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The general public often assumes a great deal about the relationship between the media and the military. This topic has been in the news a lot in 2019, with both military personnel and journalists separately weighing in. During academic year ’19 one elective specifically asked its students:
What is the state of the military’s relationship with the media; what are the challenges to it; and what are the risks going forward?
This forum is intended to add to that important conversation. Seven of those students and one faculty member shared their responses and their opinions varied quite a bit.
The Media as a Watchdog
Ryan Dowdy is a colonel in the U.S. Army and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College resident class of 2019.
The relationship between the media and the military is not always an easy one. Some may even argue that the relationship is fractured, especially because of a number of high-profile missteps and coverage critical of the military. But the reality is that the relationship is on solid footing.
Military distrust of the media was exacerbated in recent years with high profile incidents involving media personalities such as Geraldo Rivera revealing tactical positions when he was embedded with a unit. Senior leaders and junior leaders alike felt betrayed by Geraldo. More recently, news anchor Brian Williams embellished (or perhaps outright lied about) his involvement in an helicopter crash in Iraq over a decade ago, claiming to be on an Army helicopter that crashed due to enemy fire. But former crewmembers told the real story on social media, forcing Williams to come clean. More disappointment.
At other times, the military chafes at unfavorable coverage, what they view as the media airing dirty laundry. But the military must remember that this is the media’s job and is a good thing. Many military senior leaders recognize and respect the media’s vital role as the Fourth Estate. As the Fourth Estate, the media provides a forum for public transparency, which is necessary for legitimacy and accountability. The media is a watchdog, and it serves citizens and military leaders as well by uncovering problems that might otherwise go unknown, undetected, or ignored by the bureaucracy.
This tradition of critical media coverage holding the military accountable to the public is not new. Coverage of the Vietnam War and of the Tailhook scandal in the early 1990s are also evidence of the media’s critical watchdog role.
Critical media reporting, for example, uncovered widespread fraud and misuse of taxpayer monies in the reconstruction of Iraq. The media covered the non-partisan Congressional Commission on fraud, waste, and abuse and other reports involving government contractors in Iraq. This coverage reminded the military that it must act as a good steward of government resources. For some, the coverage was a black eye; but public exposure was vital to address the issue, reestablish legitimacy, and maintain trust with the public.
Another example of media’s coverage of fraud includes the scandal that ensnared multiple senior Navy officials known as the “Fat Leonard” case. This case involved a number of top Navy officials that accepted bribes, illegal gifts, and even prostitutes for kickbacks and illegal contracts. The Navy investigated the matter and held individuals accountable, but the media’s coverage of the issue no doubt helped keep the public pressure on the Navy to clean up the mess caused by some of its own leaders.
Finally, an example of investigative journalism that served to highlight issues impacting the health and welfare of our service members is a recent Reuters piece, “Ambushed at Home.” This investigative series exposed to the public significant problems with on-post housing on military installations, to include lead exposure, infestations, and mold.
Once public, key senior leaders in the military began to take immediate action to assess and rectify the situation. In some cases taking blame, and in others placing blame on private contractors, at no time have these leaders criticized the media for revealing to the public the poor state of some of its housing.
The military-media relationship can be tense. But without the media, the government, including the military, could run amok without any public scrutiny. Military professionals abide by principles of honor, integrity, and loyalty.
In a perfect world, if we all did this, perhaps there would be little need for the Fourth Estate or endless investigations of wartime fraud, “Fat Leonards,” or “Tailhooks.” While dealing with the fallout from critical coverage can be unpleasant, most military senior leaders strive for accountability and to take corrective action when needed. The media is essential in achieving accountability and regaining the trust of those we serve.
The Military-Media Relationship is Just Fine
Ian Humphrey is a colonel in the U.S. Army and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College resident class of 2019.
Ask someone about the state of the military and media relationship, and you’ll get a range of answers from healthy and strong to totally dysfunctional. While there are challenges between the two, dysfunction is too strong. Currently, the relationship is reasonably healthy because both the military and media understand they must work together to meet the needs of their common customer: the American citizen. The military needs to maintain the trust and confidence of the American citizens they are sworn to protect and the media needs the citizens to trust their reporting so they listen, read and subscribe to their news outlets.
Challenges: Censorship, Expectations, Technology
There are clear tensions between the military and the media, and these are nothing new. During the American Civil War, for example, reporters from both the North and South had basically free reign on the battlefields with little restriction on what they reported. In response to the possibility of sensitive information being revealed to the enemy, commanders placed severe restrictions on reporters.
