Mistakes and reporting

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In 2008, Randy Brown was told to prepare for deployment to Afghanistan.

As a member of the 2nd Brigade, 34th Infantry of the Iowa Army National Guard, Brown was one of 3,000, the largest deployment of National Guard soldiers from Iowa since 2002. Days before he was ready to ship out, after almost two years of training, Brown learned that because of his mandatory retirement date, he could no longer go.

Instead, he decided to visit his unit as a civilian-embed and become a reporter on the ground.

Brown is not alone. He is a part of a larger calling of soldiers who look to the field of journalism after a life in the military, either as a way to call attention to details in the war that many civilian reporters may get wrong, or simply to write as a way to make sense of their own work in the military.

As they report from the ground and bring their information to the public via books or blogs, they begin to slowly bridge a widening military-civilian gap.

 A lack of presence

Last year, the Pew Research Center reported less than 1 percent of Americans have ever been in uniform as a part of the active military, compared to World War II, when at least 9 percent of Americans were in service.

 George Harmon, a professor at the Medill School of Journalism and a veteran of the Vietnam War, said this may add to the public’s general ignorance of the war and the military. He cited the lack of veterans in Congress and many politicians in the public eye today, like Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney, who never served in the military.

“I’ve seen surveys that show that an enormous percentage of the population, no one in their family serves in the military, they don’t even know anybody that serves in the military, they’ve never even met anybody that serves in the military,” he said.

So when it comes to average-Joe reporters who need a proper understanding of the military in order to write about it, Harmon said they may fall short.

“The public makes mistakes on this stuff all the time,” he said about military reporters. “They should know better but they don’t.”

Nathan Webster, who was in the Army in the 1990’s and served as a civilian photojournalist in 2007, said this culture may have changed when the way people entered the military changed.

During World War II, Korea and Vietnam when individuals were drafted into the military, he said most people could assume they were going to know someone who was serving and anticipate having a close relationship to the war.

But with the advent of a volunteer-based military, he said it’s easy to view the military in a different light because of a lack of connection to it.

 Mistakes: the “wall” between the public and the military

 “Not just reporters, but the public in general lacks clear understanding of military structure,” says Maj. Brad Leighton, the public affairs director for the Illinois National Guard. “Ranks, units, the difference between a commissioned officer and a non-commissioned officer … it’s pretty confusing. Without some basis in the military, it’s hard to pick up that stuff.”

Other errors in reporting result from not understanding military jargon, Leighton says.

“When you’re talking to other military people, you use a lot of jargon and acronyms,” Leighton says. “I think journalists have to slow military people down and say, ‘You need to spell this out for me, because you don’t realize we’re not sharing the same lexicon.’”

For example, Leighton says a common mistake is quoting a military member with the title “specialist” when someone with a higher rank should have been contacted, he says.

“Quite honestly, (a specialist is) not a military authority. That’s a kid, shortly out of basic,” Leighton says.

 Killers or heroes?

Harmon says on an everyday basis, he doesn’t witness an actual mistrust that gets in the way of journalists’ work. He said compared to post-Vietnam, when both the media and the public lacked trust in either the government or the military fighting for them, “we’ve come 180 degrees.”

“Now there’s probably too much trust,” he said. “We’re seeing now that unemployment is much lower among veterans. Many years ago, they said we were killers, and now every one of us is a hero.”

Webster believes this change of heart also leads to misperceptions. Too much trust in the military, he said, also lends itself to inaccurate reporting.

“You get two types of coverage, ” Webster says. “You have super patriotic coverage because as a civilian reporter, you end up reporting from a position of, you don’t want to criticize them. They are soldiers and they are great and they’re heroic and that’s one side. You’re not critical enough, not critical in a bad way, just not critical.”

The volunteer-based military, he said, also causes civilians and reporters to tend toward a respectful view of military men and women.

“I think that after 9/11, when you had these multiple deployments shared by a small percentage of people, the average civilian … doesn’t want to put their patriotism on the line by criticizing people who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan four or five times each,” he says.

On the other hand, reporters may see active members of the military as people with whom the public should sympathize.

“The other side is that you’re too sympathetic, in a pitying sense,” he says. “You think, ‘Oh these poor lower class people who had no choice, they had to join the Army because of their difficult conditions or rough lives and society is taking advantage of them.'”

Webster cites the reason for the two extreme sides of reporting to the lack of civilian perspective on the military lifestyle.  

“Because I do have that military experience, when I reported about the guys I met in Iraq, I think the reason I was fairly successful and fairly honest about it was because I was empathetic not sympathetic.” he says. “Yeah, they were crying and whining and complaining, because that’s what 22-year-old soldiers do. They’re the biggest bitching, complaining crybabies you’ll ever meet. I know that because when I was 22 in the Army, I was a bitching, complaining cry baby. That’s a soldier. They bitch and moan and then they go do their job.”

He said the general public, or even civilian embeds, who may be surprised by their actions and immediately want to pity them, can perceive their complaints as a sign of “low morale.”

“No, morale isn’t low, it’s how guys are,” he said. “It’s 125 degrees in Iraq, no one’s waking up in the morning saying how happy they are to be there.”

 Breaking down the civilian-military barrier

Before Afghanistan, Brown had created an alter identity. In 2009, while in training for deployment, he started a blog under the pseudonym “Charlie Sherpa.” His blog, Red Bull Rising, was named after the 34th “Red Bull” Infantry Division.

