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U.S. Military In Afghanistan Denies Rating Reporters

Afghan police keep journalists away from the site of a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul on August 18.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- The U.S. military in Afghanistan has defended itself against accusations that a company it employs was rating the work of reporters and suggesting ways to make their war coverage more positive.

"Stars and Stripes," a newspaper for U.S. troops, said it had obtained documents prepared for the U.S. military by the Rendon Group, a Washington-based communications firm that graded journalists' work as "positive," "neutral," or "negative."

The newspaper, partly funded by the Pentagon but editorially independent, said the journalists' profiles included suggestions on how to "neutralize" negative stories and generate favorable coverage.

It published a pie chart which it said came from a Rendon report on the coverage of a reporter for an unidentified major U.S. newspaper until mid-May, judging it to be 83.33 percent neutral and 16.67 percent negative with respect to the military's goals.

The U.S. military command in Afghanistan said the Rendon Group provided a range of services under a $1.5 million one-year contract, including analysis of news coverage -- but it did not grade journalists.

"I've been here since June and we have never used any product from Rendon to rate specific journalists or to try and influence their reporting," said Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, director of communications for U.S. Forces Afghanistan.

The command said it compiled background information on journalists, including biographical details and recent topics they have covered, to prepare leaders for interviews.

It supplied a sample profile that included bullet-point summaries under headings such as "Background," "Coverage," and "Perspective, Style and Tone."

But it said it had never used such information to determine whether a reporter was granted the opportunity to embed with a military unit or interview a commander.

The "Stars and Stripes" report, published on August 26, sparked condemnation from organizations representing U.S. and international journalists.

"This profiling of journalists further compromises the independence of media," said Aidan White, general secretary of the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists. "It strips away any pretense that the army is interested in helping journalists to work freely. It suggests they are more interested in propaganda than honest reporting."

Rendon said references to positive, negative, or neutral coverage in its analysis referred to how the content affected military objectives. "Neutral to Negative" coverage could include reports of kidnappings and suicide bombings, it said.

"The information and analysis we generate is developed by quantifying these themes and topics and not by ranking of reporters," it said in a statement posted on its website.