This tight restriction on the media continued in World War I, but changed in World War II as the government and military shifted to trying to control the media message to report pro-military news. The media accepted this censorship in return for access through the Korean War.
But the Vietnam War strained the relationship again, and the media was unwilling to simply report what the military wanted. The relationship had been somewhat repaired by the early 21st century, and in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), the military and media made a conscious effort to work together to get important stories back to the American public. As in previous wars, embedding reporters with military units allowed the media access to front line soldiers and lent the news a level of authenticity with the audience while allowing the military to control the media’s movement on the battlefield.
Embedding reporters can be challenging, though. As a battery commander in the initial combat phase of OIF, my battery was assigned a female reporter and a male cameraman from wire service. I was concerned because there were no other women in my unit, and we were unprepared for her to travel with us. The reporter also had significant dietary restrictions—a definite challenge when we were living out of our vehicles and eating nothing but Meals Ready to Eat (MREs).
When my battery took casualties in early April and the cameraman broke his arm, both decided to leave on the medical evacuation vehicles. There was clear value in having members of the media embedded with units, but better planning and understanding on both sides about needs and expectations could have improved the situation.
Another area of risk is the role of technology changing the character of war. Technology is constantly evolving, and technological advances in communications technology dramatically reduced the amount of time between an event and when the media’s first reports of it reach the public. Adversaries may use this information and try to target the media’s desire for early and quick reporting to erode public support for the war.
Both the military and the media must take extreme care to ensure accurate reporting. There are times, too, when the military’s interest in limiting information flows or embargoing information works against the media’s interest in rapid coverage.
Risk and Reward
The media’s coverage of military and national security issues is a double-edged sword, but one that should be wielded carefully. The media can reach millions of viewers both in America and around the world. The military can take advantage of this reach and work with their media partners to inform the public about the military’s mission and national interests. The military can provide published information, press releases, briefings and videos to spread a positive message. The military can also use media coverage to help provide context and expertise for images and soundbites.
But powerful media influence can also be used against the military and United States government. American adversaries are gaining proficiency at spreading false reports and misleading information to erode public support for the military and to even recruit new adversaries against the United States. Media reports may also place the military in an unfavorable light (recall the Rolling Stone article about General Stanley McChrystal) which can build fear and distrust among the military to share information with the media.
The military and media cannot afford to have a bad relationship. If the military refuses to work with the media, then stories and events about military units and American national interests will not reach the public. If the public is in the dark, the military risks losing popular support for their efforts. If the media refuses to work with the military, then they run the risk of being blocked from entering war zones and reporting on the events that the public want to learn about. American citizens deserve a healthy military-media relationship.
It’s on the Military to Fix its Relationship with the Media
Amanda Cronkhite is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of National Security and Strategy at the U.S. Army War College.
The media and military must have a good working relationship because the military is subservient to civilian elected government, and the media is how most citizens find out about military activities. From the basic perspective of democratic theory, the military should want the public’s buy-in on its actions. But there is skepticism on both sides: the military doesn’t trust the media and vice versa. Ultimately, however, the onus is on the military to fix the relationship.
No Military Likes the Press, but all Need it
The US military’s distaste for the press goes back to George Washington, who derided royalist press for not being patriotic and pro-independent news for giving away military secrets to the British. And this tension is not limited to the United States. In the world’s largest democracy, India, a blogger recently complained: “The media no longer just reports an event. It acts as the judge, jury and executioner, investigating every aspect of disturbance through the superficial prism of law creating more nuisance for the forces,” and called reporters “impatient and intrusive” in seeking exclusives.
Some of the military’s distrust of the media stems from incidents of embedded journalists’ breaking operational security (OPSEC) protocols. Media portrayals of military personnel lacking nuance also do not help. Cover-ups of missteps in the relationship, such as a Marine dying because a photojournalist wanted a better picture, while rare, have also damaged military trust of media. And unfortunately in 2019, political higher-ups further fuel generalized disdain of the media. President Trump, for example, said something in the news was fake over 400 times in 2017, for an average of more than once per day. in other words, at least once per day, in 2017.
But this military skepticism of the press flies in the face of decades of political science research that shows that news organizations largely follow politicians’ and other elites’ official accounts of matters. This is particularly true on foreign policy. In fact, media scholars even criticize the practice of embedding journalists with troops and other organizations because it may actually limit journalists’ ability to investigate or criticize those organizations, presumably resulting in more positive stories than critical ones.