At first, Brown, who worked in internal communication and networking, said it was a way to help him understand his job in the military.

He wanted to be able to use his blog as a way to do research.

“I was a writer at night, soldier by day,” he said. “Which was a useful tool. I was using it for a couple of reasons. One of them was to test how the Army would find somebody writing about them.”

In particular, Brown said his brigade commander had asked him about their social media and blogging policies. This was something that was of new interest to the military, he said, as they became concerned about information leakage and operational security.

Brown recalled an incident during training when there was a death in his unit.

“I knew more about the circumstances of the death than I wanted to know because of what was being published on Facebook by well meaning friends and family,” he said. “We could anticipate a parallel experience, what would happen if we were downrange in Afghanistan and someone got hurt and well meaning friends and family started talking about it before family was properly notified, before the military was able to get all of its who, what, where, why and how’s put together.”

Sgt. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, who served in the Marine Corps and was deployed in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2011, said he believes it is partially veterans’ responsibility to tell their own stories.

Gibbons-Neff  has contributed to The New York Times and Time Battleland, is now a sophomore studying English at Georgetown University and plans to become a writer full-time after graduation.

“I think the best way to rectify (misunderstanding about the military) is … as a veteran you can’t be introverted when it comes to your experiences,” Gibbons-Neff says. “It’s almost like recycling to a certain extent. If you don’t do it, maybe it’s no big deal. But if everyone does it, it’s a big deal.”

He says he thinks his generation of veterans in particular is uniquely positioned to tell their stories, with the proliferation of blogging and other social media available for use.

“It’s the individual’s responsibility to be a liaison from the service to the rest of the world,” he says. “The more our generation does that, the better off we’ll be in the long run.”

Gibbons-Neff uses some social media (he’s on Twitter, though he says he feels he isn’t very good at it), but points to others he says use it particularly well.  

C.J. Chivers, a retired Marine and full-time conflict journalist at The New York Times, has recently started a Pinterest page to which he adds photos of weaponry and other military items to explain what they are.

“That tells a very different underlying story that could not be told without social media,” Gibbons-Neff says. “I think when you look at conflict, that’s one aspect … what the rebels are using and the organization of different factions running around Syria.”

Gibbons-Neff says besides the benefit of being able to communicate and relay information in real time, social media may provide more detail. Yet, he says of course, active duty military could never provide coverage of their own deployment.

“Active duty military can get in a lot of trouble for that kind of stuff,” he says. “That’s terrible operational security.”

Brown said in 2006 and 2007, when military blogs emerged in high numbers, a lot of the bloggers who were still on active duty felt compelled to write to compensate for shortcomings in national media.

“The perception was that mainstream media wasn’t covering issues downrange,” he said. “There needed to be a first-person, unfiltered, unmediated reporting of some sort.”

Similar to his own experiences, Brown said many of those military bloggers came home and continued to blog, but with less immediacy. He said this also has to do with media outlets picking up the slack, using more blogging and social media tools in their coverage.

“The urge to pontificate about the way things are, based on my experience, is great,” he said. “So a lot of military blogs, or milblogs, have been gravitating more toward political commentary or policy commentary.”

Working alongside embeds

Both Leighton and Gibbons-Neff said they actually had mostly positive experiences with journalists who were embedded with them overseas.

Leighton says when he was serving in Iraq, he felt journalists there tried their best to get both sides of the story and “do an earnest job.” He says he mostly interacted

“When I was over in Iraq, most of the journalists over there tried to get both sides of the story and tried to do an earnest job,” Leighton says. “Those were reporters, too, who were more educated about the military, reporting on military operations every day.

However, there were occasionally some exceptions to that “earnest job” rule, he says.

“What you were combating was people on the street who really don’t have any grounding necessarily,” he says. “They grab an Iraqi off the street who would say we killed 50 women and children, for example. In the military we can’t just say that. We actually have to research it and look at, make an assessment and it takes a little time to get that for on-the-ground facts. You’ll find out it wasn’t 50 women and children. It was actually 10 and they were people who were shooting at us.”  

Gibbons-Neff called the journalists embedded with him in Afghanistan (who came from news organizations including the BBC, Reuters and The Washington Post) “an interesting bunch.”

“They’re like the people fighting and doing the shooting, except they’re kind of free agents,” Gibbons-Neff says. “They’re kind of free agents, but they have the same personality types. They’re in the job, they like the adrenaline rush. I’ve never met a reporter that comes in with an agenda.”

A sense of camaraderie between them went a long way, Gibbons-Neff says.

“The reporters I’ve worked with understood that in order to get what they wanted, which was a story or something unique to tell, they had to adapt to us,” Gibbons-Neff says. “They knew if they came in, they weren’t going to get anything from us if they came for a day and then left.”

Harmon’s advice to journalists at the start of their military reporting careers is to be open to new information and to the learning experience of an embedding.

“I mean just like they should do everywhere, listen, and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know and say ‘if I’m going to write a good story you’ve got to help me understand,’” he said.

Journalists, he added, have to erase any stereotypes they have of the war and of the military, before reporting. Depending on what information they choose to consume, books and movies can give the wrong idea of the war is like.

“You’re only misled if you want to be misled.” he said.

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