The Irony Ombudsman appears to have taken the day off
at most US news outlets as editors have jumped on a
story from the AP entitled, "Report: Iraq Coverage
As the notion of an "objective" and "balanced"
commercial press in the United States continues to go
the way of the Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness
Monster and Iraqi WMD, it is hardly surprising that
editors around the country salivate at the sight of a
story that appears to confirm the existence of these
strange, elusive phenomena (objectivity and balance,
not WMD). The irony is that in their desperation to
run any remotely positive story about the news media,
these editors have exhibited, as they did numerous
times over Iraq, an inability to sniff out a fishy
The AP story in question was based upon the results of
a study produced by the Project for Excellence in Journalism
(PEJ) -- an institute affiliated with the Columbia
University Graduate School of Journalism -- and funded
by the Pew Charitable Trusts. For the study, over 2000
news stories from television, newspapers and websites
were examined and coded. The particular result of the
study that led to the AP headline in question
("Report: Iraq Coverage wasn't Biased") -- a headline
carried verbatim by a large number of news outlets --
was that while 25% of all stories on the war on Iraq
were "Negative," 20% were "Positive." In general,
according to the AP story, the positive and negative
stories balanced each other out. Accusations of bias, therefore, were unfounded.
As with most academic research, however, the devil is
in the details, and this particular study is no
exception. Three examples make the point:
The AP story mentions "positive" and "negative"
stories, but it fails to mention rather important
third and fourth categories used in the PEJ study:
"neutral" and "multi-faceted/NA." In their analysis of commercial evening television news, for example, 16% of news stories on Iraq were classified as "positive" while 28% were "negative." More interestingly, however, 44% of all stories were considered to be "neutral" while 13% were "multi-faceted." In other words, while 28% of stories on evening commercial news were "negative," 60% were "positive/neutral."
For cable television, 61% of stories on Iraq on CNN
were "positive/neutral," with 44% MSNBC (40% of MSNBC
stories were "Multi-Faceted"). Naturally, Fox led the
way with 77% of their stories on Iraq being
The AP story makes no mention of another key aspect
of the PEJ study: the use of sources. When it comes to television news stories on Iraq, the numbers are
disturbing: 49% of evening news programs, 61% of
morning news programs, and 57% of PBS news programs
had either one or no identifiable sources.
When we take these factors into consideration, any
claim that the US news media (particularly broadcast
and cable news) were "unbiased" in their coverage of
the war strains credulity. (I should point out that my
focus here is on television news, because that is
where the vast majority of Americans get their
That the United States could go to war on the pretext
of removing WMD from Iraq and reducing levels of
global terrorism, only to find no WMD, see a
significant increase in global terrorism -- at the
cost of 1,500 American and up to 100,000 Iraqi lives
--and still manage to keep 60% of commercial evening
and 67% of morning news stories "positive/neutral"
hardly bodes well for the idea of an "objective" and
"unbiased" media. As for an "aggressive" and
"critical" news media...well, forget about it.
And, if the Vice-President of the United States could
get on television and repeat ad infinitum that there
was a clear link between Saddam Hussein and the
horrors of September 11, only to back off the claim
once it became a running joke -- all the while taking
fat checks from no-bid contract kings Halliburton --
and still maintain "positive/neutral" coverage 61% of
the time on CNN and 77% on Fox, then perhaps the
"Watchdog Press" has contracted a rather nasty case of
In their zeal to reassure the American people, news
outlets that have embraced this AP story have done
themselves, and their readers, viewers and listeners,
a disservice. If you take a glance at the actual
study, you will see that the few figures provided by
the AP tell only part of the story. The actual study
shows that half of all news stories on the evening
news and almost two-thirds of stories on the morning
news had one or no transparent source. During a time
of war (the ultimate exercise in state power) these
numbers are nothing short of awful. And these are the
places where, as the outlets love to brag, "America
turns" to get information?
As if the rather selective use of figures was not bad
enough, the following quote from the article added a
layer of confusion to the issue: "[PEJ project
director] Rosenstiel said most people understand the complexities of what is going on in Iraq, how continued suicide bombings can happen at the same time as a successful election." This assertion flies in the face of research conducted last year at the University of Maryland
suggesting that over 50% of people in the United
States believed the following: (1) Iraq had been
directly linked to the 9/11 attacks (false); (2) Iraq
had WMD at the time war began (false); (3) most
experts either agreed or were evenly divided over
whether Iraq had WMD (false); and, (4), world opinion
supported the US invasion of Iraq (false).
Since the United States went to war with Iraq on the
basis of less-than-complex falsehoods, claims that
Americans understand the "complexities" of events in
Iraq, thereby suggesting that the media are doing
their jobs properly, tend to ring hollow.
Interestingly, the researchers from the Maryland study indicated that even a minimal amount of information regarding the true opinions of experts (e.g. there was no evidence of WMD in Iraq) would have likely swayed public opinion. This, of course, should have been the point where the news media came in. Should.
If this level of misinformation -- in the most
mediated society in the world, no less -- is the
result of the "unbiased" reporting touted in the AP
report, then we are in big trouble. And, if "balanced"
or "neutral" reporting means not taking a stance on
invisible WMD, Halliburton no-bid contracts or
imaginary Iraq-Al Qaeda links, then perhaps we are all
better off without it.
Dr. Christian Christensen is Assistant Professor Faculty of Communication at Bahcesehir University Istanbul, Turkey.