Embedded reporters may be too close to the story and miss important competing perspectives. In the 2003 Iraq War, for example, one report concluded that civilian deaths were acknowledged in half the articles by Baghdad-stationed reporters, 30 percent of articles by independent reporters, but only 12 percent of articles by embedded reporters. Military fears that the media are overly harsh on the military are inaccurate. In fact, the military has outsized influence over media coverage of it, especially in the past 15 years. But the distrust continues.
Different Backgrounds and Values
The different realities of military personnel and journalists makes it hard for them to understand or empathize with each other. Both work in the public interest, but the people who self-select into journalism are very different than the people who self-select into the military, as evidenced by demographics and surveys. And neither accurately reflects the American populace as a whole. The differences routed in this self-sorting is further compounded by the very different expected work speeds within the two professions:
“Get it first, but first get it right.” –Journalism mantra
“Never believe a first report.” – Military mantra
Other cultural differences abound. The military culturally works to plan for a war 30 years in the future. News is almost definitionally about the immediate past or near future. The military rewards secrecy and planning. Reporters value freedom of information and hate to be scooped.
So historical distrust combined with the realities of the 24/7 news cycle might explain the state of the military-media relationship in 2019. But it remains imperative to fix it, and most of the work is on the military side. Senior military leaders and their staffs need to better understand journalism as a profession.
When rushing to meet a deadline and not wanting to run afoul of libel laws, it is much more expedient for journalists and media outlets to report who, what, when and where than to report how or why. The how and why are much tougher to explain. Instead of lamenting supposedly bad coverage, military personnel would benefit from increased training in how to help journalists break down highly complex issues into digestible news stories for a public that does not know much about the military.
A former military officer now teaching in Professional Military Education (PME) has argued for widely expanded military transparency, whilst concurrently encouraging journalists to draw their own conclusions, not spoon-feeding them artificial events. This approach means fewer dog-and-pony-shows showcasing the military’s toys and more answering tough questions.
Most people will never meet a high-level politician, much less have a substantive policy conversation with him or her. And membership in the military is increasingly limited to the children of soldiers, making it less likely that someone outside that group might know any military member well.
For that reason, the media is an essential conduit between the military and the public, and I fear the military does not value the media’s role in that relationship enough. Distancing itself from the media—as the Pentagon did when it went more than one year without on-camera press briefings before finally holding a presser in September 2019—hurts the military and the public more than it hurts the media. The military needs to address that.
The Military Should not Trust the Media
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, USAWC’s Resident Devil’s Advocate
During the 1991 Gulf War, The Nation and other media entities brought suit against the military for restricting their First Amendment access. In the so-called televised war, the media wanted more access than press pools allowed. And the media argued that granting access to the military only to friendly entities constituted viewpoint discrimination, which would be a serious First Amendment violation.
Think about that: not only did the American media want more access to the military than it was already being given, but it wanted anti-American or anti-military outlets to be given expanded (unlimited?) access as well. That’s not just a big ask. It’s downright moronic.
The job of the military is to protect the nation. That sometimes—often, even—requires secrecy. National security professionals are accustomed to debating and disagreeing in private but sticking to the official line in public. Journalists often try to make public what the government, companies or other entities want to keep private. That tension means the military and the media disagree and distrust each other.
The Rolling Stone Problem
Ask any military officer ranked above major what s/he thinks about the media and odds are they’ll bring up “The Runaway General.” The 2010 profile of General Stanley McChrystal led to his removal from command. He and his officers thought they were talking in confidence. The magazine stood by its story, arguing it had not included material that was clearly “off the record.” That incident highlights the cultural paradox about these two institutions: is the default setting secrecy or is the default that anything said is fair game?
But Rolling Stone is just one recent example of the military and the media not getting along. William Tecumseh Sherman, the famous United States Army Civil War general, “hated” reporters, even saying, “If I had my choice, I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast.” Even US presidents, including George Washington himself, were leery and critical of the media. In both Sherman’s and Washington’s cases, the media’s inability to keep a secret—and the possibility of the enemy learning plans via the media—angered the generals.
Different Goals & Cultures
That fundamental difference in perspective about secrecy is the heart of the problem, but not the only one. Journalists and military personnel also have very different personalities. One reporter with embedding experience said that journalists had more in common with diplomats than with military personnel: “It is not in their natures for the military and the media to be entirely comfortable with each other. The disciplines are too disparate. The military requires subservience of the individual to the needs of the group, while the media prize independent initiative above all else.”
