That the war in Afghanistan is getting attention at all right now from the media is downright surprising. Forgotten, undercovered and just plain ignored, coverage of the war there filled only about one percent of the news hole in 2008. But, as PEJ associate director Mark Jurkowitz explains, there’s been a sea change.
From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. That the war in Afghanistan is getting attention at all these days from members of the press is somewhat surprising. For a very long time it seemed that the major story about the war there was that nobody was covering the war there.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The war on terror began in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, and while we tend to forget the war is still going on there, we got a reminder today, some of the worst fights--
MALE CORRESPONDENT: The conflict in Iraq is the one we hear most about, and yet just 900 miles away in Afghanistan, some 25,000 American troops are fighting and dying.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Some six years on, it’s the war most Americans have forgotten about.
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BOB GARFIELD: Mark Jurkowitz is associate director at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Mark, welcome back.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Thank you, Bob. Good to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you quantify just how neglected the neglected war has been?
MARK JURKOWITZ: In all of 2007, all of the coverage of Afghanistan and the war in Afghanistan accounted for about one percent of the news hole, which is all the coverage that we look at. That’s about 1/16th as much coverage as the war in Iraq got that year from the U.S. media. In 2008, which at that point was the bloodiest year for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the story stayed at the same basic level. The Beijing Olympics got more overall coverage that year, at least in the media that we track, than the war in Afghanistan. Even in the beginning of 2009, when it was clear with the new Obama administration that it was, unlike Iraq, a war that he was determined to prosecute, on some level, for the first half of the year 2009 it still only covered about two percent of the news hole. So you could say for the first two and a half years that we looked at coverage of this war, it was, if not completely forgotten, dramatically overshadowed by almost all the other news of the day.
BOB GARFIELD: So what’s going on now that all of a sudden Afghanistan is getting traction in the press?
MARK JURKOWITZ: There’s been a sea change, and the real trigger, interestingly enough, is not necessarily what’s going on over in Afghanistan but actually the U.S. domestic policy debate. We can track the real spike in coverage to late August, and specifically the week of the August 20th elections, which are still being contested, which was the first week that in our index coverage of Afghanistan actually got to 10 percent of all the coverage we monitored that week, culminating last week in the first time that we have looked at this in which Afghanistan was actually the leading story of the week. It accounted for 20 percent of the news hole. That means 1/5th of all the coverage of all the news stories that we looked at last week. That’s twice as high as the previous high level of coverage. And what’s interesting about that is when we began this news coverage evaluation back in early 2007, the Iraq war was the big story; it dominated. What was aspect of the Iraq conflict that got the most coverage from the U.S. media? It was essentially the battle between George Bush and the Democratic Congress over how to prosecute the war. So one thing we've learned, as we watch how wars are covered, is that a big chunk of it really does revolve around the U.S. policy debate. And one reason – and not to simplify it – is frankly it’s a lot easier to put reporters in Washington, D.C. than it is in Kabul.
BOB GARFIELD: Much as early on in the Iraq War it began to take on a kind of Vietnam cast, Afghanistan is beginning to look the same way, unwinnable, a lot of American deaths and no clear idea of an end game.
MARK JURKOWITZ: We can go back in late 2001 at the inception of the war, before the Taliban fell. There was the sense that things weren't happening dramatically enough, and there was this initial spate of coverage that said, is the United States getting into a quagmire. Then, obviously, the Taliban fell, and that storyline evaporated. But now, seven or eight years later, it’s back. We've seen the policy debate here sort of play out in public in the media with the surge option, on one hand, and then what’s often become in media shorthand the Biden option, which is a de-emphasis of ground troops in Afghanistan and more of a targeted pinpoint focus on al Qaeda. There may be an option in between. But I think one of the underlying narratives of coverage of this is that there is no easy solution here, there is no guaranteed path to victory, and that the President is dealing with a bunch of options of which he may have to choose the lesser of evils.
BOB GARFIELD: One final thing, Mark. There are ebbs and there are flows. At the moment, coverage is flowing out of Afghanistan. Is Iraq suddenly now the neglected war?
MARK JURKOWITZ: Even for last year in 2008, coverage of Iraq was down three-quarters from what it was in 2007. It’s down even further from that now in 2009. Yes, in many respects Iraq [LAUGHS] is now the forgotten war. You can make the argument, obviously, that circumstances dictate that, that it’s totally understandable. You can also make the argument that, frankly, the American news media, under current economic circumstances, closing foreign bureaus, losing staffers, cutting back and retreating, finds it very hard to cover two wars at one time. That may be the case, as well.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Mark, thank you, as always.
MARK JURKOWITZ: Thanks, Bob, my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Mark Jurkowitz is associate director for the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism.