In order to describe the relationship between the military and the media, Army Sgt. John Felton first had to explain his own experiences with the two. The Rutland area Army recruiter, who served in Iraq, described the relationship between the citizens of Fayetteville, N.C. and the soldiers stationed and training at Fort Bragg.
“Soldiers and civilians alike, they’re kinda just one,” he said of life in the military-dominated North Carolina city.
He then told students in professor David Blow’s News Media Ethics class last week about a reporter for the local newspaper in Fayetteville being embedded with his troop in Iraq. Being an embedded journalist means that you eat, interact, and sleep on the ground with the soldiers.
Felton’s team prepared for deployment knowing the reporter was coming too.
“He trained with us as. This is how we’re going to react as a team if we come under attack,” he said.
The reporter was working on hometown-type stories about the lives of those in Felton’s unit during war. To Felton, the training the reporter went through made him understand that war is the most important thing and he knew not get in the way of a mission. Felton said he also had contact with larger news media outlets, including CNN, although the calls it “sporadic interaction.”
“They were usually the ones we had problems with,” said Felton, adding that their fight for ratings and to beat competitors led to bad decisions sometimes. “Bullets are flying guy, things are blowing up. You’re probably not in the right spot.”
Felton also made it clear that while safety for the journalist is important, it isn’t as important to soldiers and the safety of fellow soldiers.
“We’re going to protect them if we can, but if it comes down to a reporter on my left and a soldier on my right, I’m gonna protect my soldier,” said Felton.
For seven months after the war began, Felton had a reporter embedded with him. Then, everything seemed to shift. The media was no longer allowed to travel with units in Iraq as the United States realized things weren’t going quite as planned.
“We kicked the media out. It’s about to get real, and it’s about to get really dangerous,” he said.
Reporters went from being patriotic and telling stories of “God Bless America” to reporting death and carnage, and Felton said he believes it was because they were no longer embedded.
Students asked Felton about censorship of war coverage. He said the local reporter was asked to submit stories before sending them home, but the only censoring done was asking the reporter to pull stuff out fearing it painted a better picture of an incident than what actually occurred.
He explained that one positive in embedding is that the reporter and soldiers gain a connection, heightening the level of trust between the two. This can also be negative. Some believe this inhibits what the reporter will write if in confronted with contrioversy involving the solidiers. When asked if the embedded reporter could write a story about something that went wrong during a mission, Felton had to pause.
“Could he have written it? Yes. Would he have written it? (pause) Personally, no. I don’t think he would have,” he said.
In closing, Felton encouraged hopeful journalists to join the military saying there are a variety of media opportunities in the service. But at the same time, he cautioned that war left a mark on his life, and he shares that too with the people he visits.
“This shit’s real. This is a real place. These are real bullets. You can die here,” he said.