The military is also quite diverse, while journalism is not. In fact, journalism is less diverse than the US population as a whole and has been for decades. (For example, African Americans make up less than five percent of working journalists.) How can we in the military expect white, largely urban reporters with no combat experience to accurately portray us?
Further, even if the military and the media were to work past their differing views on secrecy and hierarchy and get past their different cultures and worldviews, their goals are unlikely to ever align in the future. The RAND Corporation wrote in 2009 that the military’s goals are (1) not allowing coverage to compromise national security, (2) to fulfill the minimum legal obligation it had to allow press coverage, (3) to obtain good public relations, (4) to build military credibility, and (5) to support information operations.
The media’s goals are completely different: (1) to gain access while (2) maintaining reporter security, (3) to fulfill the public’s right to know what the military does, (4) to build market share, (5) to maintain quality journalism, and (6) to build its credibility. How does the military build its credibility at the same time as journalists’ building theirs? What increases market share for the media—scandal, for example—might hurt the credibility and standing of the military.
So is the media the enemy of the people? I can’t speak to that, but perhaps the media is the enemy of the military. Many military personnel rightly worry that journalists will publish anything to get page clicks, regardless of whether it breaches security, undermines public support for military missions, or even causes casualties, as happened with Wikileaks. As long as a story about a hospital accidentally being bombed is more likely to be covered than a story about the military building a hospital, the military is right to be wary of the press.
The US Military and the Media Need to Work Together
Steven Tofte is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College resident class of 2019.
The U.S. military has a friend in the media. In its role as honest-broker and watchdog, the American media has been responsible, fair and decent in its coverage and treatment of the U.S. military over the last three decades. Likewise, in its role as steward of the nation’s blood and treasure in wartime, for the last eighteen years America’s military has made itself available, open and inviting to media coverage and questioning. This relationship is a critical one in a democratic society.
Neither side should abuse or manipulate the other or take for granted the trust the American public has placed in them. This level of mutual respect is not a given, as evident by the relationship the media and military maintain in other parts of the world. In the United States, the media-military two-way street must be paved with transparency, credibility and trust.
Within American society broadly, the idea of censorship is no more. It has been replaced by transparency. Unlike the World War II era, where censoring of military information was commonplace, the military no longer operates in an opaque information space. Modern technology has made this impossible.
Camera phones and social media necessitate the military be proactive about public information and be willing to divulge information. Once able to easily keep information deemed “undesirable” or a “security risk” away from public consumption, technology has forced military leaders, both civilian and uniformed, to work with media as opposed against it.
Working with media in a transparent and forthright manner has enabled military leadership to stay in the driver’s seat on a number of issues in recent years, such as with the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and in covering the Kosovo Conflict, as opposed to being forced in the back and becoming an unwilling passenger, as was the case in the 1960s with the Mai Lai Massacre. Proactive transparency, whenever possible, must become the central ethos for military professionals.
Alongside transparency as a key ethos is credibility. Both parties must be credible – to each other and to the public. When the public loses faith in the credibility of reporters (think Brian Williams of NBC news) or military leaders (think General David Petraeus), everyone loses. A loss of credibility on either side can cause significant damage to the institutions they represent and to the relationship between the two.
Take the case of Williams. The news anchor suffered personal disgrace, but it also affected NBC News, which suffered low ratings and had to regain its credibility with the American public. When Petraeus was exposed, it brought undesired light on not only himself, but brought unwanted questioning of how the military conducts its internal business and about the personal conduct of senior officers.
To prioritize transparency and build credibility, the final foundational requirement in the media-military relationship in a democracy is trust. In times of war, especially, the military trusting that the media will protect sensitive information such as troop levels, locations and movements, is critical to the free flow of information demanded by the American republic.
Likewise, the media trusting that the Pentagon, and its officials, will be truthful in their assessments of actions, activities and operations is extremely crucial in maintaining the necessary support of the people. The media and the military are both accountable to the public and serve the public interest. The public is best served by a media-military relationship based on transparency, credibility, and trust.
Edgar Arroyo is a colonel in the U.S. Army and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College resident class of 2019.
States, governments and policymakers must secure legitimacy to use military power to achieve national strategic objectives. Embedding reporters with military units has been viewed as one way for reporters and the military to establish credibility and legitimacy in reporting military news to the public, but it brings with it several important challenges.
Embedding journalists with soldiers may degrade reporters’ ability to provide independent information and may actually lead to degrading the military’s legitimacy in future conflicts. Second, inhospitable conditions of combat and reporters living in close quarters with service members can further challenge journalists’ impartiality.
