found that embedded reporters were more likely to use first-person singular pronouns -- such as "I" and "me" -- but added that the context of their reports suggests they were not aligning themselves with troops.

"Non-embedded reporters were actually more likely to use the broad-ranged 'we' than embedded reporters, who never used it," they wrote in their paper, "The 'I' of Embedded Reporting: An Analysis of CNN Coverage of the 'Shock and Awe' Campaign."

"Perhaps, in their concern to appear more objective under their unusual circumstances, embedded reporters were more conscientious about not using the broad-ranged 'we' in their reports," they added. "These findings might even suggest that non-embedded reporters were actually less objective than embedded reporters, as only they made references to the broad-ranged 'we,' perhaps showing more support for the Shock and Awe campaign."

The policy of embedding reporters with military units came in response to criticism of pool reporting during the first Gulf War, when media access to the battlefield was restricted. Embedding reporters has been both cheered and jeered. Some supporters have seen it as a unique opportunity for journalists to provide firsthand accounts of the war, while critics have asked whether it makes journalists less credible by placing them within their own stories.

Going into the study, Fox shared others' concerns that embedding reporters could lead to less than objective reporting. "They were getting close to the troops, they were getting to know them -- their lives were on the line with theirs," she said in an interview. "In some cases, they were a part of the story, but it was mostly in an eyewitness fashion. They were not giving their values, opinions and beliefs."

She and Park wrote, "As embedded reporters serve as eyewitnesses to war, it would seem inevitable that they, too, would make references to themselves in describing what they have seen, and that those references per se do not necessarily compromise their objectivity."

The IU researchers used a composite 16-hour day of CNN coverage from the first few days of the campaign -- March 22-25, 2003. CNN was chosen because it is generally perceived to be more objective than Fox and MSNBC, including its attempts to bring different viewpoints to viewers with segments such as "Voices of Dissent" and "Arab Voices." Polls taken during this period indicated that 70 percent of respondents said they got most of their news from cable news channels.

Only field reports were studied, not those by military analysts or in-studio interviews. A total of 64 embedded reports and 46 non-embedded reports were included in the sample.

"We determined not only that their objectivity was not compromised by the situation, but more broadly that we believe we need to rethink the definition of objectivity," Fox said. "Reporters don't necessarily have to be removed from the story to be objective."

In the paper, she and Park cited the example of Edward R. Murrow, the television news pioneer profiled in the acclaimed film Good Night and Good Luck. Murrow's 1945 accounts of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps indicated that he was moved by what he saw. "Murrow served as a witness to history in reporting his firsthand observations," they noted.

Since the reports lacked personal values and ideologies, Fox and Park suggested that journalists and scholars need to rethink the concept of objectivity in general terms of broad standards of impartial inquiry, rather than as absolute adherence to traditional conventions and techniques such as the use of impersonal, third-person writing style.

"In the strictest sense, one could argue that any use of personal pronouns violates the technique of detached writing style that is traditionally associated with objective reporting. Yet most of the examples found did not violate the other characteristics of objectivity set forth in the review of literature on the topic: neutral and unbiased, balanced reporting void of personal ideology and values, opinions and impressions," they noted.

"Given the unique situation of an embedded reporter, refraining from the use of personal pronouns would be impractical at best," they added. "Embedded reporters are eyewitnesses to events that only they and the troops can experience, unlike other events reporters cover, that members of the public might also witness."

They concluded that both working journalists and media scholars must decide whether reality is best depicted by multiple interpretations, each with seemingly equal weight, or by firsthand observations that can be described by embedded reporters.

Fox believes that as long as there is war, embedding of reporters will continue.

"This type of reporting very likely will be used in the future, because it is a way of giving access, which we as a democracy feel is important," she said.