Global Policy Forum

Media Ignore Iraq's Humanitarian Issues

November 13, 2006

I've suspected all along that coverage of the conflict in Iraq has skimped on humanitarian issues and overdone it on the military side. Now a piece of research, published by a team from Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool universities, backs up my hunch with some hard figures.

The study, entitled Media Wars: News Media Performance and Media Management During the 2003 Iraq War, analysed British news reports over a period covering the run-up to the war, its duration and a week after the fall of Baghdad. It found that more than 56 percent of TV news and 49 percent of newspaper stories related to the military campaign and strategy.

In contrast, less than 6 percent focused on what the authors term "substantive issues", which included stories about the humanitarian situation and the rationale for war. Controversial issues such as civilian casualties and anti-war protest accounted for less than 10 percent of stories.

The study also evaluated the access of different political actors to the news agenda. Perhaps not surprisingly, it found that four-fifths of reports mentioned at least one official from the U.S.-led coalition. Members of the Iraqi regime were mentioned in half of reports, and Iraqi civialians cropped up in 40 percent of TV coverage and 31 percent of newspaper articles.

But other relevant actors - including humanitarian organisations, the anti-war movement, UN officials and experts - had much less access to the media, with none of these groups appearing in more than 12 percent of coverage. Humanitarian actors were quoted in only 4 percent of news reports.

Dr Piers Robinson from Manchester University, who led the study, said: "Most reports did not discuss humanitarian operations at all, but those that did were critical of coalition attempts to manage humanitarian operations: 48% of TV coverage and 40% of press coverage being coded as critical."

But when it came to "the humanitarian argument for war", the study notes that over 80 percent of stories mirrored the government position, with less than 12 percent challenging the moral case for war. The authors write that their findings "fail to offer strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous in its approach to the official narratives and justifications for the war in Iraq".

"Coverage of the war was narrated largely through the voice of the coalition with much less attention given to other actors," commented Robinson in a press release. "This suggests that factors such as reliance upon elite sources, patriotism and news values rooted in episodic coverage continue to be important in shaping war-time coverage."

For me, it would have been interesting if the period of analysis had been extended for considerably longer than a week after the fall of Baghdad. My feeling is that a longer study may have found more critical reporting with regard to the coalition governments' strategy, but the paucity of humanitarian coverage would have remained pretty much unchanged.

More Information on Iraq
More Information on Media Coverage of Iraq
More Information on the Humanitarian Consequences of the War and Occupation of Iraq
More Information on Media and the Project of Empire


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