In one review of the conflict in Iraq, media experts expressed concerns with censorship and the fact that proximity to troops taints journalist’s objectivity. Further, declining support for the press suggests that the most reliable work done by journalists comes from working independently on stories and not from embedded reporting.
To maintain legitimacy, the military should take two critical steps with regard to the media. First, it should eliminate as many controls on the media as possible without compromising operational security. Second, it should increase access and, in some cases, provide security, to ensure stories are captured from all angles of a war.
A survey of reporters in Iraq suggested there were instances of the military placing restrictions on embedded reporters. The report further substantiated that the military tried and, in some cases, successfully spun the stories to just the positive news. Journalists said that they respected imposed restrictions on information for fear of being stonewalled or otherwise banned by military sources.
Eliminating controls not directly related to maintaining operational security would allow reporters to present the stories of war to media consumers who are physically distant from the war. Realistic stories would allow citizens to fully evaluate a conflict’s legitimacy. Independent reporting enables citizens to hold the government and military accountable.
Journalists were also concerned about the military’s lack of openness when dealing with the media by staging events or restricting interviews. For example, in operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, the media had no access to military engagements, which meant coverage lacked context. Stories without sufficient facts and contexts do a disservice to the American public.
Further, when the DOD controls access, parts of stories may be left out. For example, many US media stories lacked an Iraqi perspective and data on civilian casualties. What if, instead, the military were to facilitate access to reporting on these perspectives and stories? Facilitating access for a journalist to reach civilian perspective in war-torn countries, or even access to insurgents or enemy combatants may be challenging, but it would bolster the media-military relationship.
Stories that include these other perspectives would allow readers to draw their own conclusions about the legitimacy of the conflict whether they want to support it or not. Presenting a greater variety of perspectives (for example more from Iraqi civilians) and stories might add another dimension to public discourse about the military and, therefore, also contribute to legitimacy.
The military views the containment of the media as a requirement for force protection and information security. Commanders on the ground have historically restricted the media in many ways but eliminating or reducing controls and increasing access to the media bolster legitimacy, present the reality of war for citizens to hold policymakers accountable, and improve the military-media relationship. This new approach might be counter intuitive, but it could help synergize the information and military instruments of national power.
Critical Media Coverage, Policy, and the Human Connection
Carl Hennemann is a colonel in the U.S. Army and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College resident class of 2019.
How does the press treat the military? The answer might depend on whether you’re talking about the media’s treatment of the military as an institution or its treatment of men and women who serve in uniform. This distinction matters as we assess the apparent recent deterioration in the relationship between the media and the military and consider how to mend it.
The damage to the institutional relationship began in earnest with the Rolling Stone article about General Stanley McChrystal’s staff’s discontent with the Obama administration. Then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates responded by placing additional restrictions on senior leader media engagements. Military personnel have also been shown to self-censor significantly, and it feels like that tendency has increased in the age of policy-by-Tweet, with even Army-commissioned studies being deemed too controversial to publish once finished. Although the relationship has suffered it can be salvaged through more emphasis on other aspects of the media-military relationship that promotes access through human connections.
While high-level media-military relationships appear strained, at lower levels a productive relationship remains in place as close relationships are formed. One key aspect of the media-military relationship is the bonding aspect or psychological condition of becoming part of a tribe. As the New York Times military correspondent, Helene Cooper, explains:
“I love checking out all the toys the American military has. I’ve flown for hours in the co-pilot seat of a B-1 bomber…I’ve done the catapult takeoff and abrupt landing on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf. I’ve been in Apache, Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters over Baghdad, Kabul and the DMZ, on the border of North and South Korea. I’ve been on an American naval destroyer in the South China Sea while it was being shadowed by the Chinese. That part of the job is just pure fun.”
NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman points out that reporters actively build human connections with those in the military to gain access, and therefore, more background on a story. He explains that connections encourage empathy from both sides and cultivate a willingness to share more information. Bowman suggests that he likes to “sit around a camp fire with soldiers, sharing cigars, chips and dips, as a way to build trust, find connections and overcome suspicions of the press.”
This cozy relationship comes at a cost, though, as some claim embedded reporters are too close to their sources and are effectively producing propaganda. But when possible, the military should grant wide access to journalists to cover stories that will increase insight and transparency into the military.
