Journalism in Iraq is Very, Very Dangerous

The Project for Excellence in Journalism has released the results of its survey of Western reporters working in Iraq, and — for those of us who have been there — its results are unsurprising. (Link contains PDF file.)

From a survey of 111 Western journalists who worked or are working in Iraq, almost two-thirds of the reporters said most or all of their street reporting was done by local citizens. Yet, 87 percent said it wasn’t safe for their local staffers to carry notebooks, cameras, IDs or anything else that identified them as journalists. And two-thirds said they worried that their reliance on local stringers would produce inaccurate reports. (The right-wing bloggers are going to have a field day with this one. Charges of hotel journalism will ring out again and accusations of working with al Qaeda will soon be heard.)

Some excerpts from the executive summary:

Above all, the journalists — most of them veteran war correspondents — describe conditions in Iraq as the most perilous they have ever encountered, and this above everything else is influencing the reporting. A majority of journalists surveyed (57%) report that at least one of their Iraqi staff had been killed or kidnapped in the last year alone — and many more are continually threatened. “Seven staffers killed since 2003, including three last July,” one bureau chief wrote with chilling brevity. “At least three have been kidnapped. All were freed.” …

“The dangers can’t be overstated,” one print journalist wrote. “It’s been an ambush — two staff killed, one wounded — various firefights, and our ‘home’ has been rocked and mortared (by accident, I’m pretty sure). It’s not fun; it’s not safe, but I go back because it needs to be told.”

Whatever the problems, a magazine reporter offered, “The press….have carried out the classic journalistic mission of bearing witness.”

“Welcome to the new world of journalism, boys and girls. This is where we lost our innocence. Security teams, body armor and armored cars will forever now be pushed in between journalism and stories,” one bureau chief declared.

I can attest to all these dangers. It was hell when I was there and the inability to tell the stories of Iraqis was one of the reasons I moved to Lebanon. (There’s less interest from editors back home in those stories anyway; 41 percent of respondents say editors have downplayed these kinds of stories.)

What’s going to drive some war opponents into rage, however, is the generally positive views of embedding the respondents hold.

More than eight-in ten journalists (85%) surveyed have embedded with U.S. troops. And most of them see the program as the best available way to report on the actions, both large and small, of U.S. troops. It also is often the only safe way to gain access to Iraqi civilians in cities and towns beyond Baghdad.

A majority of those surveyed (60%) tend to think embedding gives them access to places and people they could not otherwise reach. Only 5% say they see embedding as mostly helping the Pentagon control what is being reported. …

“There is no problem with embedded reporting, unless it is relied on as the primary source of info on Iraq,” wrote one bureau chief. “If used as it should be — to provide another layer of understanding of what’s going on there — it is a very useful tool. And we have to remember that not every embed will produce strong stories.”

Again, that was my experience with embedding. I found it useful but I had to bear in mind it wasn’t the whole story. It was the story of the U.S. military doing whatever it was they were doing at that time. Sometimes it was useful, other times it sucked. Such is war.

(Full disclosure: I participated in this survey, but none of the quotes are I’ve seen in the survey are based on my responses. Nor do I know who the other people are, but I can guess.)