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How Well Are Bay Area Newspapers Covering the War With Iraq?

analysis by John McManus

By what standard can we judge coverage of the war on Iraq?

The first thing to acknowledge is that no journalist or news organization is impartial. Not the Mercury News, not the Chronicle, not the Contra Costa Times. Not Al-jazeera.

There is no neutral standard of comparison.

As Arabs, Al-jazeera's reporters are just as likely to be influenced by their historical background as American reporters by their upbringing in the United States. The lenses through which they make sense of events differ.

And their interests differ. American audiences hunger for news of American troopshow they are faring, what they are up against. Arab audiences are naturally more concerned with how their fellow Arabs are coping with the war.

If that's not enough, commercial forces color reporting at least to some degree. As businesses, news media around the world risk losing customers should their reporting stray outside the accepted biases of their audiences.

So it's not surprising that the enormous mosaic of war is not uniformly illuminated by news organizations from the U.S., Arab states, Europe and elsewhere.

Nevertheless, journalists are charged with providing as accurate and complete a picture as humans can-without regard to nationalism or the commercial interest of the companies that employ them.

And then there are logistical difficulties

Covering war inevitably strains the normal conventions of journalistic neutrality. It simply isn't possible for journalists to cross a shell-scarred battlefield and ask the opposing commander "How was it for you?"

The best one can hope for is:

  • That journalists in the field accurately report what they witness-even if it may give comfort to one side and deflate morale on the other. (Some compromise with military officials about withholding information of tactical value to others such as exact troop locations, battle plans, etc., is unavoidable.)
  • That news organizations ask tough questions of the authorities they can reach--on both sides-rather than acting as nave stenographers, uncritically passing on whatever officials say. Historically, politicians and generals serving every flag have misled and used the press. The Pentagon has proved no exception. (Remember the Pentagon Papers? Or, for that matter, the Maine?)
  • That journalists avoid identifying with one side, even if the soldiers of that side have "got their back" when bullets snap overhead. No "we" and "they." No flag decals. No cheer-leading. Journalism shouldn't privilege one human life over another merely due to the accident of birth location.

Only history is competent to judge, but it's not too soon to test for some obvious signs of bias.

What jingoism looks like

In American news media, bias might look like the failure to report on U.S. military set-backs, or civilian casualties, or oppositional views from around the world. Elsewhere it might be the photo-negative of such reporting.

So how did the Bay Area's three largest newspapers do?

I analyzed every story in the first week of the war, March 19 to 25. Overall, the report is positive. Some highlights

        Coverage was very extensive, particularly in the Chronicle and Mercury News. Both papers expanded from the week before by 50 pages over seven days, about 8%. Both papers ran special sections devoted to the war. Providing its own perspective, the Chronicle sent four staff reporters and a photographer to Iraq, as well as commissioning a freelance photographer. The Mercury and Times each sent a staff photographer. While the Times created no special sections, its first section was dominated by war coverage. (The circulation, and therefore revenue, of the Times is substantially smaller than the Mercury or Chronicle.)

At a time when newspaper ad dollars are down, sending journalists half-way around the world, paying for satellite phones, hiring translators and securing transportation under black market conditions represents a genuine commitment to public service.

"The cost has yet to be determined," said Chronicle Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal, "but when you look at newsprint, high risk insurance for those in the war zone, sat phone transmissions for words and pictures, overtime in the overall newsroom, production costs, etc. you are looking at well over half a million dollars in additional costs."

        With few exceptions-and those only at the Times-the Bay Area's largest newspapers avoided overt jingoism. No U.S. flag logos. No "us" and "them" language. The use of the word "allies" and "coalition" for the Anglo-American forces, however, may imply greater multilateral representation than actually exists. In fact, with reports of as many as 5,000 Syrians fighting for Iraq, as well as volunteers from other Arab states, the Iraqis might too have claimed a coalition. The term, however, was reserved only for the Anglo-American side.

The Times headlines sometimes substituted the Bush Administration's view of the war as a liberation effort for a more impartial one. On the first day of the land invasion a page one headline read: "Anticipation of freedom joins fear of war in Baghdad." The next day a headline characterized the attack on one Iraqi city a "liberation" even though that term appeared nowhere in the story.

Undoubtedly some Iraqis look on the Anglo-American forces as liberators. But it's far from clear that the majority welcome the invasion of their country and its attendant destructionthe death of many young soldiers, over a thousand civilians, and national humiliation.

On March 25, the main headline was "Next Stop, Baghdad." To my eye, this seems like cheer-leading. Were a foreign army marching on San Francisco from Santa Cruz, would the Times print "Next Stop, San Francisco" in 72-point type?

        The reporting pulled few apparent punches. Bay Area newspapers did not shy away from reporting and photographing American setbacks. The captured American Apache helicopter surrounded by Iraqi irregulars was a prominent front-page photo. Attacks disrupting American supply lines and the capture of American POWs may have dropped American morale (and stock prices) temporarily, but they were front page stories.

However, photos of dead American or British soldiers were off limits with one exception-a small, grainy photo taken from Iraqi television of ambushed American servicemen that appeared only in the Chronicle. The bodies of slain Iraqi troops, however, were fair game for photographers. Still, none of these pictures appeared, to my eye, to be sensationalized. The faces of the dead were not shown, nor were the photos especially morbid.

        The death of Iraqi civilians and the destruction of their homes by American bombs and missiles was reported, but generally relegated to the back pages during the first week of the war. In fairness, however, after the sampling period, when bombs fell on a Baghdad market, civilian deaths were prominently reported.

        With the occasional exception of the Mercury News, the global story of the war enraging large numbers of people around the world and of the increasing isolation and alienation of the United States was buried by "rat-atat-tat" coverage of combat. The Mercury reported more stories skeptical of the White House take on the conflict than the Chronicle, and did so more prominently. The paper ran a special section "Understanding the Conflict" on the third day of fighting which provided the broader context so lacking in the battle coverage television was providing non-stop. The Times provided the least tough-minded coverage.

In a world in which even superpowers depend on other nations for trade and security as never before, the story of what the war is costing America may be far more consequential than accounts of an unequal and brief set of battles.

       Coverage of domestic protest against the war outside of the Bay Area was scant in all three papers. All three papers gave significant space to covering the protests that disrupted San Francisco. The dominant frame of that coverage in both the Chronicle and Times was generally indignant-the protesters were an expensive nuisance. As the Chronicle's Rob Morse put it in his column, "Think globally, ruin people's day locally." (Columnists are allowed the freedom to offer opinion, but Morse's clever phrase also described news reporting.)

The Mercury, while noting the expense and inconvenience caused by record numbers of arrests, managed to publish more of the motivation of those engaging in civil disobedience than the slogans on their signs. In fact, the Mercury ran an entire special section on the protests.

Civil disobedience always creates inconvenience for others. Arrests of African-American protesters at segregated lunch counters in the South during the 1960s disrupted small businesses. The bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks was cripplingly expensive. At the time, many people saw such actions as hurting the cause of civil rights.

But peaceful protest has a special place in a democracy. It ought to be treated respectfully by an institution whose freedom to print unpopular views is expressly provided in the First Amendment.

 

 

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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