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Media is the Battlefield

Newsletter 07-04
October 2006

CALL Handbook No. 06-08: Catastrophic Disaster Response Staff Officer's Handbook Cover

Media-on-the-Battlefield Training: How-To

Chapter 5

by LTC Randy A. Martin, Public Affairs Officer (PAO) Observer/Controller,
Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC) Operations Group

Does this resemble your unit’s media training?

In Omnistan, Second Platoon, Bravo Company, Second Battalion patrols a route leading to a village. Suddenly, machine-gun fire from an ambush rakes the platoon. Practiced battle drills save lives: Each man finds cover and concealment as rehearsed. The lieutenant directs fires and maneuver to overwhelm the enemy. Then the platoon consolidates and reorganizes on its objective.

Three rosy-cheeked, well-groomed, young men in civilian clothes approach the battle-weary team. They want to interview the Soldiers gathered under a shade tree. The visitors have no media credentials, even though they are playing media for training. Their digital camera’s battery is dead. Why charge it? No one had real intentions of writing a story or taking real pictures at the training area anyway. The camera was a prop for “media-on-the-battlefield’ training.

A skeptical Soldier, seeing the approaching crew, draws a bead on the guy with the camera. A staff sergeant shouts a warning to halt or be shot. The reporters beg for an opportunity to interview someone, anyone. One sergeant remembers that his manual requires him to ask for media credentials, but he wonders what those credentials were supposed to look like.

A PAO observer/controller, there to oversee media training, adjudicates and says that the event should continue with an interview and everyone could accomplish their training objectives.

One specialist is thrust forward from the platoon’s ranks to give comments to the supposed media. The first question is, “Do you think the U.S. policy in Omnistan is authorized according to the principle of just war?” The reporter asking it has no clue as to what constitutes a credible answer. He accepts whatever is tossed his way and the interview continues for four or five minutes. Then the reporters and their PAO observer express gratitude and depart to find other Soldiers and repeat their drill.

No report is sent by the platoon to higher headquarters. No story appears in a newspaper from the interview. The event just ends. And so goes media-on-the-battlefield training.

An opportunity was lost here; this was superficial media training and it’s dangerous.

Superficial Media Training is Dangerous

Media has been thrown in to train Soldiers on how to react to media on the battlefield. Although it was an impressive idea, it had been merely an afterthought when the scenario-based training exercise was developed.

The media-on-the-battlefield training was poorly conceived and planned. The unit in training had little or no previous training for media on the battlefield prior to the encounter, and no one knew the unit’s standing operating procedures (SOP) for dealing with media. The role-player journalists were not sufficiently trained for the task they were to perform, and they were not resourced properly.

The media role players, public affairs (PA) Soldiers with the fresh enthusiasm of post-Defense Information School training, were injected at an illogical point in the scenario. They wore civilian clothes and carried equipment that made them look like journalists, but they did not know the scenario and asked unrealistic questions. There was no report in the news of the incident later because the scenario did not include an information environment complete with newspapers, television, and radio for the training.

The commander who had asked for media-on-the-battlefield training understood the importance of training and wanted his PAO to play a role. He knew from his own experience that the public has a need, indeed a right, to know about U.S. military operations within certain operational constraints. Likewise, he understood that there is a competitive strategy among our adversaries to misinform or exploit media for the purposes of propaganda. He wanted his Soldiers to know how to react to media on the battlefield, and he wanted to see if he could communicate certain messages to the public.

Unfortunately, unrealistic portrayals of media on the battlefield reinforce bad habits and perceptions of journalists on the battlefield. When the platoon finally deploys, it encounters embedded local and international media on the battlefield. And the world reads, watches, and listens as opportunities to tell the Soldiers’ stories are lost.

With a little preparation, creativity, planning, and resources, training centers can create an information environment that promotes effective media-on-the-battlefield training.

Fixing Media Training

Start with internal procedures. The battalion should have a SOP for incidental contact with media, deliberate media engagements, and embedded journalists. The SOP may require the company- or battalion-level organization to assign certain responsibilities to a unit PA representative or a stringer. SOPs also should address procedures for reporting media contact. SOPs should give guidelines for preparing for media interviews and procedures for hosting embedded media and media opportunities. Fragmentary orders or the operations order for the scenario also may include media-specific tasks or coordinating instructions.

Next, develop an information environment that makes sense and is supportable with available resources. A PA planner should be included for scenario development. He should understand the scenario and the environment in which the unit is operating. He can create replicated news mediums, such as a newspaper, television newscast, or radio broadcast, which can be evaluated for content by unit leaders later.

Then build a PA architecture with higher headquarters involvement. Media engagements require the participation of multiple military and civilian echelons that are easily portrayed by actual or role-playing staffs. There should be a higher headquarters that directs media procedures in the scenario. Realistic training aids, such as credentials for role-playing media, ground rules for media, and PA guidance, should be produced and disseminated.

Select, assemble, train, and resource media role players.

Soldiers can be used, but there are great benefits to using civilians. Civilians are less enamored by rank. Also, by using civilian media role players, the training audience will recognize that the media are not fellow Soldiers in disguise. The dynamic of unfamiliarity favors realism in training for media on the battlefield.

