August 19, 2009

The “Other” War Starts Making News

Q1 2007 1.1
Q2 2007 0.9
Q3 2007 0.9
Q4 2007 0.6
Q1 2008 0.8
Q2 2008 0.9
Q3 2008 1.2
Q4 2008 0.9
Q1 2009 1.7
Q2 2009 1.6
Q3 2009 3.4

213% – Increase in Afghanistan coverage since July 1 vs. first half of 2009

With a critical presidential election looming in the country and the U.S. forces pressing the fight against Taliban strongholds, the war in Afghanistan made a significant amount of news last week. From August 10-16, the subject attracted the most attention of any week in the more than two and a half years that the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has been tracking media coverage on ongoing basis.

But last week’s spike, for those who have been paying close attention, didn’t come out of the blue. It was the latest sign of a growing focus on Afghanistan as U.S. policy there and the situation in Iraq have changed.

Last week, the war in Afghanistan was the third-biggest story in the news, filling 5.5% of the newshole as measured by PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index.

To get a sense of how large a shift that represents, consider that for all of 2007 and 2008, Afghanistan accounted for only 0.9% of the overall newshole. By comparison, that was less attention during that period than was given to such other geopolitical hotspots as Pakistan (1.2%), Iran (1.4%), and most notably, the war in Iraq (9.5%).

In the first half of 2009, as President Obama deepened the U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan and linked that war to the dangerous instability in neighboring Pakistan, coverage increased moderately—up to 1.6% of the newshole. But the big jump in attention has occurred since the beginning of the third quarter of 2009. From July 1 through August 16, the conflict accounted for 3.4% of the overall coverage and was the fifth-biggest story overall in a period that has included a U.S. military offensive, the deadliest month ever for American troops there and a Taliban video of captured U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl.

It is unclear whether this recent uptick in coverage suggests a continuing trend. But after years of minimal media attention, the war in Afghanistan is starting to climb its way up the mainstream news agenda.

And that cannot be simply attributed to a steady decline in media attention to Iraq. The coverage of that conflict has held steady all year at around 2%.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