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Is the Iraq war vanishing from US view?

By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News, Washington

US soldiers are watched by children in Iraq's Diyala province, 20 March 2008
Public awareness of US involvement in Iraq is slipping, surveys suggest
The US-led war in Iraq is now five years old. Yet it seems the American media and public are paying less attention than ever.

Coverage has declined sharply, according to a Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism study, falling from an average of 15% of news output last August to just 3% in February this year.

A separate Pew study found that only 28% of Americans recently polled could correctly identify the number of US troops killed in Iraq, compared with more than half in August last year.

In response, the non-partisan Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) group launched a petition this week calling on the major US TV networks to "make sure the Iraq war is getting the coverage it deserves".

While the week of the war's fifth anniversary has seen an increase in coverage, much of it has been retrospective in tone, analysts say, rather than focused on events now.

So what has led to this apparent fading from view of the third-longest war ever undertaken by the US? And is it set to last?

'Iraq fatigue'

The Project for Excellence in Journalism has been monitoring coverage of the Iraq war since January last year, looking at 1,300 news stories a week from 48 different sources.

A comparison of the figures from 2007 and the first quarter of 2008 reveals "a dramatic decline in coverage", said Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the PEJ.

He puts the drop down to three key factors:

  • The political fight over the war's course, which dominated the early months of 2007 after the Democrats took control of Congress, effectively ended when President George W Bush won the battle over funding in the summer - so news coverage of the policy debate shrank
  • The level of violence in Iraq began to diminish as the "surge" policy of increased troop numbers came into effect, "so there is less coverage coming out of Iraq partly because there is less violence and carnage"
  • The demands of covering two giant stories - the Iraq war and the 2008 presidential race - put big pressure on media resources. By the end of 2007, the election was dominating the news agenda and has been ever since; the economy, not the war, has emerged as the dominant theme

In addition, the Iraq war has been tough for the media to cover because of its long duration and the tremendous physical risk to journalists on the ground, Mr Jurkowitz said.

As for the US audience, he added, many people appear to have "made up their minds" about the rights and wrongs of the war, and so are not looking for more media focus.

"'Iraq fatigue' would be a fair way to describe the public's state of mind at the moment," he said.

'Pretty distressing'

For Major Raymond Kimball, a veteran of the Iraq conflict who is now an assistant professor of history and a representative of IAVA, that message is hard to hear.

US troops on patrol in Yusufiya, south of Baghdad, 19 March 2008
Professor Meyrowitz says the media is failing to scrutinise the Iraq war
"Many of us still have friends and comrades over there in service right now and so it's very disturbing when what they are doing for better and for worse is being [knocked] off the pages by, for example, Eliot Spitzer's misdemeanours and what hospital Britney Spears has been checked into recently," he said.

"It is pretty distressing that the media coverage has dropped off so much and that so few Americans are really in tune with that."

Major Kimball agrees that the decline in media attention is in part down to a relative reduction in violence over the past few months - citing the old truism of "it bleeds, it leads".

The second reason, he believes, is that there "has not been any real engagement by the American public" with the war, with the result that there has been little pressure for more media interest.

The vast majority of soldiers on the ground in Iraq believe in what they are doing... which makes it all the more of a slap in the face when they feel that no-one is reading about it
Major Raymond Kimball
IAVA

Major Kimball puts the lack of engagement down to the fact that only a small percentage of Americans have a direct connection with the military, so they are not seeking information.

The danger is, he says, that if citizens are not well-informed about the war, they will be less equipped to use their vote in November's congressional and presidential elections to shape US policy.

A sense that the war has fallen off the radar at home also has an impact on soldiers' morale, he adds.

"I would be willing to say that the vast majority of soldiers on the ground in Iraq believe in what they are doing, think it's valuable - which makes it all the more of a slap in the face when they feel that no-one is reading about it or hearing about it back home."

'No lessons learned'

An early study of this week's fifth anniversary news coverage by the PEJ suggests the war has still received considerably less attention than the presidential campaign and the economy.

US Vice-President Dick Cheney at Balad Air Base, Iraq, 18 March 2008
Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Iraq to mark five years of the war
Joshua Meyrowitz, professor of media studies at the University of New Hampshire, is critical of both the media's performance and the American public's failure to demand more.

"I thought the anniversary coverage was pathetically light in both senses of the word - that there wasn't very much of it except as it affected the presidential race, the story of the moment... and it just had no texture, no context, no lessons learned," he said.

He argues that the US media's lack of scrutiny of the case for going to war in Iraq and its conduct since makes it more likely that the public would accept a case for attacking Iran, should it be made.

'Sharp focus'

Whether Iraq stays largely out of the headlines as the year progresses will depend partly on events on the ground - and partly on US politics as November's election approaches.

John McCain at Baghdad International Airport, 16 March 2008
Iraq could be back in the news in the general election run-up
If a recent spike in violent attacks gathers pace, media interest could pick up, Mr Jurkowitz predicts.

He also believes that once the White House race begins in earnest between presumptive Republican nominee John McCain and Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama for the Democrats, differences in Iraq war policy will "come into really sharp focus" and demand media attention.

In the meantime, IAVA hopes its petition - addressed to ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, Fox News and CNN - will prick some consciences and turn the spotlight back on Iraq.

Major Kimball said: "Five years ago on Tuesday I was sitting in the Kuwaiti desert doing equipment and vehicle checks and getting ready to drive north.

"Five years later, it's amazing to me that I'm basically having to get on a soapbox and remind Americans that their men and women are engaged in conflict overseas. That's saddening."


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