Embedded Journalists Report Their Experiences
A UA journalism study looks at how embedded reporters perceive how they covered the Iraq War.

By Jeff Harrison, University Communications
Nov. 10, 2011

As the vast majority of remaining U.S. military forces are scheduled to withdraw from Iraq by mid-December, the intense intellectual fight engaged by political observers and journalists themselves continues: Did the embed system, in which journalists were assigned to military units before and during the occupation of Iraq, serve the media and ultimately the public's interest? How well did the reporters perform while embedded?

In a study published in the recent issue of International Communication Gazette, Shahira Fahmy, an associate professor in the University of Arizona School of Journalism, examined how well embedded reporters perceived they covered the Iraq War and whether those attitudes have changed over time.

Fahmy and Thomas J. Johnson, the Amon G. Carter Jr. Centennial Professor at the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, Austin, conducted two online surveys of embedded journalists to determine how well they perceived how they covered the war and whether those attitudes have changed as the mission evolved from invading to occupying Iraq.

Fahmy and Johnson found that while embeds largely recognized problems with the embedding process, they continued to judge their overall performance as positively in 2005-06 as they did in 2004. They also reported that experiences of embedded and non-embedded, or unilateral, journalists were extremely useful.

"We found that despite changes in the nature of the war and public opinion toward it, embedded journalists continued to judge their overall performance positively during the occupation stage," Fahmy said.

"They also explained virtues of covering the war as embedded and non-embedded journalists. Embedded journalists could see only a tiny slice of the war, but had a very real feel for that slice.

"When the journalists were not embedded, they could have a greater understanding of the ‘big picture' and of Iraqi concerns," she said.

Over time, as the nature of the war changed from trying to dethrone Saddam Hussein to an occupation stage where the troops tried to maintain a fragile peace, so did the nature of the embedded reporting, Fahmy said.

The number of embeds dropped dramatically after the fall of Baghdad, as most news organizations decided it was too costly and too dangerous to send their reporters to Iraq.

"One journalist explained that before the end of military combat, he felt like a 'casual observer' – he could walk untouched outside the violence," Fahmy said.

"Then, slowly, after the 'end of major combat,' he became the target, along with anyone else who looked Western. When he was with the Americans, he said it was like riding around with a huge target on his back."

The embed process was a top issue on the Bush administration's agenda and continues to be a contentious issue during the Obama administration, noted Fahmy. 

Coverage of the Iraq War has been far more extensive than previous wars. Fahmy believes other studies should continue to investigate whether news professionals will continue to hold the same views in the context of other current conflicts such as the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the revolutions in several countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

Fahmy's research examines how journalists portray conflicts and war. She teaches research methods, media and terrorism and other courses in the UA School of Journalism.

Extra info

The study: Fahmy, S. & Johnson, T. (2011). Invasion vs. Occupation: A trend analysis of how embeds assess influences & performance in covering the Iraq War. International Communication Gazette, 73. Ε


Resources for the media

Shahira Fahmy

UA School of Journalism