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TV's Bad News Brigade

ABC, CBS and NBC’s Defeatist Coverage of the War in Iraq

Executive Summary

bombingEver since the United States and an international coalition toppled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in the spring of 2003, the Iraq war has dominated network newscasts. Since then, there’s been a lot of undeniably bad news, as terrorists have launched a savage campaign to thwart efforts to establish democracy in a major Arab state. But are network reporters giving the public an inordinately gloomy portrait of the situation, as some critics charge? Are the positive accomplishments of U.S. soldiers and Iraq’s new democratic leaders being lost in a news agenda dominated by assassinations, car bombings and casualty reports?

The answer to both questions is: Yes.

This conclusion is based on a Media Research Center study of broadcast network news coverage of the Iraq war so far this year. MRC analysts reviewed all 1,388 Iraq stories broadcast on ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News from January 1 through September 30. (In 2006, the MRC will release a similar analysis of cable news coverage of Iraq.) Among the key findings:

Network coverage has been overwhelmingly pessimistic. More than half of all stories (848, or 61%) focused on negative topics or presented a pessimistic analysis of the situation, four times as many as featured U.S. or Iraqi achievements or offered an optimistic assessment (just 211 stories, or 15%).

News about the war has grown increasingly negative. In January and February, about a fifth of all network stories (21%) struck a hopeful note, while just over half presented a negative slant on the situation. By August and September, positive stories had fallen to a measly seven percent and the percentage of bad news stories swelled to 73 percent of all Iraq news, a ten-to-one disparity.

Terrorist attacks are the centerpiece of TV’s war news. Two out of every five network evening news stories (564) featured car bombings, assassinations, kidnappings or other attacks launched by the terrorists against the Iraqi people or coalition forces, more than any other topic.

Even coverage of the Iraqi political process has been negative. More stories (124) focused on shortcomings in Iraq’s political process — the danger of bloodshed during the January elections, political infighting among politicians, and fears that the new Iraqi constitution might spur more civil strife — than found optimism in the Iraqi people’s historic march to democracy (92 stories). One-third of those optimistic stories (32) appeared on just two nights — January 30 and 31, just after Iraq’s first successful elections.

Few stories focused on the heroism or generous actions of American soldiers. Just eight stories were devoted to recounting episodes of heroism or valor by U.S. troops, and another nine stories featured instances when soldiers reached out to help the Iraqi people. In contrast, 79 stories focused on allegations of combat mistakes or outright misconduct on the part of U.S. military personnel.

It’s not as if there was no “good news” to report. NBC’s cameras found a bullish stock market and a hiring boom in Baghdad’s business district, ABC showcased the coalition’s successful effort to bring peace to a Baghdad thoroughfare once branded “Death Street,” and CBS documented how the one-time battleground of Sadr City is now quiet and citizens are beginning to benefit from improved public services. Stories describing U.S. and Iraqi achievements provided essential context to the discouraging drumbeat of daily news, but were unfortunately just a small sliver of TV’s Iraq news.

It is probably predictable that journalists would emphasize bad news, but network TV’s profoundly pessimistic coverage has shortchanged the accomplishments of both the U.S. military and Iraq’s new leaders and has certainly contributed to the public’s growing discontent with the war. Just as it would be wrong for reporters to conceal any bad news, it is wrong for journalists to downplay the good news that is being made in Iraq. Reporters have the responsibility to fully inform citizens about progress that is being made amid great sacrifice, and they are not doing so.