Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Decline of Reporting on Iraq

On June 23, 2008 the New York Times ran a story on the decline in press coverage on Iraq. That report coincides with a more in depth one in the journal American Journalism Review from their June/July 2008 issue. Both pointed out the sharp drop in the number of stories in the American media about the war, and how that is shaping U.S. public opinion about Iraq.

Both stories started off with surveys documenting the drop in war coverage. Those numbers came from the Project for Excellence In Journalism (PEJ), Andrew Tyndall who monitors the nightly TV news, and the Associated Press. PEJ found that in the first ten weeks of 2007 Iraq accounted for 23% of the stories on TV news. That dropped to around 3% in 2008. On cable news, the coverage went from 24% of stories to only 1%. Andrew Tyndall looked at the three major networks ABC, CBS and NBC and found a similar decline. The number of minutes dedicated to Iraq went from over 4,100 minutes in 2003, to 3,000 minutes in 2004, to around 2,000 minutes from 2005-2006, and then dropped to 1,157 by late 2007. In the first half of 2008, only 181 minutes have been shown on the war. The Associated Press conducted a survey of 65 newspapers. It found a peak of 457 stories on Iraq in September 2007 when General Petraeus reported to Congress. In the following months stories on the war dropped to a low of 49.

Editors provided a number of reasons for their coverage. These included the cost of maintaining a reporter in Iraq, war fatigue by the U.S. public, the importance of local over international stories, and the presidential campaign and economy dominating news coverage. Many networks and newspapers are also cutting back their reporters in Iraq. CBS for example, no longer has a full time correspondent in Iraq, and reporters from the other two networks told the New York Times that they were worried that many if not all of them might be recalled after the presidential election was over.

Mark Jukowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism authored a March 2008 report on press coverage and believes the turning point occurred in May 2007. On May 24, 2007 Congress voted for war spending without including a withdrawal clause. After that the political debate in Washington ended and so did much of the press coverage. For example, the PEJ study found that from January to May 2007 20% of news coverage was about Iraq. From May to March 2008 however, war stories dropped 50%.

Editors and reporters said that the American public simply isn’t interested in the war anymore as another cause for the drop in stories. The American Journalism Review article found the opposite. As the media decreased coverage for other stories, so did the public’s knowledge and interest in Iraq. The Pew Research Center for example, found that 54% of Americans knew how many U.S. soldiers had died in Iraq in July 2007. By March 2008 only 28% were aware.

As the Iraq war continues into its fifth year reporting on it can only be expected to decline. Even when new fighting erupts such as recently happened in Basra and Sadr City, stories rarely make it onto the front page of newspapers. Weekly news surveys by the Project for Excellence in Journalism show that the war has dropped to 5% or less of news coverage since early April, and for some weeks isn’t even a top ten story. Jukowitz believes that the war will return if Obama and McCain make it a campaign issue, but that seems unlikely with the economy tanking and gas prices skyrocketing. Rather than being news leaders, the American press are turning out to be news followers, failing to do their job to inform the public about one of the pressing news stories of the day, the war in Iraq.

SOURCES

Jurkowitz, Mark, "Why News of Iraq Dropped," Pew Research Center's Project For Excellence In Journalism, 3/26/08

Project for Excellence in Journalism, “PEJ Campaign Coverage Index, April 7-13, 2008: McCain Gets Least Coverage But Best Media Narrative,” 4/14/08
- “PEJ Campaign Coverage Index, April 14-20, 2008: Obama and Clinton Debate the Debate,” 4/21/08
- Project for Excellence in Journalism, “PEJ Campaign Coverage Index, April 21-27, 2008: Post-Pennsylvania Spin Drowns Out McCain,” 4/28/08
- Project for Excellence in Journalism, “PEJ Campaign Coverage Index, April 28-May 4, 2008: The Pastor’s Press Tour is the Week’s Big Newsmaker,” 5/5/08
- Project for Excellence in Journalism, “PEJ Campaign Coverage Index, May 5-11, 2008: The Media Hear The Fat Lady Humming,” 5/12/08
- Project for Excellence in Journalism, “PEJ Campaign Coverage Index, May 12-18, 2008: Clinton Wins W. Virginia, Obama Wins the Headlines,” 5/27/08
- Project for Excellence in Journalism, “PEJ Campaign Coverage Index, May 19-25, 2008: While Democrats Battle on, McCain Makes News,” 5/27/08
- Project for Excellence in Journalism, “PEJ Campaign Coverage Index, May26-June 1, 2008: Iraq Roars Back as a Campaign Issue,” 6/2/08
- Project for Excellence in Journalism, “PEJ Campaign Coverage Index, June 2-8, 2008: Clinton Drives the Media Narrative the Week Obama Wins,” 6/9/08
- Project for Excellence in Journalism, “PEJ Campaign Coverage Index, June 9-15, 2008: Obama Makes More News Than McCain, But It’s Not All Good,” 6/16/08

Ricchiardi, Sherry, “How the Media Abandoned Iraq,” American Journalism Review, June/July 2008

Stelter, Brian, “Reporters Say Networks Put Wars on Back Burners,” New York Times, 6/23/08

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