Pew: Media stopped reporting on Iraq when the news got better

A new analysis from Pew Research doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know — that the news media has an agenda, one which does not include progress in Iraq. Starting on May 24, 2007, the news media starting ignoring the story after the Democrats surrendered on the funding, but the effort to ignore it really started in earnest after Generl David Petraeus reported progress on all fronts in September of that year. Instead of Hillary Clinton’s “willing suspension of disbelief”, we got a willing suspension of coverage:

From January 2007 — when Bush announced the “surge” — through the end of May 2007, Iraq had been the dominant story, accounting for 20% of all the news coverage measured by PEJ’s News Coverage Index. But from the time of that May funding vote through the war’s fifth anniversary on March 19, 2008, coverage plunged by about 50%. In that period, the media paid more than twice as much attention to the presidential campaign as it did to the war.

All that helps explain another eye-catching statistic. In the first three months of 2008, coverage of the campaign outstripped coverage of the war by a margin of more than 10-to-1 (43% of the newshole compared with 4%). In an environment in which newsroom cutbacks and decreasing resources may make it more difficult for news outlets to stay atop two ongoing mega-stories, the media, for now, have made their priorities clear. …

But there is another key reason why the war has virtually disappeared from the headlines and talk shows these days — and that’s the situation inside Iraq itself. The reduction in violence on the ground that began late last year has coincided with a significant decrease in coverage from the war zone as well.

Through the first half of 2007, about half the stories from Iraq examined in a PEJ study were about the continuing drumbeat of daily violence. From July through October, that number fell to a little more than one-third. In November, stories filed from Iraq began to take greater notice of the surge’s success in reducing violence, even as the volume of coverage tapered off, evidence perhaps of the old adage that no news is good news.

I’d suspect that the adage here should be Good news is no news. Certainly, the other journalistic adage of “If it bleeds, it leads” applies here. The lack of explosive material leaves editors with less gripping but more balanced accounts of improved life in Iraq. However, don’t the media have a responsibility to cover that as well, especially since the war in Iraq continues to be a compelling issue in American politics?

Pew excuses the lack of coverage on the very real risks that journalists face in Iraq. However, they could minimize those risks by following the example of other journalists and embed with the troops, both in the rear and on the front lines in Iraq. Michael Yon and Michael Totten have both made careers of doing that in Iraq and Afghanistan, as have other independents.

Why haven’t the mainstream media outlets done the same in order to get the stories that Yon routinely reports? They did at the beginning of the war, during the invasion. They felt that it made the correspondents too attached to the soldiers, resulting in reporting that supported the war. The alternative is to have reporters holed up in the Green Zone or for them to run unnecessary risks by moving around Iraq without any protection at all. Those risks have diminished, thanks to the progress made over the last nine months, but they still exist.

Their other option would be to find reliable correspondents in the military ranks. Groups like Vets for Freedom feature veterans of Iraq speaking on behalf of the war, and the first complaint they air is that the media isn’t talking with the soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen who have fought in Iraq. That has more risk of subjective reporting in various directions, but it’s safe to say that if the media isn’t where the troops are, they can’t report reliably on what they see.

None of this is new, and the analysis from Pew was hardly unexpected. Confirmation helps.