MEDIA-US: Afghanistan Dominated TV Foreign News in 2009

Afghanistan and the U.S. military escalation in the civil war there dominated foreign-related news coverage by the three major U.S. television networks in 2009, according to the latest annual review by the authoritative Tyndall Report.

Despite the continued presence of well over 100,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan received more than four times the amount of coverage – a combined total of 735 minutes – on the 30-minute nightly evening news programmes of ABC, CBS, and NBC, the primary sources of national and international news for most U.S. citizens.

Despite their importance to the U.S. economy and global strategic position, Europe and East Asia, with the exception of North Korea, were virtually absent in 2009 from the networks’ foreign news agenda, as were Latin America and Africa, according to the report.

And despite the build-up to last month’s long-anticipated Copenhagen Climate Summit, the three networks devoted a total of only 76 minutes to the issue of global warming.

The report found that all foreign-related news – some 3,750 minutes – that appeared on the networks’ programmes accounted for only one-quarter of the approximately 15,000 minutes they devoted to all news coverage on weekday evenings over the course of the year. Each 30-minute programme, which is interrupted several times by commercial advertisements, provides about 22 minutes of news.

As little as that percentage was, it represented a rebound from the 18 percent of total news the networks devoted to foreign-related coverage in 2008. That year was dominated by the presidential election campaign, which took up 25 percent of all coverage, and the financial crisis that broke out in September.

The 2008 percentage was the lowest for any year since the report was first published in 1988 and continued a trend of declining international news coverage that began at the end of the Cold War but was briefly interrupted by the two-year period between the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks and the 2003 Iraq invasion, when foreign-related coverage rocketed to near Cold-War levels.

“You’ve still got a news agenda in 2009 that was completely dominated by the domestic economy, which is not surprising given the severity of the recession,” the report’s publisher, Andrew Tyndall, told IPS.

“On the other hand, you had an entire news hole that was devoted to the 2008 election that became available for other stories, and only a minority of that news hole reverted to international news coverage,” he noted, suggesting that the 20-year trend toward less foreign news appeared to remain intact.

An estimated 23 million U.S. residents watch the evening network news. Although the cable news networks, notably CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, have made important gains in viewership, the audience for network news is about 10 times greater.

A September 2008 survey by the Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press found that some 71 percent of the public in 2008 relied on television as a main source for national and international news, more than twice the percentage of respondents who cited daily newspapers and 30 percent more than those who cited the Internet.

During 2008, the economy, including unemployment, the fortunes of the stock market, and the financial bailouts and scandals, was the top story, accounting for nearly 2,800 minutes, or nearly 20 percent of all coverage. It was followed by health and medical issues, ranging from the healthcare reform debate in Congress to the H1N1 influenza outbreak, at a total of nearly 1,900 minutes, or 13 percent.

Both issues were given roughly twice the amount of attention in 2009 as they were given by the networks in an average year between 1988 and 2008, according to the report.

In foreign-related news, Afghanistan dominated the list with a total of 735 minutes, or five percent of all news coverage. It was followed by Iran with a total of nearly 250 minutes, almost two-thirds of which were devoted to its June elections and the turmoil that followed, and the remainder to the controversy over its nuclear programme.

Iraq, which was the top story by far over the past decade, according to a 10-year study just released by Tyndall, fell into third place in 2009 in foreign news with a total of 169 minutes.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict placed fourth with 132 minutes, 102 minutes of which, however, were broadcast in January during Israel’s “Cast Lead” military offensive in Gaza, leaving a total of only 30 minutes of coverage spread out over the following 11 months.

Pakistan, including the hunt for al Qaeda leaders believed to be based on its territory and its relations with Afghanistan, received roughly the same amount of coverage, thus making the Middle East and Southwest Asia the five biggest foreign stories by far on network news during 2009.

Pirates off the coast of Somalia ranked sixth with 112 minutes, far ahead of the next-ranking Africa-related story, ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region of Sudan, which claimed a total of 15 minutes.

North Korea claimed 99 minutes of network attention, 50 minutes of which, however, were devoted to the plight of two U.S. journalists arrested along the Chinese border and eventually freed during a visit to Pyongyang by former President Bill Clinton.

Mexico’s drug war, the top Latin America-related story, came in eighth with 84 minutes. The devastation caused by Hurricane Ida in El Salvador ranked second in Latin America at 14 minutes.

As an international story, global warming ranked next at 76 minutes, twice the average yearly coverage it has received over the past decade, but a fraction of the attention given by the networks to the price of gasoline and other carbon-based fossil fuels over the same period.

“When you make the expense of fossil fuels the major story, the implicit message is that it’s unthinkable for the economy not to be based on fossil fuels,” Tyndall said.

The paucity of coverage on climate change “reflects the fact that media don’t look ahead,” said Daniel Hallin, a political scientist at the University of California at San Diego who has written widely on television news.

“They focus on what politicians are discussing at the moment, and rarely deal with an impending crisis before it hits with full force,” he noted.

“But the fact that coverage of Michael Jackson’s death (237 minutes), Edward Kennedy’s death (130 minutes), the Madoff fraud (129 minutes), or the US Airways plane that landed in the Hudson River (122 minutes) – all these things got more attention than the issue of climate change, that’s disturbing,” he added.

Also relatively neglected were Europe, China, and other emerging powers, including India and Brazil. The top Europe-based story was U.S.-Russian détente (33 minutes), followed by the Abruzzo earthquake in Italy (31 minutes).

The Chinese economy received 18 minutes of air-time, and unrest in Xinjiang province another 16 minutes in the course of the year.

The leading India-related story was the state visit – the first hosted by President Barack Obama – of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in December, although almost all of the 45 minutes it received on the three news programmes was devoted to the crashing of the White House dinner by an uninvited couple.

“If you look at the news agenda, you’d think Pakistan was a more important country than India,” said Tyndall, who added that some of the most important changes in the global order over the past decade, notably the emergence of India and China as global economic powers, “have gone virtually unnoticed by the networks and their viewers due to the their almost single-minded focus on the Islamic world.”