To be or not be embedded, that’s the tough question reporters face

Soldiers guard journalists Dan Otieno, Laban Walloga, James Opiyo and John Allan Namu

Soldiers guard journalists Dan Otieno, Laban Walloga, James Opiyo and John Allan Namu upon their arrival at Kiunga after a week of embedment with Kenya Navy aboard maritime vessel ‘Umoja’ while covering the Kenyan war on Al Shabaab terrorists.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

It was during the height of the Azimio demonstrations. NTV Managing Editor Ben Kitili had an altercation with Nyali MP Mohammed Ali, a former TV investigative journalist.

Kitili was irritated by Ali’s tweet that the journalists attacked during the demonstrations by police on March 30 were embedded in Azimio.

He said the injured journalists were at fault because they were in a vehicle assigned to Azimio leader Raila Odinga’s media team.

The journalists included NTV cameraman Eric Isinta, who was badly injured. “The mistake the journalist did was to be embedded with politicians. The dangerous trend for journalists. They must choose to report facts or be Azimio gun for hire, which they are,” said Ali, popularly known as “Moha Jicho Pevu” because of his investigative stories before he joined politics in 2017.

The tweet infuriated Kitili and company. He fired back: “Mhesh, you are a letdown to this profession. You are a lawmaker yet you’re using technicalities to justify police deliberately attacking & maiming journalists?”

Kitili’s colleague Roselyne Obala also took on Ali. “If you were still in the newsroom I believe your arguments and scope of looking at issues could be different,” she said.

Another colleague, Raymond Mujuni said: “Even embedded reporters, reporters travelling in cars of politicians, media teams of politicians, should enjoy human rights!”

It’s not clear whether or not the journalists were truly embedded. But what’s embedded journalism, anyway? It’s a method journalists use to gather information by embedding themselves in a movement or organization.

To embed, according to the dictionary meaning, is to fix an object firmly and deeply inside a surrounding mass. Example: “The repairman removed a nail embedded in my punctured car tyre.”

Report from the battlefield

The word can also be used figuratively. Example: “Respect for the elderly is deeply embedded in our culture.” Hence “embedded journalism”, is when journalists are attached, for example, to invading troops in order to report from the battlefield. The term was in fact popularised during the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. American journalists travelled with the US troops in order to report the war from inside the battlefront.

The first truly embedded journalists in Kenya were the journalists who covered Operation Linda Nchi when Kenya Defence Forces invaded southern Somalia in 2011. A number of journalists from different media houses were embedded in the troops for months. Kenyans were informed about the battles by the embedded journalists.

The term is also applied in election coverage when journalists are attached to the campaigns of leading political parties or candidates. My colleague in Uganda, Charles Bichachi, says the Daily Nation sister paper, the Daily Monitor, attaches a reporter and photographer to every presidential candidate. He critically examines the practice in “Embedded journalists tell great stories—but only half the story!” (Daily Monitor, September 3, 2020).

Embedded journalism has pros and cons. Both parties have something to gain from being bedfellows. For the military embedding journalists means they can control what they report about the progress of the war.

For the journalist, being embedded means they will have access to information and opportunities for audiovisual journalism they could not otherwise have.

In embedded journalism, there are obvious risks of telling a one-sided story and the potential of using journalists to disseminate propaganda. At the same time, embedded journalism may be the only practical way of reporting a conflict and getting inside information. It’s a symbiotic relationship in which both parties benefit.

The negatives are not disputed. In embedded journalism, journalists can be used to disseminate propaganda or a particular point of view. In the military, journalists, as one journalist said, are “spoon-fed what the military gives them and they become mascots for the military”.

There is no doubt that, in embedded journalism, objectivity and unbiased reporting are likely to suffer. Journalists are less likely to give an accurate and fair representation of a conflict. Critics say, justifiably, that embedded journalists do in fact provide a limited or distorted view and become “cheerleaders and their own censors”.

But, at the same time, embedded journalism has become standard practice in reporting conflicts and presidential campaigns. Still, it’s important for journalists to recognise that embedded journalism is, as my Uganda colleague says, “a double-edged sword”. Journalists can lose their professional integrity and independence in the process.

The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected]. Call or text 0721989264