RAND Study of Embedding Reporters with U.S. Troops Concludes Effort in Iraq Was a Success

For Release

December 7, 2004

The Defense Department’s decision to embed journalists with U.S. troops invading Iraq in 2003 was a success for the military, the media, and the public, according to a new RAND Corporation study issued today.

“Allowing journalists to move with combat units appears to be the best solution to date at balancing the needs of three core constituencies—the press, the military, and the public,” said Christopher Paul, a RAND social scientist and lead author of the report.

The report also concluded that:

  • Embedding journalists with troops will be a model for the future. But the embedding program could create tensions between the press and the military in future combat operations if U.S. military forces should suffer serious setbacks or heavy casualties.
  • “Operational security in Iraq was generally intact and protected far more than it was violated” by embedded journalists. Fewer than a half-dozen reporters were pulled out of the field for security violations.
  • News media worries that reporters would become biased toward the troops in their assigned units proved unfounded, with surveys by journalism groups finding coverage by embedded reporters was “of reasonably high quality.”
  • While critics may have been justified in calling embedding “soda-straw journalism” because it provided small pictures of the greater war landscape, editors were able to piece together the pictures quite well to give fuller reports.
  • Moving reporters with combat units will continue to feed the trend toward constant live and unfiltered news on cable television, with all its shortcomings and confusion, and it is unclear if such live coverage best serves the public interest.
  • News organizations did not always send their most experienced reporters to the front, resulting in reporters with minimal understanding of the military having difficulty doing their jobs.

The International Security and Defense Policy Center within the RAND National Security Research Division produced the report. The division conducts research and analysis for the Defense Department, the Joint Staff, the Unified Commands, defense and intelligence agencies, allied foreign governments and foundations.

The report is based on a review and analysis of studies, contemporary news stories, and accounts by military officials and journalists of war reporting from World War II through the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. It is the first report to systematically evaluate the outcome of embedding journalists with troops. The study is titled: “Reporters on the Battlefield: The Embedded Press System in Historical Context.”

“The war in Iraq is unique in that it is the first recent conflict in which the military’s twin obligations of informing the public and granting adequate press access were both largely satisfied,” Paul said.

More than 2,200 reporters and camera crews from the United States and other nations covered the war on the ground and at sea. About 600 of these journalists participated in the embedding program. They lived, ate, moved, slept, and endured combat fire alongside the troops. Meanwhile, more than 1,400 so-called “unilaterals” chose to cover the war on their own.

Four embedded news people died during the major combat operations of the war, as well as nine journalists covering the war on their own.

The RAND report recommends that the Pentagon find ways to give credentials to the “unilateral” reporters so that troops recognize them as legitimate reporters and not as second-class journalists.

Embedding reporters with troops and allowing them wide access to fighting personnel may have marked a turning for the Pentagon away from its long-held post-Vietnam war mindset that encourages suspicion of the press, the report said.

The conduct of press-military relations during the Iraq war shows that “the Pentagon has finally overcome the knee-jerk distrust of news media coverage that has influenced so much of press-military relations since Vietnam,” Paul said.

Assisting Paul in the preparation of this report was James Kim, a graduate student at Columbia University and summer intern at RAND.

RAND’s National Defense Research Institute is a federally funded research and development center supported by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the unified commands and the defense agencies.

Printed copies of “Reporters on the Battlefield: The Embedded Press System in Historical Context,” (ISBN: 0-8330-3654-8) can be ordered from RAND’s Distribution Services (order@rand.org or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

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