March 26, 2008

Why News of Iraq Dropped

May 24, 2007 may not go down as a red letter date in the history of the Iraq conflict. But it helped mark a turning point in media coverage of the third-longest war in U.S. history.

On that date, Congress voted to fund the war without troop withdrawal timetables, giving President Bush a major victory in his months-long struggle with the new Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill. Journalists covering that struggle concluded that the White House had prevailed and the political fight over Iraq was no longer a hot story. “Congress Bows to Bush, OKs Iraq Funds,” declared a headline on an Associated Press story.

From January 2007—when Bush announced the “surge”—through the end of May 2007, Iraq had been the dominant story, accounting for 20% of all the news coverage measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index. But from the time of that May funding vote through the war’s fifth anniversary on March 19, 2008, coverage plunged by about 50 %. In that period, the media paid more than twice as much attention to the presidential campaign than the war.

All that helps explain another eye-catching statistic. In the first three months of 2008, coverage of the campaign outstripped coverage of the war by a margin of nearly 11-to-one (43% of the newshole compared to 4%). In an environment in which newsroom cutbacks and decreasing resources may make it more difficult for news outlets to stay atop two ongoing mega-stories, the media, for now, have made their priorities clear.

The PEJ’s News Coverage Index divided overall Iraq coverage into three separate threads. The largest component in 2007, the Iraq policy debate, involved the Washington-based political fight over the war. The next largest component, events in Iraq, dealt with everything from the bloodshed to the political situation inside that country. The smallest thread, the war and the homefront, included the impact on the conflict inside the U.S.

Nowhere was the drop-off in coverage more acute than with the policy debate thread. In January 2007, with the media anticipating a fierce battle over Iraq purse strings between Congress and the White House, the Iraq policy debate alone generated 17% of the coverage. In the first three weeks of March 2008, with no prospect of any significant changes in U.S. policy until at least the November election, that thread is down to 2%.

But there is another key reason why the war has virtually disappeared from the headlines and talk shows these days—and that’s the situation inside Iraq itself. The reduction in violence on the ground that began late last year has coincided with a significant decrease in coverage from the war zone as well.

Through the first half of 2007, about half the stories from Iraq examined in a PEJ study were about the continuing drumbeat of daily violence. From July through October, that number fell to a little more than one-third. In November, stories filed from Iraq began to take greater notice of the surge’s success in reducing violence, even as the volume of coverage tapered off, evidence perhaps of the old adage that no news is good news. (So far in 2008, events on the ground in Iraq are accounting for only 2% of the newshole, but any sustained uptick in violence there could once again lead to an increase in coverage. )

With the violence down, some have criticized journalists for not producing other stories that would paint a richer portrait of life, and perhaps progress, in Iraq. The results of a PEJ survey last year of 111 journalists who have worked in Iraq reveal the extent to which basic security concerns limited the scope of their reporting. A full 57% of those journalists reported having local staff in Iraq murdered or kidnapped in the past year. And 87% said that at least half of Baghdad itself was too dangerous for a Western journalist to move around in. Unable to venture far, journalists identified the lives of Iraqi civilians and that country’s economic and political situation as among the most under covered stories of the war.

“From the lack of movement, the countless inhibiting factors, it’s constantly about trying to best put together the pieces of an inexplicable, intricate puzzle when you don’t have all the pieces,” one print journalist noted.

Finally, there is the inverse relationship between war coverage and coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign—an early-starting, wide-open affair that has fascinated the press since it began in earnest in January 2007. As attention to Iraq steadily declined, coverage of the campaign continued to grow throughout 2007 and early 2008, consuming more and more of the press’ attention and resources. Moreover, the expectation that Iraq would dominate the campaign conversation proved to be wrong, at least to date, as the troubled economy emerged as a bigger election issue among voters than a five-year-old war with no quick resolution in sight.