The Challenge of Media Scrutiny

By Ensign David Wolynski, U.S. Navy

Are the media's views toward the military biased? The answer could be argued either way, but generally, it is irrelevant. Harboring an abiding distaste for the media does little to protect the military, and will not lead to an improved relationship. In fact, it does disservice to those reporters and news organizations who do play by the rules. Constant criticism by the military only poisons the professional relationship between the two groups.

In debates between the military and the media, the media stands with the First Amendment while the military stands with the need for operational security. We are familiar with the need for operational security—but what about the First Amendment?

The First Amendment states, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press." Some in the press take this to mean that the media has a right to print whatever it wants, whenever it wants. On the other hand, most experienced journalists understand the need for operational security. And we in the military must understand that even though we have the right to refuse to answer certain questions, the media still has the right to ask them. For those journalists who do not abide by the operational-security rules, we have the right—and the responsibility—to complain quickly to their editors, and never to provide information to the offending reporters.

The relationships and opinions developed toward the media are especially crucial for junior officers. Opinions formed early easily can influence an officer's actions years later. Several authors even argue that the opinions and biases are formed even earlier, as midshipmen or officer candidates. 1 No matter when opinions are formed, however, it is a truism that many officers still view the media with apathy, at best—and active distrust, at worst.

Given this hostile atmosphere, what are junior officers to do? Here are some common-sense guidelines that could help:

  • Know whom you are talking to, whether an experienced journalist who plays by the rules, or a novice who does not comprehend them. The public affairs office can help by briefing the reputations of the journalists on base. The important point is not to stereotype the media as a monolith.
  • Stick to talking about what you know. One needs not avoid the media purposely, but sticking to familiar subjects that are consistent with your rank and position is safe and smart. Speculation should be discouraged. Understand the rules that the journalist works by: "Off the record" means revealing something that one does not want publicly released. "On the record" means one can be quoted by name and rank. Also, one should not feel obligated to answer any question. If an answer is classified, tell the reporter you are not at liberty to discuss it. If you are uncomfortable with the question, refer the reporter to your public affairs officer.

As a midshipman first class at the U.S. Naval Academy, I have seen firsthand the need for such an open and professional relationship. In recent years, the Academy has suffered journalists who have not bothered to report all the facts. Moreover, the intense focus on a few negative incidents, repeated questioning of the leadership of the Superintendent, and the projected image of the Academy as a criminal syndicate run amok have eroded the credibility of the media substantially in the eyes of most midshipmen. And today's midshipmen are tomorrow's senior officers.

It is vitally important for the military never to lose sight of the need for a free press. It has become too common place for military spokespersons to blast the press in knee-jerk fashion, for unfair coverage and slanted reporting. This is not to say that we should not be upset by substandard reporting, but we should not let stereotypes cloud our relationships with the media. These relationships should remain open and professional—not held hostage automatically to negative preconceptions.

The best way to protect the military and deal with media scrutiny is not to be found through vindictiveness. Individually, each officer can individually nurture the honest, open, and professional relationships that are required to deal successfully with media scrutiny.

1 See Bernard E. Trainor, "The Military and the Media: A Troubled Embrace, Newsmen and National Defense: Is Conflict Inevitable?," Washington: Brassey's, p. 121.

A native of Cocoa, Florida, Ensign Wolynski is in training to become a surface warfare officer. He has received orders to the Laboon (DDG-58). 


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