Continuing to cover changes in the Iraq war from a local and national standpoint

Sunday, March 30, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:02 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Prof. Byron Scott: We’re talking today about a recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a team within the Pew Research Center that has been monitoring American media coverage of the Iraq War. The study finds there is a continuing drop in coverage of the war. It now fills only about three percent of the news hole in newspapers, magazines and broadcasts. Why are newspapers, magazines and broadcast networks spending less time covering the Iraq War?

Kyle Crichton, senior editor, The New York Times, New York, N.Y.: There are a number of factors. One is “war fatigue.” In the pre-surge years when violence was going on unabated, we often heard readers say they were sick of stories about bombs exploding and killing numbers of people. It got to be monotonous. Then we had relative quiet in the last year with the ceasefire with the Mahdi Army and the surge. There is an appearance of progress, and the Bush Administration is doing its best to put on a happy face. The war is also taking a backseat to the presidential campaign and to the financial problems in the United States, and there is less of a role for American troops now. But when bullets and bombs are flying and they are engaging the enemy there is a lot more interest. The final element is the internal workings of the press with the financial pressures on newspapers. There is a great temptation to cut back on what can be an expensive undertaking: sending people to Baghdad.

Scott: What about local papers, like the Columbia Tribune?

Jim Robertson, managing editor, Columbia Tribune, Columbia, Mo.: We rely mostly on The Associated Press and other wire services for coverage. I’d say we have a story out of Iraq every day. It’s tough for Iraq to make the front page unless it’s something extraordinary. We watch closely for casualties among people who call this area home, and we always update our readers on those. But we’re stuck with the coverage we can get, and we try to do our best with it, but it gets repetitive.

Scott: Are there stories we may be missing in Baghdad?

Zainab Mineeia, Fulbright scholar, Missouri School of Journalism and Iraqi journalist: A lot of things could be done in Baghdad. Unfortunately the media is focusing on violence. When I was last there a year and a half ago, the media was doing a lot of stories about politics, but that number has dropped, and it’s sad to see the only stories coming out of Baghdad are violent ones. Not everything is going well in Iraq. There is a war and people are being killed and are suffering, but there is a lot to be covered and a lot of people have good things to say.

Scott: It’s also a fairly dangerous beat, isn’t it? Is that another reason why the U.S. has fewer journalists there?

Crichton: It’s why you don’t see as much quality-of-life reporting as you did years ago. In 2003, 2004 and 2005 The New York Times did stories on traffic, gas lines, police officers, electricity, but it hasn’t been able to in recent years because of security concerns.

Scott: Are local readers interested in human-interest stories?

Robertson: We haven’t noticed a great outcry for those stories. We get comments from people asking where the positive news is, and there are charges that the media isn’t covering the good news. But our readers don’t seem to miss that and they’re aware it’s a war zone.

Scott: Fighting broke out in Basra a few days ago and has spread to neighborhoods of Baghdad. Do those events threaten to bring Iraq back to the front page?

Crichton: First, these studies about the percent of news hole devoted to such and such are useful but can sometimes obscure as much as they reveal. We all know that if a story appears on page 14, it doesn’t have the same impact as if it appears on page one. The attack on Basra, which is basically a Shiite civil war, is important for the future of the country if the people involved can resolve their differences. We had a story about the politics of that, which we couldn’t get on page one. Instead we had a “refer,” a box at the bottom of the page that says this is an important story that we didn’t put on page one.

Scott: Has this story been on the front page of the Columbia Tribune?

Robertson: It hasn’t. We’re a community paper and sometimes international news has to take a back seat to local news, particularly now with municipal elections going on. We use refers a lot, too. Usually a story like that will get a reference on the front page, but it’s tough to get space on the front page.

Scott: Another phenomenon seems to be that the war is being told in terms of numbers. Rarely, for example, do we see things like how the Iraqi government is doing. Have we hit our benchmarks with what they’re supposed to be doing?

Crichton: If you look at raw statistics like the number of Iraqi Security forces, you see it goes up month by month. But it doesn’t tell you how they’re divided into sectarian groups. It doesn’t tell you how they’re infiltrated, if oil production is going up, who is siphoning off the oil and selling it and financing their militia with it. One can look at these statistics and they won’t tell you much about what is really going on. It’s difficult to penetrate the outer layers of the Iraqi system because the whole thing is layered. It’s controlled and one of the problems we have is piercing the Bush Administration’s and the Iraqi government’s effort to make it look like everything is going swimmingly. To get beneath that and to point out some of the problems they still have, primarily political problems in a fractured country where they haven’t gotten along for a thousand years, it’s tough to change it all now.

Scott: Should we use more Iraqi journalists to cover stories like this, or is this truly the best work for American journalists?

Crichton: There is a place for both American and Iraqi journalists. In the last few years, we have put together a strong network of local correspondents in the major Iraqi cities that we want to cover, and we depend on them to a great extent. Many of them we cannot identify by name for security reasons. We also have a couple of Iraqi reporters in Baghdad who have emerged as real stars. They have bylines and we make extensive use of them. One needs American journalists primarily to speak to American officials and to write for an American audience that an Iraqi journalist might not completely understand.

Scott: What is going to happen to the Iraq story?

Crichton: There will likely be a climax in the battle and we’ll get some idea of whether they are going to make political progress, which is the key element going towards elections in October.

Scott: This is an interesting form of campaigning indeed.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Eunjung Kim, Hui Wang and Catherine Wolf.

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