Feb 1 2004

If News From Iraq Is Bad, It’s Coming From U.S. Officials

Study Data

Despite criticism of the media by the Bush administration and its allies, U.S. TV news coverage of the Iraq situation continues to be dominated by government and military officials, according to a new study by FAIR. The few critics of military operations that find themselves on the nightly news broadcasts rarely question the war as a whole. Nightly network news reports largely focus on tactics and individual battles, with more substantial and often troubling issues surrounding the war, such as civilian casualties, rarely being reported.

The study looked at 319 on-camera sources appearing in stories about Iraq on the nightly network newscasts–ABC World News Tonight, CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News–in the month of October 2003. Sources were coded by name, occupation, nationality, topic and network.

Out of 319 sources, 244 (76 percent) were current or former government or military officials. Of these, 225 were from the United States, and a further nine were from the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. By allowing U.S. officials and appointees to make up 73 percent of total sources, the networks clearly promoted the official line on the war and minimized dissenting views.

Of the current and former government officials, 132 were civilian and 112 military. Seventy-nine percent of the current U.S. civilian officials were Republicans.

Of the nongovernmental sources, there were 40 members of the general public (including 14 relatives of military personnel), 12 think tank representatives, nine journalists and six other professionals. Citizens’ groups appeared six times, including three sources from the Red Cross. Clergy were represented twice.

Overwhelmingly, the Iraq story was told through U.S. eyes, with 81 percent American sources and only 10 percent Iraqi. Only two sources were from Britain, the U.S.’s closest ally in the war. Other nationalities represented included Australian (3 sources), Jordanian (3) and French (1). Twenty sources were of undetermined nationality.

Thirty-nine percent of the on-air sources discussed individual battles or attacks and the tactics of war–e.g., “One thing we’re doing to keep the enemy on its toes is integrating a lot more helicopter missions in what we’ve been doing” (NBC Nightly News, 10/3/03). Other frequently discussed topics included the rebuilding and future of Iraq (33 percent of sources), the justification for war (31 percent), weapons of mass destruction (27 percent) and the financing of the occupation (17).

Despite allegations that the media were favoring bad news in Iraq, the study found that while attacks against coalition forces and bombings were reported almost daily, bigger pieces of bad news were virtually ignored or greatly downplayed.

Ten sources talked about civilian casualties and possible human rights violations by coalition troops. Six of these were in one CBS Evening News segment (10/21/03) covering a Human Rights Watch report on abuses of civilians released that day. Despite Human Rights Watch’s estimate that “U.S. soldiers killed 94 civilians between May 1 and September 30, 2003, in legally questionable circumstances,” ABC and NBC did not find the report worth mentioning. The other four sources discussing civilian casualties and human rights issues appeared in another CBS Evening News piece (10/30/03), on U.S. and British civilians who were shot at by coalition soldiers.

According to a Stars & Stripes (10/15/03) poll that interviewed almost 2,000 U.S. ground troops in Iraq, 49 percent said that their unit’s morale was “low” or “very low.” This subject of morale was discussed in six stories by 13 current and former military officials–12 percent of military sources in the study. By comparison, 75 percent of military sources discussed tactics and details about missions and attacks.

Stories Bush missed

Considering the fact that 33 percent of the total sources were talking about the reconstruction and future of Iraq, the complaints about media coverage from the administration are puzzling.

On October 13, George W. Bush complained that “there’s a sense that people in America aren’t getting the truth” regarding Iraq. He pointed to the “media filter,” and the lack of reporting on positive developments in the country, such as the opening of schools and hospitals, and the introduction of new currency.

Perhaps Bush, who has admitted to not watching or reading the news himself (Fox News Channel, 9/22/03) should have been paying closer attention. All three of the networks covered the first day of school in Iraq (10/1/03), producing upbeat stories about new textbooks, new curriculums and a fresh start for education without Saddam Hussein’s influence. ABC (10/13/03) and NBC (10/15/03) both reported on Iraq’s new currency.

See the Study Data.