In an event co-sponsored by the GW Office of Military and Veteran Student Services and the Media Student Community Council (MSCC), SMPA Distinguished Fellow and CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett moderated a panel discussion Wednesday on the subject of coverage of war in the media.
Panelists included Capt. (Ret.) James Graybeal, a former top military communications officer, Mitchell Bent, the president of GW Veterans, Dominic Amaral, a student veteran, and Professor Sean Aday, an SMPA professor and the director of GW’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication.
Garrett led the discussion regarding the relationship between journalists and the government when they are covering foreign wars. Bent elaborated on how the camera lens “thickens the fog” of getting to the true story. Unfortunately, according to Bent, the media only report on bad things and tend to ignore the positive aspects of the soldiers’ lives.
He mentioned specifically the “sensationalization” of the coverage of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who went on a rampage and killed 16 innocent Afghan civilians. Bent believes there should be more of an emphasis on the good things, like the soldiers who used their bodies to protect children during a firefight.
Amaral told of how embedded reporters are absolutely adored by soldiers. Speaking specifically of the reporter embedded in his platoon, “we enjoyed the guy’s company.”
He would also joke with his fellow soldiers, “check this out, he came to Baghdad and didn’t bring a gun!”
For Amaral, the journalists provided the soldiers with a “steady break from the routine norms” of war.
Amaral also explained to the audience a story regarding a reporter whose credentials were pulled for taking pictures after a car bomb wipes out a market. This, he believes, is not right. The American public, in his opinion, deserves to know what is happening during a war that they are funding with their taxpayer money.
Capt. Graybeal, as chief spokesperson for many military organizations, firmly believed that he had a “sacred obligation” to tell Americans how they are spending their tax dollars. His goal was “to provide transparency and to make sure they’re more informed voters”
Capt. Graybeal was also responsible for outlining a “comprehensive set of ground rules” of what journalists could report about. Many of the limitations were due to national security concerns. We “didn’t want to reveal inappropriate details to the enemy,” Capt. Graybeal said.
He also discussed the often completely different persona taken on by journalists on their Twitter and other social media accounts while covering foreign wars, and how 1stAmendment/freedom of speech issues always arose.
Prof. Sean Aday, who teaches the War in Media class in the School of Media and Public Affairs, explained his belief that war coverage is more often more “episodic,” and less “thematic.”
Aday also discussed the biases journalists have towards Americans, whether it’s only reporting on American casualties, or only trusting American sources for their reports.
He also explained how journalists are targets in war. “There’s no security that you’ll be respected by all sides.”
Overall, Prof. Aday believes that we, the American public, need the whole picture, which consists of reporting casualties, strategies, holding people accountable for decisions, among other aspects.
Major Garrett, who moderated the panel discussion, said that there are “tremendous pressures [war] reporters feel to distill” information. He also touched upon the physical training process journalists must go through before they are officially embedded.
Speaking of possible governmental limitations, Major said, “imagine – yes, you can be an embed, but you can’t use Twitter.” The social media limitations, he believes, are extremely relevant to the discussion over journalists’ rights as war reporters.
In a conversation that was slightly off-topic, Major Garrett criticized those in his profession for their “desire to be first” in breaking news stories. He specifically referenced the inaccurate reports of the name of the Sandy Hook shooter.
“I’d rather be second and right, then first and wrong.”