At the recent free trade summit in Miami, Police Chief John Timoney invited a dozen news organizations to “embed” reporters with police units as they confronted anti-globalization demonstrators. The Miami New Times says that representatives from the Associated Press, CNN, Fox News, the Miami Herald, MSNBC, Reuters, the Sun-Sentinel, and local television network news affiliates took part. “Our embedding program was a success,” says Miami police spokesman Lt. Bill Schwartz. “It gave the media the perspective from behind police lines.”
The New Times quotes media critics as saying that in agreeing to participate in what amounted to a glorified police ride-along, the press played into the hands of cops and elected officials who portrayed anti-FTAA demonstrators as radical thugs intent on causing mayhem in the streets.
Michael Wolff of New York magazine columnist was appalled to learn that embedding had been adopted for a domestic civil disobedience event. Wolff opposes to the military’s embedding program in Iraq. “Embedding is nothing more than a public relations gimmick to make it appear that the government is bending over backward to accommodate the press,” he says. “Reporters are complicit because they like to tell their readers or their viewers, ‘I have been embedded.'”
Edward Wasserman, a journalism ethics professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and a Miami Herald columnist, finds it disturbing that news organizations participated. “The whole notion of embedding reporters is dubious because it results in stories that appear overly fair, overly sympathetic, and reflective of the police mentality,” he says. “Rather than use the access to cover the police, you instead cover the event from the police perspective.”
The police demanded that news organizations agree to numerous restrictions. Reporters were not allowed to disclose numbers of officers in a unit, the number of units deployed, equipment or unit locations, and other “sensitive” information.
Manny Garcia, the Herald’s assistant managing editor, says the newspaper had no ethical problem with the embedding concept. “We wanted to have reporters who could go in with the squads as they met protesters,” Garcia says. “No matter what, we were going to report the event accurately, dispassionately, and in context.” Managing editor Judy Miller dismissed the notion that embedding reporters somehow slanted the news coverage in the police’s favor. “In addition to four embedded reporters, we had twelve reporters covering the action in the streets,” Miller says. “That is where the majority of our reporting came in. We were set up to see everything from a 360 degree angle.”