TBS 11, Fall-
Winter 2003

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TBS 10 saw the initiation of a Media on Media archive of 27 articles in which journalists reflected on their own performance in a war where "a large part of the press' attention has been directed at its own functioning" (Media on Media TBS 10). With unplanned symmetry, TBS 11 brings the archive up to date with a further 27 articles (see list of articles), from the point where it broke off on April 10, in the midst of the hostilities, to the near present (plus a few items from the early days that we missed the first time around). For the first time, we also include translations from the Arabic press. TBS acknowledges with gratitude the importance of News World's Media Briefings (news@newsworld.com) for drawing our attention to many of these items.

Predictably, these pieces are often the flip-side of those in the first part of the archive: in place of predictions (sometimes dire), we now have post-mortems (sometimes jaundiced).

The "embedding" system gets a lot of attention (connoisseurs of language will note the spontaneous generation of related terms such as "to embed," the nouns "embeds" and "non-embeds," and even, elsewhere in this issue, "to disembed" and to "re-embed"). Before the commencement of hostilities, CNNI's Chris Cramer, writing for the Media Guardian on March 10, alluded to the importance of non-embeds when he predicted that "broadcast news on the television…will be defined by those organizations who manage to have as many people in the field as possible." Early on, however, Joe Strupp, in Editor and Publisher (March 12), worried over "To Embed or Not" and made the point—tragically borne out by such subsequent events as the killing of Terry Lloyd—that "embeds" ought to be safer: "The downside [of enjoying greater freedom as a "non-embed"] is that the American military shoots a lot of people. You might want to be on their side of the line when that happens." Looking back, Ashleigh Banfield acknowledged that "there were a lot of journalists who were skeptical…[but] it was a wonderful new area of access." This did not prevent her, notoriously, from being defamed by a colleague on air when she tried to provide the other side; such, as she says, are often "the ramifications of simply being the messenger in the Arab World" (Alternet Online, April 29). In his interview with Michelle Chihara of Mother Jones (May12), embed Gareth Schweiter confirmed that "there was a lot of stuff they simply couldn't not show you" but comes to the conclusion that "Anyone who tried to claim that their reporting, as an embed, was unbiased was not telling the truth." By July 9, when there were "Only 23 Embedded Reporters Left in Iraq" (Editor and Publisher), Joe Strupp was able to report the US military's satisfaction with the system, quoting an army source as saying that "It is very likely that we will want embed if there are troops that actually go to Liberia."

Perhaps the most embedded reporters of all those in Iraq, however, were the ones stationed in Baghdad before the fall of Saddam Hussein. As Ciar Byrne reported in the Media Guardian (June 11), Britain's Channel 4 News diplomatic correspondent Lindsey Hilsum admitted to self-censorship "because she did not want to be thrown out of [Baghdad]."

All of which raises, of course, wider issues of impartiality and bias. As early as May 13, Paul Krugman was contrasting, in the New York Times, the supposedly more even-handed coverage of the state-owned BBC with the unquestioning support of the government line by parts of the privately-owned US media and deciding that "we do have a system in which the major [US] media companies have strong incentives to present the news in a way that pleases the party in power, and no incentive not to." Krugman is also the first to raise the possibility that US big media's line-towing may have been linked to its pursuit of concessions from the Federal Communication Commission (headed, with pleasing neatness, by Colin Powel's son Michael), which was in process of negotiating new regulations at around the same time. Conrad Black, owner of Britain's Daily Telegraph, saw things differently, and lashed out at the BBC for accusing Britain and the US of lying (ABC Online, June 11) and an Australian minister similarly accused the ABC of biased reporting (ABC On Line, July 17). On the same date, Greg Mitchell in Editor and Publisher accused the media of underreporting the US death toll (and especially the "staggering" number of non-combat-related deaths). Bluntest of all was media commentator Michael Wolff, who accused the US networks of "kissing ass" in return for those FCC favors (Media Guardian, June 25).

Also at issue was presentation. Before the war, the Times On Line had already focused on the importance that presentation plays as part of a "psychological campaign abetted by the media" in the context of its report on the Hollywood special effects used to enhance the briefing room at Centcom in Qatar (March 11). Then there was the controversy over Al Jazeera's showing of the bodies of dead and captured Coalition soldiers, reported on by the BBC on May 24; logically enough, by June 1, the BBC was having to defend itself for having shown the bodies that Al Jazeera had shown. The shelling of the Palestine Hotel in the last days of the war—and the consequent death of journalists—also attracted attention, with some members of the press claiming, in a perhaps excessively self-critical spirit, that its significance had been exaggerated precisely because it affected the press (New York Times, August 5). Somewhat strangely, the possibility that the rescuing of Private Lynch—an iconic moment for the US media—had been stage-managed attracted relatively little attention, though the BBC did report that it might have been "flawed" and attributable to an "American strategy to ensure the right television footage by using embedded reporters and images from their own cameras, editing the film themselves" (May 15). In contrast, the Sky News reporters who admitted to faking a story (The Guardian, July 17) were soundly censored.

Which brings us back to where we began, though there were some digressions, especially in the Arabic press, into issues such as the appeal, or lack of it, of former Iraq information minister Muhammad Said Al-Sahhaf (Al Hayat, April 30), Al Jazeera's relationship with Iraq's intelligence services (Asharq Al-Awsat, May 12), the role of reporters (Al-Hayat, April 30), and the rather dodgy start of Iraq's own Coalition-sponsored "Towards Freedom TV" (Media Guardian, July 9), in the wake of which the New York Times's Richard Oppel reported, not surprisingly, that while there was a boom in satellite sales in Baghdad, the news that these brought into people's homes was being treated with "widespread skepticism" (August 5).

