Ashleigh Banfield has come to represent military journalism to an increasingly attentive public. But, as David Ward learns, a lot of the reporting isn't focused on war overseas, but rather occurs on our own soil in DC and is covered by niche reporters.From Ernie Pyle in World War II, to Dan Rather and Michael Herr in Vietnam, to CNN's Christine Amanpour in the Gulf, Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan, war reporting has a dangerous but glamorous edge to it.
But reporting from a war zone is only a fraction of what constitutes military journalism.
Indeed much of the influential military coverage isn't taking place on the ground in Afghanistan, but rather in the hallways of the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Much of it is not even for the general public, but rather comes out of narrowly focused trade outlets and is read by policy makers and defense contractors.
"There is definitely a real intense subset of journalists,
notes Chris Hellman, senior analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a Washington, DC think tank. He cites the reporters and editors at Defense News and Aviation Week as among the most respected. "Virtually everybody on Capitol Hill involved in these issues reads Defense News,
Niches and sub-niches
The reporters, their sources, and their audience are often niches unto themselves. The information - combining policy, appropriations, and technology - is often so dense that many journalists develop sub-specialties, such as only covering helicopter-related issues or only focusing on certain classes of ships. "It's very tiered,
notes Diane Murphy, president of Federal City Communications. "Every publication has a lot of different beats and you have to know what each reporter specializes in."
Occasionally there are reporters, such as the Los Angeles Times' Peter Pae, who understand the complex and ongoing relationships between defense and the military. But more often than not, Pae will be reporting on how Pentagon decisions impact contractors in southern California.
Beyond these military as business stories, there's no doubt the war in Afghanistan has turned a lot more journalists into military correspondents, at least for the short term. "I've gotten calls from reporters who were food editors at US News & World Report or fashion people at The New York Times, who've been put on this 'All War, All the Time' news beat,
says Douglas Smith, SVP with MS&L. The company works with the US Army on the PR component of its "Army of One
recruitment campaign. Smith says this often requires crash education for the reporters to get them up to speed on Army issues. But he quickly adds, "On the positive side, they're generally interested, and they haven't been jaded by what's gone on in the past, because to them it's all new."
In addition to the general interest coverage, there are also a host of military journalism outlets aimed specifically at servicemen and women.
These range from the government-owned and funded daily newspaper Stars & Stripes, to branch-specific weekly magazines, such as Army Times, Navy Times, and Air Force Times, and all the way down to local newsletters at each military base. Far from reporting on the big picture of defense, "these outlets tend to focus on the issues that affect the average serviceperson,
notes Murphy, citing topics such as recruitment, pay, health, and housing.
Tobias Naegele, executive editor for Army Times Publishing, says it may end up covering topics that also appear in the mainstream press, but notes the difference is in tone and angle. "When the Army said it was no longer doing sit-ups in its fitness program, that was a story that some (general news) outlets covered - imagine soldiers not doing sit-ups anymore,
Naegele notes. "But to our readers, how they perform on the fitness test can be a factor in whether they get promoted or not."
The Army Times publications are aimed at everyone in the military, but Naegele admits their core audience is people who have re-enlisted at least once, and are at least thinking about the military as a career.
For the longest time, these outlets had this audience to themselves, and in most markets they still do. But Naegele has noted newspapers such as the Virginia Pilot-Union in Norfolk, VA, making a concerted effort to include more coverage of military issues on their pages. "You've got local papers in military markets ... who've discovered they've got 100,000 sailors in their community that can be tapped into,
he says. "This has caused them to cover issues such as military career options that you wouldn't have seen in the past."
Be prepared before you pitch
Virtually all military news outlets, whether aimed at personnel or defense contractors, are pitchable. But Naegele warns that PR pros should have a strong grasp of that market. You may be able to fudge expertise in categories like food or fashion, but its much harder to become well-versed in acronyms and terms of the armed forces. "If someone is going to pitch me on a story, I'd like for them to have a feel for what I do,
Among the most influential journalists are Los Angeles Times' Pae, Associated Press military writer Robert Burns, Reuters Pentagon reporter Charles Aldinger, The New Yorker's Seymour Hersch, Naegele of Army Times, Rick Barnard, executive editor of Defense News, Space News and Federal Times, and Jim Mathews of Aviation.com.
The war on terrorism has triggered not only an increased awareness and appreciation of military issues, but has also boosted the need for experts who can serve as a bridge between the traditionally closed-lipped armed services and the general-interest press. Tomeka Rawlings, director of PR for the Navy League of the US, an education/advocacy group of 77,000 that supports America's sea services, says she noticed a general attitude change since September 11, but adds that attitudes tend to be cyclical.
Rawlings says much of her work in the past few months has been reaching out to the producers at 24-hour news outlets such as MSNBC and Fox with offers to provide experts who can give independent insight into the military operations in and around Afghanistan.
But at some point military journalism ends up moving out of Washington and into the battlefield. And as the recent death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl will attest, war reporting can be a dangerous business.
Naegele says he's had reporters and photographers in the war zone since early October and was one of the first three news organizations on the ground there. "We move in and live with the troops and try to write about what their life and existence is like, including equipment shortages and so on,
he says. "Because that's of interest to the guys who may be the next ones to go over."
WHERE TO GO
Newspapers: Stars and Stripes; The New York Times; The Wall Street Journal; The Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Atlanta Journal-Constitution; Virginia Pilot-Union; Florida Times Union; San Diego Union Tribune; USA Today
Magazines: US News & World Report; Time; Newsweek; Army Times; Navy Times; Air Force Times; Marine Times; Retired Office; Soldier of Fortune; Jane's Defence Weekly
Trade outlets: Defense News; Aerospace Daily; Defense Week; Aviation Week; Inside the Pentagon; Inside the Army; Inside the Navy; Inside the Air Force; Inside the Marines
Internet sites: www.janes.com; insidedefense.com www.militarytimes.com.