Embedded Journalism from Iraq to Gaza

To what extent is it compatible with journalistic values to go to a war zone with the armed forces of one of the parties, and without being able to go beyond the rules set by it?

A new “adjustment” in the relationship between the governments and the media during wartime would result as the public being informed on television by influential reporters about the war crimes committed during the Vietnam War and the fact that the war was lost, which had been kept a secret. For a long time  Having suffered from freely moving journalists in Vietnam, the US officials developed the practice of “embedded journalism” for their subsequent wars. If the media, starved for images and content, wanted to cover the war, they would be given these on frontline visits organised by the military, as requested by the authorities. Reporters, who often had no idea about the social structure and history of the region they travelled to and had no contact with the local population, could get the military show they needed, and broadcasters, who were afraid of offending the ruling elite, could get the content that would increase their ratings and meet the audience’s expectation of drama. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, hundreds of journalists were first trained and then attached to army units. They were subject to severe restrictions. According to this approach, the media could no longer be a threat to elites in war, but could be transformed into a propaganda apparatus. The embedded journalists had precisely this effect in the Iraq war, reporting only on the swift victory of the US and coalition forces and going home as the country was plunged into darkness from which it could not emerge for years.

Gaza closed to the world media

Embedded journalism can be defined simply as reporting in a war zone in coordination with an army or an armed force, while working within the limitations imposed by that armed force. And we have seen this much-discussed type of journalism in the war in Gaza. What distinguished this Gaza war from the previous ones  (in Gaza) was that Israel prevented journalists who wished to operate freely from accessing the war zone. In the south, Egypt took a similar stance, so that journalists other than the handful of international media members already in the region – even during the first ceasefire – could not enter Gaza on their own means. However, Israel, which since the beginning of the war has waged an intensive propaganda campaign through all possible channels, has offered journalists an experience that has always been the subject of controversy: Embedded journalism. First of all, of course, this was not an invitation that went to everyone. Moreover, not every media organisation that was offered the opportunity accepted it (for example, until this article was published, no media organisation from Turkey had agreed to enter Gaza in this way). It has been a matter of debate whether Israel, on the one hand, is waging a war in which more journalists have been killed than any other in recent history (according to the Organisation for the Protection of Journalists, 63 journalists and media workers had been killed as of 8 December), and on the other hand, whether it is using them for propaganda by inviting them into the area under its own supervision.

Does every embedded journalist report bad news?

The BBC’s veteran Middle East correspondent Jeremy Bowen – known for his in-depth analyses and more bold statements in his reporting than the BBC’s sometimes “timid” approach – was one of the reporters who entered Gaza embedded with the Israeli army. When criticised on social media for acting as the stenographer for the Israeli army, he replied “Nonsense. The question is what you do with the material and how you challenge the speakers they put up. It’s also important in the script to provide context. We had a choice – to stay out of Gaza or to accept some restrictions in return for access.”.  I have analysed the news packages of the four Western news organisations that went in to Gaza. The criticism of such an analysis is usually raised by saying that “TV News broadcasting is a holistic process ; sometimes with one news package balanced by a guest on the screen or another story telling the other side’s story”. However, in the age of social media, this traditional criticism becomes irrelevant when we consider that most news is consumed individually as trailers on social media platforms.

Firstly, there is a difference in approach between the US media and the British mainstream organisations. CNN’s Oren Liebermann’s report was about four minutes long, and the Palestinians only appeared for 10 seconds. Of course, embedded reporters were not given the opportunity to go and talk to Palestinians, but CNN, like other organisations, could have included footage of Palestinian journalists working under a huge threat in the war zone. CBS was a little more “generous” to the Palestinians than CNN, with 35 seconds of footage of Palestinian civilians in a nearly three-and-a-half minute report. There was even a brief voice of a man rebelling against the tragedy. It should be noted, however, that neither CNN nor BBC reporters asked any challenging or critical questions the Israeli officers in charge, who told them at length how the war should be read from the Israeli perspective.

Compared to these two examples the BBC and Channel 4 preferred to take a more “critical” stance. In a four-minute and 15-second report by Jeremy Bowen, the BBC devoted 21 seconds to Palestinian civilians, including an interview with a middle-aged woman. Although Bowen did not pose tough questions to Israeli military officials on the ground, he used the term “Israeli occupation of Gaza” in the text of the report, underlining the devastation he had witnessed. He concluded his report with the following words: “Even Israel’s closest allies are quizzy about this war’s human catastrophy”… The news package that pushed the limits of embedded journalism towards critical stance came from Secunder Kermani, a Channel 4 reporter from the British media. With his camera, Kermani was filming Palestinian civilians being forced to migrate from afar, men being detained naked, while asking the Israeli officer the question on many people’s minds: “You call thishumanitarian corridor, a lot of people watching see it as the forced displacement of a population subjected to brutal collective punishment.”. In the approximately six-minute report, one and a half minutes of footage and interviews with Palestinian journalists were used in the centre of the package, with more “hard-hitting” footage than CNN, CBS and BBC news packages: Bodies emerging from the rubble, wounded children, grieving parents… Kermani concluded his report by underlining the complexity of resolving the current problems by military means especially considering that this is the latest phase of the decades-long conflict with its deep-rooted Palestinian anger and resentment.

Embedded journalism is a practice that has been the focus of intense criticism, especially in academic circles. Preferring embedded journalism when you have other options in the field as a reporter, of course, means becoming a voluntary propagandist. However, those in the field know that especially in times of war and conflict, being attached to an armed force is sometimes the only option to reach the frontline. I myself travelled to the frontlines in different geographies as embedded to an armed force many times; it was not possible for me to reach there otherwise. However, many newsrooms have ethical reservations about being attached to a side accused of war crimes, and have political reservations about appearing alongside forces that their governments do not support. On the other hand, many newsroooms and journalists accept restrictions on access to the frontline and choose to embedded. The examples I have mentioned above show that reporters who are offered the same opportunities can produce news of quite different depth and quality from the same environment, depending on their experience, capacity and the editorial stance of their news centres. A categorical approach by saying that “embedded journalism is bad!” is to oversimplify the discussion. However, another question often asked here comes to mind: “Would you accept it if the other side came with a similar offer?”.

Can Ertuna,
Kisa Dalga,
10 December 2023

The publication was produced within the project “Competing Narratives” implemented by Media Initiatives Center and n-ost.

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