March 17, 2003

If you want to practice journalism with a difference, mimic the military.

Embed journalists everywhere. Embed them where people live, work, play, and pray.

Embed them in neighborhoods, urban areas, rural areas, corporations, nonprofits, hospitals, families, retirement communities, conservative centers and liberal lodges.

Embed them in familiar and unfamiliar places.

Think of it as a different way of approaching journalism. Use it to obtain a fresh perspective.

The U.S. military’s decision to embed journalists in combat units prompted me to think about the value of embedding reporters as a journalistic technique. Would it serve as a different reporting method for acquiring information? Could it improve access? Would it help journalists better understand the community?

I also began wondering about the implications it would have for journalists.

For the military and the press, it redefines the relationship. During the 1991 Gulf War, the military kept journalists away from the troops. Today, the media marches with them.

For the public, the approach opens a human window on a potential war. Civilians can read, hear and see scenes of frontline life. 

St. Petersburg Times staff writer Wes Allison joined the 101st Airborne as an embedded journalist just as the unit was departing for the Middle East. His dispatches offer glimpses of how life changed upon arriving in Kuwaithow the unit weathered sandstorms, how foreign troops play a role, and detailed the challenges of waiting without bullets

Through Allison’s reporting, I saw how life unfolded for these troops. You can also read Jules Crittenden’s account (on Poynter Online) of being an embedded journalist.

I also saw how the idea of “embedding” could raise some journalistic concerns.

It challenges a journalistic tradition that exhorts reporters to remain detached from those they cover. It threatens the idea of “objectivity,” — held by some in journalism, and some members of the public — which requires reporters not to have a stake or any feelings about who and what they cover. Embedding might move some journalists out of their comfort zone, especially those who prefer being on the outside looking in.

Reporters embedded in the combat units live with the troops. They eat the same food. They sleep in similar tents. They share some similar burdens. They become intimately familiar with their subjects.

Allison, whom I interviewed about his assignment with the 101st Airborne before he left St. Petersburg, said he saw his role as an embedded journalist as one of reflecting the reality experienced by the troops around him. He said he expected his stories to focus on the personal, ordinary, everyday events enjoyed or endured by those serving in that unit.

The idea of being “embedded” in military units almost sounds as if the journalists are “in bed” with them. But that’s not how the journalists involved feel. They see it as a chance to capture life as it is lived.

Embedding might move some journalists out of their comfort zone, especially those who prefer being on the outside looking in.Contrast that with the more conventional reporting about military action. In that kind of coverage, journalists might focus on the military institution, quote only high-ranking officers, explain strategy, reflect organizational thinking, spotlight mistakes, track unit movements, and report body counts.

In the embedded approach, they want to connect, not confront. Explain not eviscerate. Empathize not excoriate.

That’s when it hit me.

What if we expanded the idea of embedding journalists into other communities beyond the military? What would happen?

One thing that might happen is that journalists would become much more familiar with the communities in which they were embedded. They would seek out details that showed readers, listeners, viewers, and online users life like it is. They would craft stories in which the subjects would recognize themselves and the situations depicted.

Journalists embedded in various segments of the coverage area would live in similar housing. They would eat where their subjects ate. They would experience similar life burdens. They would acquire more intimate knowledge about the community by focusing on the personal, ordinary everyday events experienced by the people living there.

Contrast that with the more conventional approach that often focuses on institutions, quotes officials, uses mostly statistics, favors abstract issues, and highlights problems.

I’m not suggesting these journalists become advocates for those they cover. Nor that they abandon efforts to render an independent and impartial accounting of the communities in which they are embedded.  News organizations would still need other reporters, using other techniques, to help fulfill its watchdog role.

The fact is that news organizations already practice a limited form of embedded journalism when they occupy an office in a police station, or keep a desk available for work at city hall. So what I’m suggesting is not an entirely foreign idea.

What I am suggesting is that the idea of embedding journalists into civic units, as we are now doing in military units, reframes the way journalists gather information and tell their stories.

It may encourage them to become more inclusive of people who are different from them. It may push them to seek out people who might not receive coverage. It might help them fight their own bias and prejudices. All of this could lead to something we advocate at Poynter: doing the complete story.

Stephen Buckley, an assistant managing editor at the St. Petersburg Times, told me his newspaper talked about what it meant to have one of its reporters “embedded.”  The staff discussed the journalistic challenges involved. But he said that if something important happened in the Middle East and his newspaper didn’t have someone in a position to capture the human perspective, it would be a major loss.

“We’d be kicking ourselves,” he said.

All kinds of stories exist that we may not be reporting because we’re not embedded in more places. When those stories appear in competing news outlets, there could be many journalists out there kicking themselves.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
Aly Colón

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