The Year in News 2010
The War that Struggles for Headlines
One year ago, after coverage had grown markedly in the second half of 2009, Afghanistan finally seemed to have emerged as a major ongoing story. In 2010, however, the year when the nine-year-old war produced the highest U.S. death toll, Afghanistan receded from the headlines as the debate over U.S. policy quieted.
Coverage of Afghanistan accounted for 4% of the newshole this past year, down from 5% the previous year, a drop of 20%. Perhaps more tellingly, there was no sustained spike in coverage in 2010; in each of the four quarters it ranged only between 3% and 4% of the newshole.
What the numbers reveal is that despite the intensifying conflict on the ground, the war is not a big newsmaker without a major Washington component to the story.
It is difficult to argue that the public was clamoring for more press coverage of the conflict. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press surveyed public interest in the subject on 18 different weeks in 2010. And in virtually none of those weeks did more than 10% of the public identify Afghanistan as the story they were following most closely. Consistent with this, midterm election exit polls found only 8% of respondents saying that Afghanistan was a voting consideration for them.
In 2009, almost half (46%) the Afghanistan coverage focused on the U.S. policy debate, a storyline driven by the Obama Administration’s months-long strategy review that culminated with a 30,000-person troop surge. In 2010, however, the policy debate accounted for only one-quarter of the coverage, a major reason for the drop in overall attention to Afghanistan.
Among the other 2010 Afghan storylines, the second-biggest (20%) involved the violence on the ground. But that was followed closely (16%) by what was essentially a one-time event, Obama’s June replacement of General Stanley McChrystal with General David Petraeus as top Afghanistan commander after Rolling Stone magazine published negative comments by McChrystal and his staff about the White House.
The attention devoted to the McChrystal episode, about one-sixth of the year’s Afghanistan coverage, again reflects the media’s interest in storylines involving political intrigue.
Going forward, coverage could well spike in 2011 as the administration approaches an initial summer deadline for beginning troop withdrawals. But the lesson of 2010 seems to be that without a Beltway angle, the war in Afghanistan struggles to generate headlines.
Meanwhile, coverage of the almost-forgotten conflict in Iraq, still home to about 50,000 U.S. military personnel, dropped to a negligible 1% of the newshole in 2010—down from an already modest 2% in 2009.
The Year in News 2010