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View Full Version : Whatever happened to Iraq?


Schmedlap
07-08-2008, 02:07 PM
I came across an interesting analysis of media coverage of Iraq in this article from American Journalism Review.

Whatever happened to Iraq?
http://www.ajr.org/Article.asp?id=4515

This is filled with observations to explain the steady decline in media reports about Iraq over the past year. What I found fascinating is that the article seems like a very clever piece that seeks to address the reduction in reporting in such a way as to suggest that the decline is due to anything other than the reduction in violence. Whether it be the Presidential election, economy, the cost of reporting, a belief that the public is no longer interested, or a belief that there is no progress being made and thus nothing to report, the piece seems to gloss over the glaring fact that a reduction in reporting correlates strongly with a reduction in violence and that there is a plausible causal relationship.

Armando Acuna, public editor of the Sacramento Bee, turned a Sunday column into a public flogging for both his editors and the nation's news media. They had allowed the third-longest war in American history to slip off the radar screen, and he had the numbers to prove it.

For long stretches over the past 12 months, Iraq virtually disappeared from the front pages of the nation's newspapers and from the nightly network newscasts. The American press and the American people had lost interest in the war.

By March 2008, a striking reversal had taken place. Only 28 percent of Americans knew that 4,000 military personnel had been killed in the conflict, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. Eight months earlier, 54 percent could cite the correct casualty rate.

Is this some kind of measure of effectiveness for the media?

TV news was a vivid indicator of the declining interest. The three broadcast networks' nightly newscasts devoted more than 4,100 minutes to Iraq in 2003 and 3,000 in 2004. That leveled off to 2,000 annually. By late 2007, it was half that, according to Andrew Tyndall, who monitors the nightly news (tyndallreport.com).

That is an interesting way to look at it. It assumes that what the media broadcasts is an indicator of what is of interest to viewers, rather than vice versa. I suspect that one influences the other, rather than media simply meeting a demand. Like art, media influences and is influenced.

"In broadcast, there's a sense that the appetite for Iraq coverage has grown thin. The big issue is how many people stick with it. It is not less of a story," said Jeffrey Fager, executive producer of "60 Minutes,"

I wonder how true that is. I am reminded of a statement made after the 1984 Presidential election when Sally Quinn expressed her disbelief at Reagan’s victory, declaring that she didn’t know anyone who voted for him. I guess one’s perception of others’ appetites is largely derived from who one mingles with.

Los Angeles Times' foreign editor Marjorie Miller attributes the decline to three factors:
• The economic downturn and the contentious presidential primaries have sucked oxygen from Iraq. "We have a woman, an African American and a senior running for president," Miller says. "That is a very big story."
• With no solutions in sight, with no light at the end of the tunnel, war fatigue has become a factor. Over the years, a bleak sameness has settled into accounts of suicide bombings and brutal sectarian violence. Insurgents fighting counterinsurgents are hard to translate to an American audience.
• The sheer cost of keeping correspondents on the ground in Baghdad is trimming the roster of journalists. The expense is "unlike anything we've ever faced. We have shouldered the financial burden so far, but we are really squeezed," Miller says. Earlier, the L.A. Times had as many as five Western correspondents in the field. The bureau is down to two or three plus Iraqi staff.

That may be the most surprising assessment in the article. Nowhere in that explanation is there any mention of the decrease in violence. In fact, reason #2 implies that the media is wholly unaware of the dramatic improvements in Iraq. Given that violence made up the vast majority of reporting from Iraq, could it be that a reduction in that violence is the root cause for less reporting? Or at least one of the top three?

The reader representative for the San Francisco Chronicle doesn't think placement of stories about Iraq makes much difference. He reasons that five years in, most readers have formed clear opinions about the war. They're not likely to change their minds one way or another if a story runs on page one or page three, says Dick Rogers. "The public has become accustomed to the steady drumbeat of violence out of Iraq. A report of 20 or 30 killed doesn't bring fresh insight for a lot of people."

Yes, readers have formed clear opinions after reading 5 years of doom and gloom. Now the situation improves, so let’s stop reporting?

"There is no sense that [the media] are going to be able to meet the numbers that their corporate owners require by offering news about a downer subject like Iraq. It's a terrible dilemma for news organizations."

Again, are they unaware of the significant improvements in Iraq? If not, how is this a downer?

The article goes on to state that, “Still, there has been some stunningly good reporting on Iraq over the past year.” It then lists Pulitzers awarded for reports on substandard medical care at Walter Reed, depictions of the plight of families in Baghdad, killing civilians in Haditha, a report about injured veterans, and a story on how the Pentagon “cultivated military analysts to generate favorable news for the Bush administration.” It is interesting to see how one earns recognition.

Statistics from a report by Jurkowitz released in March 2008 support his theory. From January through May 2007, Iraq accounted for 20 percent of all news measured by PEJ's News Coverage Index. That period included the announcement of the troop "surge."
"But from the time of the May funding vote through the war's fifth anniversary on March 19, 2008, coverage plunged by about 50 percent. In that period, the media paid more than twice as much attention to the presidential campaigns than the war," according to PEJ.

The article concludes with a brief psychological explanation for why viewers are no longer interested in the war and then a summary of complaints from journalists who worry that the reduction in reporting will not adequately convey the costs of the war in economic and human terms and will not adequately convey the amount of suffering caused by it (but not the suffering that it might alleviate). Do these people sound like they are on the same wavelength as the average American whom they purport to be serving?