October 29, 2009

The War in Afghanistan as a Washington Story

U.S. Policy Debate 45
Afghan Politics and Internal Affairs 17
Violence and Combat 17
David Rohdes 5
Taliban and Al-Qaida 4
Effect on U.S. Homefront 2

For the week of October 19-25, the war in Afghanistan generated its second highest level of coverage (13%) since PEJ began tracking it in January 2007. Much of that coverage centered on the upcoming election runoff between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his rival Abdullah Abdullah.  But that focus on the internal affairs of Afghanistan is not typical of the kind of news that has kept Afghanistan in the headlines in recent months.  

After accounting for only about 2% of the overall newshole in the first half of 2009, coverage of Afghanistan has increased markedly in the second half of the year, filling 7% of the newshole since July 1. That makes it the No. 3 story in that period, behind only the health care debate (17%) and the economic crisis (12%).

But as coverage has increased, what aspects of the conflict have the media highlighted?
A breakdown of Afghanistan storylines from July 1-October 25 indicates that Washington policy deliberations have generated much more attention than any other aspect of the story. Nearly half (45%) of the coverage has focused on the basic issue of what strategy President Obama will adopt—a major troop surge, a more narrowly targeted anti-terrorism strategy or something in between?

The next biggest theme (17% of the Afghanistan coverage) has been about the internal affairs of that country, a subject dominated by the August 20 presidential election, allegations of voter fraud and stories about the upcoming runoff. The No. 3 storyline (also at 17%) consists of coverage of the escalating combat and violence occurring inside Afghanistan.  October 2009 has already proved to be the deadliest month for U.S. forces fighting there since the war began eight years ago.

Several smaller storylines have also generated attention in recent months. The saga of New York Times journalist David Rohde—who was captured by the Taliban in November 2008 and escaped seven months later—has accounted for another 5% of the coverage.  The stories Rohde wrote this month, which detailed his time in Taliban captivity, accounted for some of that coverage. Rounding out the top six storylines are Taliban and Al-Qaeda strategies that do not involve direct combat (4%) and the impact of the war on the U.S. homefront (at 2%).  

The emerging pattern of Afghanistan coverage that tilts toward U.S. policy deliberations mirrors, to some extent, how the media covered the conflict in Iraq. In 2007, the first year of PEJ’s News Coverage Index, the Iraq war was the top story, filling 16% of the newshole. And half of that coverage was devoted to the raging political debate in Washington, primarily focused on President Bush’s decision to implement a troop surge in the face of opposition from a new Congress controlled by Democrats.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