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Report claims Pentagon seeking to investigate and influence journalists

The Pentagon has hired a private firm to investigate reporters seeking to embed with US troops in Afghanistan; the group will also offer advice on how to influence their coverage, reports US military newspaper Stars and Stripes Wednesday.

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AFP - The Pentagon has hired a private firm to investigate reporters seeking to embed with US troops in Afghanistan in order to find out how best to influence their coverage, a report said Wednesday.

Stars and Stripes, a military newspaper partly funded by the Pentagon but editorially independent, said private contractors had been brought in by the US Defense Department to evaluate journalists.

The Rendon Group rates reporters' previous work as "positive," "negative" or "neutral," and offers advice on how their coverage might be influenced, the report said.

One file on a journalist seen by Stars and Stripes describes his coverage as "neutral to positive," but adds that negative stories "could possibly be neutralized" if he were given quotes from military officials.

Another file describes a television reporter as taking a "subjective angle," but advises that steering him towards "the positive work of a successful operation" could "result in favorable coverage."

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman insisted that the Defense Department does not rate journalists based on the favorability of their coverage.

"We are not doing that here," he told AFP.

On Monday, in response to a first, less detailed Stars and Stripes article about the program, Whitman said: "I can tell you that the way in which the Department of Defense evaluates an article is its accuracy."

"It's a good article if it's accurate. It's a bad article if it's inaccurate. That's the only measurement that we use here," he told the newspaper.

The report comes as Washington worries about the increasing unpopularity of the war in Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban is inflicting rising casualties on US and coalition troops.

According to a recent poll, 51 percent of Americans now say the war is not worth fighting.

The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on Wednesday condemned the military's practices and said such embed screening "strips away any pretence that the army is interested in helping journalists to work freely."

"This profiling of journalists further compromises the independence of media," IFJ general secretary Aidan White said in a statement.

"Bringing democracy to Afghanistan is a massive challenge," he added. "But it will not be made easier by trying to manipulate media or encouraging journalists to show bias in favor of the military."

Journalists have interacted with military personnel in various forms for centuries, but the practice of attaching a news reporter or photographer to a military unit in a war zone gained traction in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Supporters have argued it gives an immediacy to news coverage and allows reporters to get close to the action.

Critics say embedding leads journalists to sympathize with the forces they cover, and that the process does little to improve unbiased reporting in the field because journalists are routinely required to sign contracts restricting what they can report on.
 

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