June 2, 2011

The Arab Spring Wilts in the Media

% of Newshole
Jan 24-30 20
Jan 31- Feb 6 54
Feb 7-13 40
Feb 14-20 22
Feb 21-27 35
Feb 28- Mar 6 32
Mar 7-13 21
Mar 14-20 17
Mar 21-27 47
Mar 28- Apr 3 38
Apr 4-10 11
Apr 11-17 10
Apr 18-24 15
Apr 25- May 1 11
May 2-8 2
May 9-15 7
May 16-22 5
May 23-29 5

87% – Decrease in coverage of Mideast unrest from February to May 2011

The so-called Arab Spring rages on. But if recent coverage is any indication, the U.S. media are not nearly as interested as they were a few months ago.

Last week (May 23-29) alone, a government crackdown in Yemen reportedly killed more than 100 demonstrators; the European Union imposed new sanctions on Syria as reports surfaced that as many as 1,000 people have been killed in government crackdowns; Egypt decided to charge ex-president Hosni Mubarak in the deaths of protestors; and NATO announced a 90-day military extension in Libya as violence continued to escalate.  

Yet coverage of the Mideast unrest accounted for only 5% of the newshole last week, continuing a pattern of diminished attention to a story that dominated the mainstream news agenda in the first quarter of 2011

In February and March, for example, the Mideast turmoil accounted for 34% of all the coverage studied by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, more than double the attention to next biggest subject, the economy (15%). The first week in February, the violent protests in Egypt that would oust Mubarak drove coverage to 56%—making it the biggest international story in a single week since PEJ began tracking news in January 2007.

The significant drop in Middle East coverage began in early April, only two weeks after the U.S. entry into the Libyan civil war drove coverage to 47% of the newshole from March 21-27. A possible government shutdown and new budget proposals drew attention to domestic issues and Middle East coverage dropped to 11% the week of April 4-10—down precipitously from 38% from the previous week.

From that point on, coverage was only a fraction of what it had previously been. In April, the topic accounted for just 15% of the newshole and it fell even further, to only 5%, in May.

There are a number of possible reasons for the plunge in media attention. For one thing, a number of volatile situations—the power transition in Egypt, the crackdown in Syria, and the fighting in Libya—have dragged on somewhat inconclusively. For another, extensive overseas coverage is an expensive proposition in an era of shrinking reporting resources. And other stories, such as the budget showdown, the 2012 presidential campaign and most notably, the death of Osama bin Laden, have emerged as major newsmakers in recent weeks.

All of that may help explain why the tumultuous Arab Spring seems to have hit the summer doldrums with the U.S. media.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