Tuesday, August 16, 2005

MSM does Iraq 

Wonders never cease - the mainstream media, or the Associated Press to be exact, is having a rethink about its reporting from Iraq - as reported by "The New York Times". It all started when Rosemary Goudreau, the editorial page editor of "The Tampa Tribune", received an email that many of you would be familiar with, listing in a "Did you know?" format all the underreported achievement in Iraq and ending with this sentence: "Of course we didn't know! Our media doesn't tell us!"

This promoted Ms. Goudreau to ask some questions of the AP, which supplies most of the international news for her's and many other newspapers.
Ms. Goudreau's query prompted an unusual discussion last month in New York at a regular meeting of editors whose newspapers are members of The Associated Press. Some editors expressed concern that a kind of bunker mentality was preventing reporters in Iraq from getting out and explaining the bigger picture beyond the daily death tolls.

"The bottom-line question was, people wanted to know if we're making progress in Iraq," Ms. Goudreau said, and the A.P. articles were not helping to answer that question.

"It was uncomfortable questioning The A.P., knowing that Iraq is such a dangerous place," she said. "But there's a perception that we're not telling the whole story."

Mr. Silverman said in an interview that he was aware of that perception. "Other editors said they get calls from readers who are hearing stories from returning troops of the good things they have accomplished while there, and readers find that at odds with the generally gloomy portrayal in the papers of what's going on in Iraq," he said.

Mr. Silverman said the editors were asking for help in making sense of the situation. "I was glad to have that discussion with the editors because they have to deal with the perception that the media is emphasizing the negative," he said.

"We're there to report the good and the bad and we try to give due weight to everything going on," he said. "It is unfortunate that the explosions and shootings and fatalities and injuries on some days seem to dominate the news."

Suki Dardarian, deputy managing editor of The Seattle Times and vice president of the board of the Associated Press Managing Editors, said that the discussion was "a pretty healthy one."

"One of the things the editors felt was that as much context as you can bring, the better," Ms. Dardarian said. "They wanted them to get beyond the breaking news to 'What does this mean?' "

She also said that as Mr. Silverman and Kathleen Carroll, The A.P.'s executive editor, responded to the concerns, the editors realized that some questions were impossible to answer. For example, she said, the editors understood that it was much easier to add up the number of dead than to determine how many hospitals received power on a particular day or how many schools were built.
All the familiar elements are here - the irritated public, people hearing about a totally different Iraq from soldiers and civilians on the ground, the international media cocooned in the Green Zone hotels, "if it bleeds, it leads" bias, the emphasis on events rather than processes and the context. Just about the only thing that's missing is any mention of political bias, but that perhaps would have been a bridge too far in this constructive self-criticism exercise.

Still, leaving the anti-Bush, anti-Republican, anti-military bias aside, even if the mainstream media can address other, more technical problems, it would go a long way towards rebalancing the Iraq coverage. So:

1) Mike Silverman, the managing editor of the AP says that "The main obstacle we face is the severe limitation on our movement and our ability to get out and report. It's very confining for our staff to go into Baghdad and have to spend most of their time on the fifth floor of the Palestine Hotel." But all of Iraq is not Baghdad or the Sunni Triangle. Large swaths of the country are fairly safe, others - like Kurdistan - very safe. More journos, for example, should go into the footsteps of Reuters' Luke Baker, who has recently filed three excellent pieces from Suleymaniyah - excellent not least because so rare.

2) Silverman also complains that he would love to publish more material written by journalists embedded with the troops, but that the opportunities are pretty limited since there are only about three dozen embeds left out of some 700 during the initial stages of war. Well - even three dozen should be able to provide enough worthwhile coverage. And for goodness' sake - hire Michael Yon. And embed more - journos will not only be safer with troops than running around Iraq on their own, but they will also get to see a lot of the reconstruction work, humanitarian activity, and winning of hearts and minds that successfully goes on off the beaten track (read: outside the Green Zone) where most of the Coalition troops are stationed.

3) "Mr. Silverman said The A.P. had already decided... that it would have Robert H. Reid, an A.P. correspondent at large who has reported frequently from Iraq, write an overview every 10 days. Mr. Silverman also said the wire service would make more effort to flag articles that look beyond the breaking news. As it turned out, he said, most of the information in the anonymous e-mail message had been reported by The A.P., but the details had been buried in articles or the articles had been overlooked." Indeed - we're not asking for the AP to publish their own regular "Good news from Iraq" round-up, but please stop treating any general news from Iraq as a paragraph nine filler in the terrorist-attack-of-the-day regular feature.

See? It's not that painful.


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