The in-depth study, conducted for the BBC by researchers in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, found that reporters embedded with military units were generally able to preserve their objectivity, but the practice raised serious causes for concern.
The findings are based on the most thorough analysis of the issue to date, which involved:
- Interviews with 37 key actors in the broadcast coverage, 27 of whom were reporters, editors and heads of news departments, and 10 of whom were key personnel with the Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon.
- An extensive analysis of the broadcast coverage during the war on TV and radio, with comparisons made to coverage in the US and on Al Jazeera.
- A series of focus group interviews with members of the public about the coverage.
Embeds or in beds?
The report paid special attention to the role of embedded reporters and its verdict is mixed. On the one hand, the research found no evidence to support the idea that embeds were necessarily "in bed" with the military or the US/British government in their reporting. While some experienced attempts to censor their reports, the journalists involved made efforts to protect their objectivity, and, on key issues, were demonstrably able to do so. Embedded reports were also often more reliable than reports from official military briefings.
The research does however, raise some serious concerns:
- Embeds were not able to show the grim side of war, and avoided images they knew would be too graphic or violent for British television.
- As a result, many viewers felt that the front-line footage provided by embeds was like watching a "war film" rather than capturing the reality of war. Many viewers wanted less of this kind of coverage, and more time looking at the wider issues - especially the attitude of the Iraqi people themselves.
- Both reporters and viewers strongly support the notion of independent reporting during war, and there are fears amongst journalists that US military strategy will make embedding the only safe option - a fear that interviews with the Pentagon tended to confirm.
Pro-war or anti-war?
British broadcasters were not guilty of the overt pro-war bias found on US TV networks. However, on certain key issues, broadcasters tended to assume what they had been told by the government was true. Nine out of 10 references to weapons of mass destruction during the war assumed that Iraq possessed them. While reporters on the ground found a very mixed response, broadcasters were twice as likely to show Iraqis enthusiastic about the invasion than as suspicious or hostile.
The report found that, overall, the BBC, like most other broadcasters, leaned towards pro-war assumptions. The least pro-war broadcaster was Channel 4.
While reporters involved in the coverage stressed the importance of attributing stories to military sources, some were aware that this did not always happen. Indeed, the research looked at four stories that turned out be untrue - the Scud attack on Kuwait, the Basra uprising, the Basra tank column and the fall of Umm Qasr - and found that nearly half the claims made on TV about these stories were not attributed, and only about 1 in 10 references questioned these claims.
"While rolling 24 news services were often blamed for the spread of unfounded claims, their record is no worse on this issue than the conventional bulletins," said Professor Justin Lewis, one of the leaders of the research team. The study suggests that Radio coverage had a better record on attribution - especially, interestingly, Radio 4's Today programme.
The report was prepared by a research team at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, and commissioned by the BBC. The research team was Professor Justin Lewis, Professor Terry Threadgold, Dr Rod Brookes, Nick Mosdell, Kirsten Brander, Dr Sadie Clifford, Ehab Bessaiso and Zahera Harb.
Professor Justin Lewis
School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies
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