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The Military-News Media Relationship: Thinking Forward

Authored by COL Charles W. Ricks, Dr. Rod Lyon, Prof. William T. Tow. | December 1993

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SUMMARY

Some of the more enduring images of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm involved soldiers in observation posts with forests of television cameras and still photographers packed tightly around their positions. In such situations, those troops couldn't even have seen the enemy, let alone report about him.There were also the news conferences with questions often shouted so loudly and randomly that they couldn't be distinguished, let alone answered. More recently, Marines landing in the darkness on the beaches near Mogadishu, Somalia, found themselves surrounded and illuminated by scores of journalists. And through it all have been the descriptions of conflict and bitterness, and journalists' charges of deliberate deception by the military.

Much work has been done to trace the origins of the persistent tension between the military and the news media. Often the research strives to outline the history of the relationship and seeks to identify similarities in institutional culture and purpose on which to base agreements to guide future contacts. Yet it seems inevitable that such schemes collapse in the first stressful stages of a crisis or conflict as they are inevitably artificial. This is because the military and the news media pursue very different objectives and often hold very different values.

This study seeks to move the discussion forward by acknowledging the diversity and examining those news media issues which will most affect commanders as they execute their assigned missions. It makes no pretense at providing a template for conducting successful media relations operations. However, it does identify various planning factors which should be considered as commanders prepare their public affairs' concepts of operation.

At the very least, commanders' concerns focus on their annoyance at the numbers of reporters, wariness over the news media's advanced technology and frustration at the lack of knowledge so many journalists display while covering the military. These reactions often cause commanders to distance themselves from reporters or attempt to control them while gathering the news in the hope that such supervision will reduce the risks of security violations and confusing news reports. The American experiences in Grenada (1983) and Desert Shield/Storm (1990-91) and the British actions in the Falkland Islands (1982) are often cited as models for learning coping strategies for dealing with the news media.

Yet those are not reliable precedents. In each case the journalists had to be imported because there was no significant news media presence indigenous to the areas of operation. It would seem that the experiences in Panama (1989) and, especially, Somalia (1992-93) are more useful models for understanding theevolving environment of news media coverage of military operations. History records that there were nine civilian war correspondents on the island of Tarawa in the South Pacific in 1943 and fewer than 30 on the invasion beaches of Normandy in 1944, but those figures are now only of passing interest. The 600 reporters in the entire Pacific Theater in World War II were nearly matched by the 500 journalists who quickly appeared on tiny Grenada and in Panama City, and clearly surpassed by the more than 1,500 who covered the Persian Gulf War and the disaster relief operations in Florida (1992).

There is no longer a question of whether the news media will cover military operations. Regardless of mission, they will inevitably be interested in the drama, uncertainty and emotion. As in Somalia, journalists will likely precede the force into the area of operation; and they will transmit images of events as they happen, perhaps from both sides of any conflict. Thus the commander's operational task is to develop a well resourced and responsive infrastructure to conduct news media relations. Failure to do so will not affect the scale of news media coverage; it will, however, limit the command's ability to communicate effectively and risk distorting the public's perception of the military's effectiveness. In the face of such challenges, efforts at control are meaningless.

Whereas once the military trained to fight outnumbered to win, today's news media environment has generated a new imperative: For every operation, commanders must also communicate outnumbered to succeed. While difficult to measure, that success is defined in terms of credibility with the news media and with the various American and international publics. Thus, mutual understanding and accommodation are more useful than evasion or angry confrontation.

Commanders can best prepare for their encounters with the news media by understanding the roles and capabilities of the journalists who cover military operations; accepting the inevitably and desirability of their access to the force; appreciating the importance of technology and its impact on operations security; identifying and providing the resources necessary for timely support for the media relations mission; and recognizing the necessity for appropriate education and training.

If ignored, each of these represents a potential flashpoint for future disagreements. If addressed comprehensively, they can form the basis for cooperation in the midst of what will inevitably be complex and confusing situations.