Are U.S. journalists missing the news right in front of their eyes? Even as the violence ebbs and Iraqi refugees are returning home by the thousands, a new survey of Iraq war correspondents finds most are still deeply pessimistic about conditions in Iraq, with one in six (15%) saying that they believe news coverage "makes the situation look better than it is," compared to just three percent who think news reports have been inordinately negative.
The poll of 111 U.S.-based journalists who are now covering the Iraq war or who have been posted there over the past four-and-a-half years was conducted over the past several weeks by the Pew-funded Project for Excellence in Journalism, which promises to release a content analysis of the media's Iraq war coverage later in the year. At the same time, polls show the public is having growing faith in the success of the war effort.
A similar poll of 72 journalists conducted back in 2005 also found that reporters were far more pessimistic than the public. Then, few correspondents (just 28%) thought the decision to invade Iraq was correct, and most thought the war would be harmful to the overall war on terrorism (68%) and that the effort to build a stable, democratic Iraq would fail (63%).
Such pessimism about the course of the war matches what network reporters have said on TV. Back in March 2006, NBC's Richard Engel argued on the Today show that "most Iraqis I speak to say, actually, most reporters get it wrong. It’s, the situation on the ground is actually worse than the images we project on television."
And just last month, as U.S. and Iraqi casualties were falling dramatically, CBS's Lara Logan (whose frequent coverage of the Iraq war means she fits the group of reporters the researchers sought to contact) opined on NBC's Tonight Show that the war was going "extremely badly, from my point of view." Reality, she asserted, was "much worse than the picture, the image we even have of Iraq.”
In a telling sign of how much progress has been made, last week even the New York Times admitted that the U.S. troop surge had improved daily life in the Iraqi capital, featuring a big front-page headline, "Baghdad Starts to Exhale as Security Improves." That same night, November 20, ABC anchor Charles Gibson interviewed President Bush about the good news from Iraq: "You took a lot of doubting and rather skeptical questions about the surge. I'll give you a chance to crow. Do you want to say, I told you so?"
Here are excerpts from the survey, which is available online at www.journalism.org:
After four years of war in Iraq, the journalists reporting from that country give their coverage a mixed but generally positive assessment, but they believe they have done a better job of covering the American military and the insurgency than they have the lives of ordinary Iraqis. And they do not believe the coverage of Iraq over time has been too negative. If anything, many believe the situation over the course of the war has been worse than the American public has perceived, according to a new survey of journalists covering the war from Iraq.
Above all, the journalists -- most of them veteran war correspondents -- describe conditions in Iraq as the most perilous they have ever encountered, and this above everything else is influencing the reporting. A majority of journalists surveyed (57%) report that at least one of their Iraqi staff had been killed or kidnapped in the last year alone -- and many more are continually threatened. “Seven staffers killed since 2003, including three last July,” one bureau chief wrote with chilling brevity. “At least three have been kidnapped. All were freed.”
A majority of journalists surveyed say most of the country is too dangerous to visit. Nine out of ten say that about at least half of Baghdad itself. Wherever they go, traveling with armed guards and chase vehicles is the norm for more than seven out of ten surveyed....And most journalists, eight out of ten, feel that, over time, conditions for telling the story of Iraq have gotten worse, not better....
The journalists surveyed tend to disagree. Most (70%) of those surveyed believe their coverage overall has given an accurate picture of what is happening there. About one-in-six (15%) believe the coverage makes the situation look better than it is. Hardly any (3%) believe it focuses too much on the negative.
The public, while divided on the question, is far more likely than the journalists to view the coverage as too negative. A Pew public opinion survey in August found that more than a third of the public (37%) believed news reports were making the situation in Iraq seem worse that it really was. Roughly a third (34%) thought the press portrayed Iraq accurately. Just under a quarter (21%) believed the media made the situation seem better than reality.
Journalists also do not believe the coverage has been too hard on the Bush Administration. Indeed, about four in ten of those surveyed (43%) say coverage of Iraq has been “too easy” on the Administration. Roughly the same number (44%) say they find the coverage to be basically fair. Only 1% describe coverage as too critical of the Administration. (And 8% did not respond to the question.)