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Misleading AP Report: "Iraq Coverage Wasn't Biased"

by Christian Christensen

U.S. Media Spins The "Good News" About Iraq (April 2003)

The Irony Ombudsman appears to have taken the day off at most U.S. news outlets as editors have jumped on a story from the AP entitled, "Report: Iraq Coverage Wasn't Biased."

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 story.

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 "positive/neutral."

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 U.S. 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 information.)

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 rabies.

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 U.S. 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.
His last article in the Monitor, "Fox News: The Whole World's Watching" appeared in January.
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Albion Monitor March 18, 2005 (

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