Does the Press Get the Soldiers’ Story in Iraq?

A new PEJ survey (of reporters in Iraq) says yes

A new survey of twenty-nine Western news outlets with reporters working in Iraq found that over half of them have had at least one member of their Iraqi staff killed or kidnapped over the past year. The study, conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism from September 28 to November 7, polled 111 journalists who are either currently working, or have recently worked in Iraq.

Perhaps the most telling—and probably what is going to be the most controversial—part of the study is the reporters’ own opinion of the coverage of the “experience of U.S. troops” in Iraq. A whopping 82 percent called it “good/excellent” while only 8 percent felt it was “fair/poor.” To anyone who has spent the last four and a half years scanning newspapers, magazines and television news reports for stories about the troops in the field, this is astounding. Just think of recent editions of the big national newspapers or national news shows—how many stories have you seen about the experiences of troops in the field? My bet would be almost none. Just yesterday, we noted that ABC’s Nightline has only run three on-the-ground stories from Iraq in the last four months, and no matter what you may think of military bloggers, a big reason for their existence—and popularity—is that many people out there feel that the mainstream media have done a shoddy job of covering the daily lives of the troops. Yet the vast majority of the reporters filing stories from Iraq still think that they’re doing enough on the troops. That said, an equally vast majority—85 percent—of reporters surveyed have embedded with the American military in Iraq and a majority of those (60 percent) said that embedding gives them access to places and people the security situation would otherwise not allow. That’s hard to disagree with that but the question is, if so many reporters have embedded, where are the stories about the troops out in the field? Maybe they don’t embed more than once? Or for short periods of time? My feeling - and this has been anecdotally backed up by what I’ve heard from some reporters - is that the stories that focus on one unit, and where not much else happens except for hanging out with that unit, get squashed by the editors back home.

While the reporters polled are happy with their coverage of troops, a full 62 percent of them feel that the press has done a “poor” job of covering the lives of ordinary Iraqis. This goes hand-in-hand with the stories these journalists think have been under-covered. Forty-two percent said that the impact of the war on Iraqi civilians has been under-covered, which is not surprising, given how difficult it is for reporters to move around and communicate with average Iraqis. (A paltry 3 percent said that “know[ing] what U.S. troops are doing” is an under-covered topic. Go back to the previous paragraph for our feelings on that one.)

As for what stories are over-covered, 22 percent smartly said that in a war zone, there’s no such thing: “It’s the biggest story of our time,” said one print bureau chief. “Nothing can be under-covered in Iraq,” echoed a broadcast editor. “There need to be more people and more coverage,” said another bureau chief. “Even U.S. military public affairs officers outside of Baghdad complain about lack of press attention.” Still, some of the numbers are surprising: twenty-nine percent think that “U.S. military strategy” is over-covered. Really? That’s something we here at CJR would love to hear a little more about, since military strategy is at the very heart of the U.S. involvement in Iraq. How can that possibly be over-covered?

As for the inevitable good news/bad news debate that has been raging since the invasion in March 2003, 70 percent of those surveyed hold that war coverage “has given an accurate picture of what is happening there,” while only 3 percent “believe it focuses too much on the negative.” That one should give the conservative blogosphere fits. But PEJ notes that the American public has a much more complicated view of the coverage of the war: an August 2007 Pew survey found that 37 percent of the public “believed news reports were making the situation in Iraq seem worse that it really was,” while 34 percent “thought the press portrayed Iraq accurately.” A slim minority—21 percent—“believed the media made the situation seem better than reality.”

Finally, for all those who continue to cling to the mistaken impression that journalists hang out at the hotel bar in the Green Zone, there’s this: most journalists “are working within a 5 kilometer radius of the Green Zone, but none live inside.”

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.