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Embedded Edits

Issue: 38 Section: Media Analysis Afghanistan Topics: Globe and Mail, media

July 3, 2006

Embedded Edits

Is news coverage of Afghanistan straight from the source?

by Dru Oja Jay

embedded_web.jpgA Canadian soldier in Afghanistan. There are many obstacles to accurate information from Afghanistan. photo: Combat Camera

Many stories and facts are left out of the media completely, making media criticism a straightforward affair. To establish that a publisher's or broadcaster's other priorities are affecting its ability to tell the truth, the critic simply has to point to stories that were ignored altogether and account for why truthful, accurate reporting would not have ignored them.

In some cases, evidence points to outright supression of certain facts that are undisputed and part of the public record. The use of taxpayers' money to fund organizations responsible for murder and human rights abuses in Haiti, for example, or the violent imposition of the band council system on Indigenous nations.

The case of Afghanistan is somewhat different.

To a certain extent, the information that undermines the official story of Canada's role in Kandahar and Kabul comes from the same sources that the official account itself relies on. That said, there are many factors that distort and chip away at this information on its way to viewers and readers in Canada.

A recent, fascinating article by the Globe and Mail's Geoffrey York illustrates this dynamic in two surprising ways. In June 3rd's "Dispatches From an Embedded Life," York writes about problems with having reporters "embedded" with Canadian troops--a public relations innovation Canada has borrowed from the Americans' successful media relations campaign during the Iraq invasion.

"Yes," York writes matter-of-factly, "there was censorship."

"Yes, there were heavy-handed attempts to control the story, to suppress photos, to spin messages and to deny reality."

A statement like this--along with York's explanation that "The Department of National Defence doesn't want the embedded reporters to write much about refugees, schools, health care or electricity--all the basic realities of life for Afghans"--calls into question much of the body of reporting from Canadian journalists assigned to Afghanistan.

Does York examine the implications of these incredible revelations from a journalist with first-hand experience of "censorship" by the Canadian forces?

No.

"But," York continues, a propos of nothing, "there is something endearingly Canadian about it all."

Because the "hard-working military spokesmen" York met "just couldn't manage the ruthlessness of a Pentagon media campaign," he concludes that the situation is, at least, "more complicated". And Globe reporters, he reassures the reader, are pushing the boundaries of their embedded condition to deliver a more complete story.

While it is tempting to indict York over such a bizarre seguë, to do so would stop where the story starts to get interesting.

Would the Globe's editors, one must ask, have accepted a story about censorship by Canadian Forces if it had not itself been covered in a carapace of Canadian nationalism?

Short of falling out with their employers and writing a tell-all memoir, journalists like York will likely never reveal the tension between what they see on the ground, what they write, and what actually gets printed. And there is tension.

Glimpses of the reporter-editor tension can be caught on the odd occasion.

Reporting from Afghanistan in 2001, for example, freelancer Ted Rall wrote of a veteran American war reporter who "as a test... fired off a thousand words about a 15,000-pound 'daisy cutter' bomb that had taken out an entire neighborhood in southeastern Kunduz."

"Hundreds of civilians lay scattered in bits of protoplasm amid the rubble," Rall wrote. "His editors killed the piece, calling it 'redundant.'"

For more than than the occasional glimpse of the discrepancy between the facts and the reporting, however, one must study the stories themselves.

A June 6 report by the Senlis group, for example, was hardly mentioned in the Canadian press. Geoffrey York's major story "Taliban Rising" took notice of it, but did not mention the report's main finding: that in some southern provinces, support for the Taliban is now as high as eighty per cent. A brief report by Globe report that appeared on the newspaper's web site but not in the print edition also omitted the figure but cited the Senlis group as one of two "competing theories" about the increase in Taliban activity. The National Post did publish an article that covered the report more thoroughly.

On June 29, the Senlis group released a report entitled "Canada in Kandahar: No peace to keep," which called Kandahar a "suicide mission" for Canada. The response from the Canadian media was swift. Without mentioning the title, a Canadian Press report provided a partial summary of the Senlis group's claims, followed by an extensive response by Defense Minister and former defense industry lobbyist Gordon O'Connor and top General Rick Hillier.

However, this was not enough for the Globe, which rewrote the Canadian Press article to include even fewer of the Senlis report's direct criticisms in time for the June 29 print edition.

The CanWest News Service, which is used by dozens of daily newspapers and television stations owned by CanWest Global went further, downplaying the substance of the report and highlighting Canada's aid efforts. The story was accompanied with a photo of Afghan children receiving Canadian-funded polio vaccinations.

Students of the media will often find that thorough reading can reveal a lot more information than in provided in most coverage. By reading source material and the subsequent revisions, through to what appears in actual newspapers, one can see the political process that determines the overall picture of reality that gets to those without the time to pore over the media.

As Geoffrey York managed to note, embedding journalists with troops might not result in the most complete coverage. What York didn't mention is the greater and enduring problem: that journalists are embedded with editors, owners and others who are constantly shaping and filtering messages before they reach the public.

Yves Engler contributed to this article

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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