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Iraq, Natural Disasters Dominated 2005 TV News

by Jim Lobe

2005 Wayward Press Awards "The Uncovered News"

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Led by Hurricane Katrina, natural disasters and Iraq dominated the U.S. television news during 2005, accounting for almost half of the content of the three major network news shows over the course of the year, according to the latest annual round-up of the weekday evening news by the New York-based Tyndall Report.

While all Iraq-related stories accounted for a total about 15 percent of the roughly 14,000 minutes of news broadcast by ABC, CBS, and NBC during the year, that percentage was about one third less than 2004 and less than half the attention it received in 2003.

"It's ironic and disturbing that just as debate about what to do in Iraq is heating up, network coverage of the war is dropping off," Dan Hallin, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, told IPS.

"It obviously reflects the appeal of natural disaster coverage, but also probably the fact that war is less appealing as a story for television as it becomes more a political story and a divisive issue."

Indeed, the decline in the Iraq story was more than made up by natural disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, the aftermath of the Dec. 26, 2004, tsunami, and the Oct. 8 earthquake in Kashmir.

Led by Katrina, natural disasters received a total of more than 2,200 minutes over the year, or nearly 20 percent of all news coverage, more than three times the annual average for the previous 16 years, according to the report, which is considered the most authoritative record of broadcast news in the industry.

Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and created major political headaches for U.S. President George W. Bush, received a total of 1,153 minutes of air time from the three major networks. The aftermath of the tsunami, which killed more than a quarter million people in coastal areas of the Indian Ocean, received 250 minutes of coverage.

Some critics saw the rise in natural disaster coverage in 2005 at the expense of Iraq and other difficult foreign policy issues as being as much a return to "business as usual" as it was due to the destruction itself.

"During full-fledged combat involving U.S. forces, war news trumps all else, but once major combat ends, and the hard slog of counter-insurgency drags on, such as in Iraq today, the news spotlight shifts to easier stories to tell," said William Dorman, who teaches communications at California State University in Sacramento.

"Despite all of the talk about how the world had changed after 9-11 and journalism with it, it did not take all that long for the news media to settle back into familiar patterns of coverage that, all things being equal, is tilted heavily toward natural over political disasters, the bizarre over the commonplace, [and] celebrity over nonentity," he added.

Indeed, after Iraq, Katrina, and the tsunami, the biggest news story of the year was the death of Pope John Paul II, which claimed 246 minutes of attention; the London mass transit bombings, which claimed 221 minutes; and the Terry Schiavo "right-to-die" case in Florida.

Schiavo, who had been brain dead since 1990 but was kept alive during a prolonged legal and political battle over her fate, was named "the most newsworthy woman of the year" by the report.

Despite the rise of cable television and the Internet as sources of news and information, the network evening news remains by far the single most important source of news for the U.S. public, according to numerous surveys. On an average evening, between 25 million and 30 million people -- roughly 10 percent of the total U.S. population -- tune in to at least one of the three nightly 30-minute programs.

The view of the world, particularly the natural world, presented by the three news programs was anything but reassuring. In addition to the hurricanes, the tsunami aftermath, and the Kashmir quake, fears about an outbreak of avian flu ranked among the Top 20 stories.

And while avian flu has so far only struck a few dozen people in Eurasia, AIDS, which killed more than three million people last year and has received more attention from the networks in the past, got almost none in 2005. According to Andrew Tyndall, director of the report, less than 15 minutes were devoted to coverage of the disease in Africa, where it claimed more than two million deaths.

Indeed, Africa was almost non-existent on the U.S. network news last year. Most of the AIDS coverage was confined to the deliberations of the Group of Eight (and the related concerts organized by the rock star Bono and other major entertainment celebrities) last summer when the leaders of the world's wealthiest nations adopted plans to eliminate the debt of some of the world's poorest countries and to double aid to them over a period of five years.

According to Tyndall, the networks had originally planned to devote more attention to Africa during the G8 meeting, which took place in Gleneagles, Scotland, but that the London transport bombings took priority.

Meanwhile, however, the continuing violence in Darfur, Sudan, which Bush himself had declared to be "genocide" in late 2004, received only 20 minutes of coverage -- making it the single biggest Africa-based story of the year. A drought- and locust-induced famine, which is believed to have killed tens of thousands of children in Niger, claimed a total of nine minutes' coverage from the three networks.

Latin America was similarly invisible. Aside from the hurricanes that coursed through the Caribbean Basin before hitting the U.S., the single biggest Latin-based story consisted of the activities of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who received a total of 11 minutes of coverage, according to Tyndall.

The border situation between Mexico and the U.S. received more time -- 31 minutes -- while the growing political and cultural backlash against undocumented immigrants in the U.S. accounted for an additional 22 minutes.

Despite alarming new evidence of global warming that surfaced during the year -- including dramatic losses of Arctic sea ice and the fact that 2005 was the hottest year on record in the northern hemisphere -- the only sustained attention it received on the news was in relation to the hurricanes, according to Tyndall. He said speculation that warming had increased the intensity of the hurricanes was the "fourth or fifth angle" that the evening news shows used in covering Katrina, in particular.

Other top-ranked stories in 2005 that were unrelated to Iraq or natural disasters included the rise in oil and gas prices (156 minutes), the debate over social security (148 minutes), the U.S. space shuttle program (146 minutes), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (145 minutes), and the aborted nomination of White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court.

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Albion Monitor January 11, 2006 (

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