Overall, there is ammunition here for those who, like New York Times reporter John F. Burns whose provocative "a-curse-on-all-your-houses" piece "There is Corruption in Our Business", "[doesn't] believe in the journalist as hero," and few would contest his contention that "This war should be studied and talked about."

As an introduction to the archive, we reproduce below the executive summary of the first major audience research on the war, conducted by Britain's Independent Television Commission, which reveals, among much else, that only "fifty-two per cent considered the television coverage was balanced." The full text may be accessed at www.itc.org.uk.


Executive Summary
"Conflict Around the Clock:
Audience reactions to media coverage of the 2003 Iraq war"

by
Jane Sancho and John Glover
Independent Television Commission

Amount of coverage

Approaching 37% of viewers thought the amount of coverage was 'about right', while around a third (34%) felt there was a bit too much and 27% considered there was far too much.

Viewers who did not support the war without the backing of the United Nations or who thought it wrong were more likely to feel there was far too much coverage (38% and 57% respectively).

Level of interest

Despite the fact that many felt there was too much television coverage, most viewers claimed to be interested in it (77%). Those who thought the war should have happened sooner showed a stronger than average level of interest in the television coverage, as did men, 55-65+s and ABs.

Audiences for the news on the main terrestrial channels have been declining, in line with a reduction in viewing share across the board for these channels due to increased competition. But at times of world crisis and key events, there is a surge of interest in the news. News viewing in analogue terrestrial homes rose by 84%, from 171 minutes per week to 315 minutes per week after war broke out.

Despite the additional news services available to them, multichannel viewers are traditionally lighter news viewers. But during the war, news viewing in cable and satellite homes underwent a huge 145% increase, up from an average of 118 minutes per week prior to the outbreak of war, to 289 minutes.

Almost a quarter of young people (16-24s) said they hardly ever watched a main evening news programme prior to the war, but 40% claimed to be watching more once war broke out.

Favoured news services

At moments of world significance, audiences tend to turn to the BBC for their coverage. Overall, BBC1's Ten O'Clock News was more popular than ITV1's rescheduled main evening news at 9pm, averaging a monthly audience of 6.2m viewers for March and April, compared to ITV1's 4.7m for the same period.

ITV1 succeeded in pulling in the single largest audience on 24 March 2003 of 9.2 million viewers to its 9pm programme.

Channel 4 News at 7pm attracted a peak audience of 2m viewers (roughly double normal numbers), while Five News at its peak achieved an audience of 0.7m.

The rolling news services came into their own as the war became a 24-hour news event. Sky News outstripped the competition from the other dedicated news channels, achieving a 29% share of all news viewing at the expense of the key public service broadcasters BBC1 and ITV1.

Sky News tended to attract younger audiences with 20% of 16-24s saying that they favoured this dedicated news channel for their coverage.

Impartiality

Fifty-two per cent considered the television coverage was balanced; 24% disagreed and 24% were unsure. Those who considered there was too much television coverage were considerably less likely to regard it as balanced (39%), whereas 74% of those who thought the amount was 'about right' considered it fair to all sides.

Greater numbers (62%) thought the radio coverage was balanced.

Channel 4 and Five were regarded as showing the fairest coverage. CNN's coverage considered the least fair with 53% perceiving it to be biased towards the USA and UK. A quarter felt there was a bias towards America and Britain on BBC1, ITV1 and Sky News.

Much stronger bias was perceived in the coverage of certain newspapers. Only 34% of readers thought The Mirror was fair to all parties, with 43% perceiving it to be biased against the anti-war lobby. Over four in 10 readers felt that The Daily Mail, The Daily Express and The Sun were biased towards the USA/UK.

A minority of listeners perceived bias on Radio 4 and Radio 5 Live's news coverage towards America and Britain (16%).

Not surprisingly, the television coverage was felt to favour the Labour party; 65% felt its position regarding the war was well explained compared to the position of the Conservative party (58%) and the Liberal Democrats (48%).

Style and content of coverage

Sixty-nine per cent of viewers agreed that 'embedded' reporters - reporters who worked alongside the troops - were an important and relevant way of showing the reality of war. Ten per cent more Labour voters agreed with this view (76%) than Conservatives or Liberal Democrat supporters.

Sixty-seven per cent of viewers agreed that 'embedded' reporters assisted their understanding of the war. However, just over half (52%) thought that this kind of reporting can make war seem too much like fiction and make it easy to forget that people are dying.

And there was concern over the ability of reporters travelling with troops to remain impartial. Only just over half (52%) of viewers felt that 'embedded' reporters were able to remain fair and objective in their reporting, with many unsure (33%) about their impartiality, and 15% disagreeing that they could remain impartial. 'Embedded' reporters appear to have undermined viewers' confidence in the accuracy and honesty of news reports.

Fewer (36%) agreed that reporters had coloured the coverage with too much about their personality; 33% disagreed and 30% were unsure.

Views were more mixed and contradictory when it came to whether images of the prisoners of war should have been broadcast. A majority (63%) felt that the feelings of the families involved should be paramount, but a not dissimilar proportion (57%) considered it was legitimate news and with appropriate warnings should have been broadcast. TBS

Copyright 2003 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the
Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
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