The military has already made some moves in this direction, prioritizing access rather than constraining media coverage under the guise of safety, or operational security. The military’s media strategy has evolved from one of controlling access through contained press pools to one that allows journalists access to high-ranking officers. Sociologist Paul Joseph argued that shifting to more human stories versus coverage of policy has been a successful strategy for the Pentagon. With this in mind, military leaders should also grant access to human interest stories that intersect with policy coverage.
If there are benefits to coverage of positive stories, such as stories showing a coalition nurse treating a small Venezuelan child on the hospital ship USNS Comfort, then must the military also allow access for more critical stories? Yes. The military must grant access to reporters covering negative stories as well.
The media and the military have grown to understand each other’s role through human connections that are mutually beneficial to both parties. Emphasizing these connections will allow them to develop an approach that improves the relationship despite the recent challenges.
The Military and the Media: It’s Complicated
Steve Yarber is a chaplain and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and a graduate of the U.S. Army War College resident class of 2019.
The relationship between the military and the press is complicated and based on competing interests, although both center on the idea of providing a public good. The media serves the public’s need to know and the military protects the public interest. But this tension sometimes means the military and the media’s relationship is one of fractured wariness. Neither side fully trusts the other but each must find ways to coexist.
The military and the media have trust issues learned over the years. The American war in Vietnam was particularly trying. The Pentagon Papers are emblematic of this breach. Journalists published information about American involvement in Vietnam, going back to the Truman administration, that the government deemed classified.
The Pentagon Papers’ revelation added fuel to the growing anti-war movement and increased pressure on the Nixon administration to end the war in Vietnam. The media felt an obligation to inform the American public about what it understood to be lies and malfeasance. The military felt the publication endangered national security and military and government secrets.
At tactical and operational levels as well, the military sometimes believed the media framed stories incorrectly. For example, the military bristled at the Morley Safer report on the burning of Cam Ne. The military claimed Safer’s story lacked context, that the village had a history as refuge for Viet Cong. Safer, though, reported what he saw, which seemed to be violation of American values by Marines for no good reason.
The resulting story damaged American public perception of the military at home and reinforced the idea that the military was out of control. CBS reached out to the White House and the Pentagon for comment, but, according to Safer, the government merely denied the report despite the existence of film. The government missed an opportunity to provide context to the report, resulting in mutual mistrust.
Healthy relationships require two-way communication. Following the Cam Ne coverage, effective communication could have provided background and enhanced the reporter’s understanding of what he might see as he accompanied Marines on patrol. Perhaps the reporter was right to be concerned—the question (in this case) is not whether or not burning the village was a good tactic, but rather the implications of poor communication and understanding.
The report damaged the military’s reputation. The military’s urge to deflect and restrict access information undermined any defense it might offer. The press then complains of censorship and demands access be restored. The result is a vicious cycle in which each side accuses the other of unfair practices.
The press values transparency and independence. Journalists believe they can accurately frame events without the military or government’s help. Freedom of the press is the media’s primary concern. The military, on the other hand, wants to frame stories to cast itself in the best light possible and to protect information it believes might be harmful to the nation if released. Neither side is motivated by animus, and both have legitimate concerns.
So what is the solution? The military and the press need a healthy, balanced relationship. Freedom of the press and democracy work best when the two entities work in concert with each other. How do they learn to trust each other and communicate in mutually beneficial ways? How can two entities which seemingly have nothing in common learn to work together?
Embedding reporters may be one fruitful approach, provided the journalist and the unit attempt to understand the role of the other. The embedded journalist has been sent to the unit by the editor with a purpose in mind. Most news entities in the United States are subject to the market. Research shows that people are more likely to watch flashy, easy-to-understand stories, which makes those also more likely to be produced by media personnel. That dynamic does not lend itself to telling complex narratives; but rather toward human interest stories and other kinds of soft news.
The embedded reporter must, in turn, understand the unit’s mission. There should be a balance between the public’s right to know and legitimate national security concerns, but embedding may give journalists the best opportunity to understand this delicate balance. Embedding reporters is not a silver bullet, but a more robust program could go a long way in bridging the gap in understanding by enhancing trust and communication.
The military could enhance communication and trust by being as transparent as legitimate national security interests will allow. The media could enhance their standing with the military by being honest about their intentions and working with the government to keep legitimate national security information secret.
The press and the military are in a relationship whether they want to be or not. The American public deserves a free press and a strong, accountable military. They must coexist.
(This article was first published in the ‘War Room – U.S. Army War College' and has been reproduced with due permission from the original publisher. The views expressed in this article are those of the contributor's and do not neccessarily reflect the editorial views of Mission Victory India.)
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