WASHINGTON- With the exception of the Iraq war, foreign news coverage by the three major U.S. television networks declined significantly in 2007, according to the latest annual review by the authoritative Tyndall Report.Indeed, the foreign news bureaus of the three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, had their lightest year in 2007 since 2001, suggesting that the era of expanded international coverage that followed the Sep. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon is now over.
Aside from Iraq-related stories, which together claimed about 13 percent of the total coverage of the three network evening news programmes, only two other foreign-based stories -- the recent political turmoil in Pakistan, and Iran's nuclear programme and alleged activities in Iraq -- made it onto the list of top 20 stories last year covered by the networks, while Latin America, East Asia, Africa, and even Europe were absent.
"We're now back to pre-9/11 levels of foreign news coverage," said Andrew Tyndall, the report's publisher, who has tracked the 30-minute evening network news shows for 20 years.
He added that this year's presidential election campaign was likely to add to the downward trend in foreign-news coverage. "On the four-year presidential election cycle, foreign coverage always goes down," he told IPS.
Even Iraq shows signs of decline, according to the report's tally. During the first nine months of 2007, combined coverage by the three network news programmes averaged 30 minutes a week.
But after the Democratic-led Congress proved unable to enact a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in September, average weekly coverage of the conflict fell to a mere four minutes, by far the least amount coverage Iraq has received since the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
An estimated 25 million U.S. residents watch the 22 minutes of evening news the three networks broadcast on an average weekday evening. Although cable news -- including CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC -- have made important gains in the number of viewers of viewers who watch them, the audience for the network news is still roughly 10 times larger.
Polls show that a majority of the public relies primarily on television, as opposed to newspapers, magazines, radio or the Internet, for most of their information about national and international events and issues.
The three network weekday evening news shows provided a total of 14,727 minutes of coverage last year, of which 1,888 minutes was devoted to Iraq, making Iraq-related coverage the biggest by far for the fifth year in a row, according to the report.
By contrast, the next biggest story, the massacre by a deranged student of 33 people at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (Virginia Tech) last April, received a combined total of 244 minutes of coverage, while the third-ranking story, the wildfires that plagued southern California in October, received 221 minutes.
Still, the amount of coverage devoted to Iraq last year was less than half of the coverage the networks offered during the year of the invasion and less than 50 percent of the coverage in 2004.
Moreover, nearly two-thirds of total Iraq coverage last year was devoted to U.S. combat-related events, as opposed to sectarian violence or Iraqi politics and reconstruction. In the four previous years, including 2003, the news was focused less on the U.S. combat role. "Coverage of non-combat-related news really stopped abruptly in mid-September," said Tyndall.
After Iraq, the most-covered foreign stories were the political upheaval in Pakistan and concerns about Iran's military and nuclear operations, which claimed 165 minutes and 106 minutes, respectively. Of the top 20 stories, Pakistan ranked sixth and Iran 16th.
By comparison, five foreign stories besides the Iraq war made it into the top 20 last year. The war between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah ranked second with a total 578 minutes. North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons (162 minutes), Iran's nuclear programme (131 minutes), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (121 minutes), and the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan (83 minutes) all ranked in the top 20 in 2006. With the exception of Iran, all of these failed to appear on the list this year.
On the other hand, global warming, which was covered both from foreign bureaus and from U.S. datelines, claimed a total 103 minutes of coverage, placing it in 18th place this year, just ahead of stories about the increases in oil and petrol prices, which ranked 20th.
At the same time, total coverage of environmental and energy issues -- apart from storms and natural disasters (chronic favourites in on the television news agenda) -- received a total of 476 minutes of coverage, an increase of more than 50 percent over 2006, reaching the same level as coverage of terrorism this year.
Indeed, total terrorism-related coverage fell sharply in 2007 compared to the previous year -- from 1,191 minutes to 476 minutes. "Of all the statistics that I compiled this year, the parity between terrorism- and environment-related coverage was the most fascinating," Tyndall said. "On one hand, you have the rise of (former vice president and Nobel Peace Laureate) Al Gore's global consciousness and the decline of George W. Bush's global consciousness."
Aside from Iraq, Pakistan and Iran, the next most-covered foreign stories on the three network news programmes included Afghanistan and the campaign against al Qaeda (83 minutes each); the controversy over toxic toy imports from China (79 minutes); and terrorist plots in Britain and the news about the British royal family (72 minutes and 64 minutes, respectively).
Those were followed by intra-Palestinian conflicts (48 minutes); toxic pet-food imports from China and the crisis in Burma (43 minutes each); and the continuing violence in the Darfur region of Sudan (31 minutes), according to Tyndall.
Besides the Virginia Tech massacre and the California wildfires, other primarily domestic stories that made it into the top 20 included fluctuations in U.S. stock markets; winter blizzards; the meltdown of the U.S. real-estate market; the debate over illegal immigration; problems faced by military veterans and their families; the aftermath of the 2006 Hurricane Katrina; tornados; airline delays; and the presidential election campaign, which claimed 1,072 minutes of coverage in 2007, even though there remain 11 months before the actual balloting.
"Since Iraq coverage has declined so much since September, the big question for the national news media now is whether they will just cut back and turn more and more to the elections and other domestic coverage and thus save money, or whether they will redeploy their resources to cover other issues and events overseas," said Tyndall.
© 2008 Inter Press Service