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Oil Leak, Haiti, Afghanistan Dominated 2010 U.S. TV News

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Jan 5 2011 (IPS) - The disastrous BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico, the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, and the continuing war in Afghanistan comprised the major news stories in 2010, according to the latest annual review of network news coverage by the authoritative Tyndall Report.

Some 10 percent of all the nearly 15,000 minutes the three dominant networks broadcast during their 30-minute weekday evening news programmes were devoted to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which poured an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf between April and July, according to Tyndall’s tally.

Last January’s killer earthquake in Haiti, which is believed to have killed some 220,000 people and rendered about 1.5 million others homeless, garnered nearly three percent of the year’s network coverage, or a total of 426 minutes – almost all of them in the four weeks that followed the quake.

Afghanistan received 416 minutes’ worth of coverage by ABC, NBC, and CBS, the three top networks which draw an average of some 22 million viewers on a typical weekday evening – about seven times more than all of the major cable news outlets – Fox, CNN, and MSNBC – combined.

The Haiti earthquake and Afghanistan were also the two top foreign stories during 2010, according to Tyndall. Only two other foreign stories – the rescue of the 33 Chilean copper miners trapped underground for two months (142 minutes), and the Iraq war (94 minutes) – were included among the top 20 most-covered network stories.

Between Afghanistan and the miners’ stories, the 2010 Congressional elections, the battle over health-care reform, extreme winter weather, unemployment, the alleged jamming of Toyota accelerators, and coverage of airplane security in the wake of the aborted Christmas 2009 bombing of U.S. airliner and October’s scare over U.S.-bound parcels from Yemen, all garnered more attention from the three networks.

With the exception of last airline anti-terrorist security story (the tenth most-covered story at 172 minutes), al Qaeda and other violent armed Islamist groups gained minimal coverage, an indication, according to Andrew Tyndall, the Report’s founder and editor, that television news is slowly changing its focus.

“For the first time since 2001, the Islamic World and the ‘axis of evil’ – Iraq, Iran, North Korea, even Afghanistan and Pakistan – weren’t the focus of foreign coverage,” Tyndall told IPS. “It basically shows that the preoccupations of the (George W.) Bush era are receding in prominence. And the Obama-era regions are going to be different.”

Other analysts, however, drew a somewhat different conclusion from the Report.

“As far as foreign policy stories go, Afghanistan dwarfs everything else, including Iraq,” said Robert Entman, professor of media and international affairs at George Washington University. “The small amount of coverage given to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (27 minutes) …is unfortunate because it concerns one of the gravest threats to the United States, certainly as grave as anything that al Qaeda can threaten; i.e. nuclear attack.”

The latest Report comes amid growing concern about international affairs coverage in the U.S. mass media, particularly major regional newspapers. Most, including former heavyweights like the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, and the San Francisco Chronicle, have closed their overseas bureaus over the last 12 years, according to a survey, entitled “Retreating from the World”, published in the Winter edition of the American Journalism Review.

According to the latest survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, only 31 percent of the adult public say they rely on newspapers for most of their news about national and international issues – down from the most recent high of 50 percent in 2003.

By contrast, two-thirds of the public cite television as their main source for national and international news, down from a high of 82 percent in 2002, but still more than twice the number of newspaper readers.

The only medium that is rising, according to the Pew survey, which was conducted early last month, is the Internet. Some 41 percent of respondents – still significantly less than television viewers – cited the Internet, up from only 13 percent a decade ago.

While foreign policy and international coverage in U.S. newspapers has declined sharply, network television coverage appears to have leveled off over the last two years after reaching its nadir in 2008. That year, the presidential elections and the financial crisis filled much of the “news hole” that had previously been claimed in part by international news, according to Tyndall, who published his first survey in 1988.

Out of the nearly 15,000 minutes of national and international news covered by the three networks, a total of 3,859 minutes were devoted to U.S. foreign policy or international news that was not directly related to foreign policy. That was about 100 minutes more than in 2009, when the Afghanistan war was the biggest story – foreign or domestic – of the year.

This year’s total, however, was still, far less – about 25 percent less – than the highs reached in the early 1990s with the end of the Cold War, or in the two years that followed the 9/11attacks.

“What really stands out is the decline in international news coverage over time,” said Steven Kull, director of the Programme on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA). “It reversed after 9/11, but now there seems to be a general slide back to historical lows. That’s really striking in that the U.S. is still at war in two theatres, and the U.S. economy is more sensitive to global conditions than ever.”

“I’m really struck by the absence of attention to al Qaeda and efforts the U.S. is making on that front, while the situation with Iran and Pakistan were strikingly absent from the top stories, as was the way in which the global economic downturn affects the U.S. economy,” he told IPS.

Tyndall himself was somewhat less critical. “Judging by the networks’ news values, they did cover the global headline stories properly. It was entirely appropriate that so much time was given to the earthquake in Haiti, which was absolutely a major story, and they did a good job in the first three or four weeks in explaining how the natural disaster was inseparable from the country’s underlying poverty. Then they left, of course, although when the cholera outbreak occurred, they returned.”

In contrast, network coverage of the oil spill was disappointing, he said. “Nobody tried to draw the wider policy lessons from the disaster about energy policy and continued U.S. dependence on fossil fuels.”

Moreover, he said the networks failed to give adequate coverage of two key international stories: the growing violence in northern Mexico (53 minutes) and the monsoon floods in Pakistan.

“It was the most under-covered story of the year, because it’s not only a natural disaster story, but it’s also a political story and a global warming story,” he said. Climate change, Tyndall noted, virtually disappeared from the news agenda in 2010.

The networks also largely missed the growing power and assertiveness of China, which received a total of only 94 minutes of coverage, or about 2.3 percent of all international coverage, and slightly more than the 85 minutes devoted to coverage of the announcement of British Prince William’s forthcoming marriage.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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