You must train role players for media-on-the-battlefield scenarios. Role players should be given a character description so they can act the part. They should understand the media credential system, ground rules, and the scenario in general. They should be capable of engaging in dialogue to determine the essential elements of a news story. They should be able to operate assigned news-gathering equipment, such as cameras and personal computers. They also should be able to independently compose a news story for print or broadcast.

Resource media role players to act like journalists. First, the role player needs an identity badge to serve as credentials. The design of the badge should be clearly marked “FOR TRAINING ONLY,” and should show the individual’s photograph and identification number in accordance with the unit SOP or scenario PA guidance.

Next, the role player needs a communications device of some type (e.g., cell phone) so he can, if necessary, dictate a news piece and expedite production of a news story for radio or print. A cell phone also helps with command and control by the exercise controller. The role player will need a digital camera, laptop computer with word-processing and photo-editing software, and a removable drive.

If the information environment includes television replication, media role players may require a hand-held video camera and a digital editing system. All media role players should have the ability to maneuver independently by automobile in the training area and be afforded a base of operation where media products are edited, reproduced, and distributed.

Certify media role players with a rehearsal. Assign stories, make precombat inspections of equipment, and practice interviews. Role-player certification ends with the production of a “replicated newspaper” or clipsheet, television news broadcast, or radio news broadcast.

Next, conduct classroom training with Soldiers. Training Circular (TC) 7-98-1, Stability and Support Operations Training Support Package, provides a good model for briefing Soldiers on media. A qualified PA representative should give the doctrinally accepted standards for engaging media, conducting interviews, etc. The PA representative should explain actions required by the unit SOP.

During this phase the trainer should explain the imperatives of communicating with media, including the following topics:

  • Preventing disclosure of classified information.
  • Ensuring accuracy to preserve credibility.
  • Avoiding comments on policy decisions.
  • Maintaining propriety.

The trainer should also discuss constitutional obligations, Department of Defense (DOD) directives, and the command’s own stated philosophy. Finally, the class should address theater or scenario restrictions derived from DOD PA guidance and unclassified tactics, techniques, and procedures.

You are now ready to conduct media-on-the-battlefield training. The commander determines how and where he wants to introduce media on the battlefield. He may choose to embed media, assign media with other civilians on the battlefield, or assign visiting media to conduct a media opportunity for a specific event. An observer may accompany the media role-playing team. The commander can assess the unit’s ability to react to or engage media by the performance of individual tasks, the resulting media product, or a combination of both. But how does the commander decide where to inject media on the battlefield?


One option is to embed media with the platoon. In essence the platoon is carrying an added member into the fight. The platoon will need to be aware of the media, safeguard information, build rapport, and communicate. Embedded media provide another set of eyes on the inner workings of the platoon, which helps the command to see itself. An embedded media role player in the earlier example might have written a headline that read “U.S. patrol thwarts attack near Omniville.”

The story would include firsthand accounts of the platoon’s actions, rendered by a sympathetic member of the patrol. The platoon leader would have time to articulate his purpose and give credible information to the embedded journalist so that the public understands the unit’s intentions and mission.

Another option is to place media among the local population. In training this means that media role players see the unit as outsiders and report on their actions as perceived by the local populace. Placing media in built-up areas or among the population adds a realistic dimension to training. Placing media among the local population might generate the following headline: “Insurgents ambush patrol near Omniville; 10 killed.”

The story might call to question the presence of the U.S. patrol and drive other elements in the training environment to action. Or it might account for the unit’s follow-on actions in the town and the leader’s efforts to set conditions for humanitarian support. The platoon leader may have, of his own accord or by specified task in his operations order, granted an interview to the reporter in the village.

One other option is to have the patrol perform a task that relates to or serves a media objective. One such task might be for the platoon to establish security at a site and prepare to receive media.

In this case the resulting story in the newspaper might describe a school-opening ceremony. The platoon sergeant might render a quote to hosted media that supports a headline like this: “Army Sergeant: We’re helping restore hope for kids.”

In all cases, a media product results from the scenario and is produced after the actual mission ends. There may be tasks that occur throughout the training event that are associated with individual skills. FM 46-1, Public Affairs Operations; TC 7-98-1; FM 3-61.1, Public Affairs Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures; and various common task manuals address tasks that should be conducted when media are encountered. But dissecting each properly performed task and rendering the Army’s standard of “GO” or “NO GO” may be shortchanging our command’s true intention, which is to communicate with the public through the media.

Throughout this exercise a higher headquarters supports training by analyzing media products and advising the commander on media task performance. The trainer in the examples above is able to assess media perceptions and advise the command on how to improve training for media on the battlefield. Successfully executed training allows the unit to revise its SOPs, retrain, improve knowledge, and build confidence for engaging media at every grade of rank.


Properly conducted media-on-the-battlefield training requires planning, resources, preparatory training, and follow-through. If executed well, it can be a tremendous learning experience that exercises the command from the lowest level to the highest training headquarters. Media-on-the-battlefield training exponentially improves the command’s ability to communicate with audiences at home and abroad, now and in the future. It can also allow the command to see itself through another’s eyes, something that often happens too late for remedy. With realistic training, Second Platoon would have been equipped with knowledge before it deployed.

With realistic training, our leaders have trained a generation of Soldiers who understand the importance of engaging media on the battlefield.

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