December 12, 2003

HEY, HERE’S an Iraqi protest that the Washington Post deigns to cover. It’s a lot smaller than the one Wednesday, but it’s against an American action, so it must be news!

Susanna Cornett offers some thoughts on the protest coverage that seem applicable here:

I think you’re correct to a degree that the lack of coverage has to do with the media’s conscious or unconscious preference on how the reconstruction goes in Iraq. However, I also think the media reflexively thinks that anti-establishment protest is more “honest” and newsworthy than anything supporting the establishment – and in their view, anything conservative or associated with a conservative administration is by definition “establishment”. I also think they’re suspicious of demonstrations supporting the US or at least tracking a parallel position because they assume the US had some role in setting it up. So it’s what you said, but it’s also part process as well as ideology because they’re lazily activating their frames rather than critically assessing the situation.

I’m reading up on research on media framing right now, which is why this leapt to my mind. Essentially, for the most efficient production of news the media as a whole has developed frames, pigeonholes for news, that quickly organize raw information that comes in. They assess a situation, associate it with an established theme, and file it away there. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but what happens is that journalists either become lazy and mentally assign a situation to a theme or frame without critical assessment of it, or they don’t examine the ideological foundations of their themes and assume the theme/frame is based on some objective reality when in fact it’s a subjective categorization. Like any categorization method, this means that some aspects of the situation are ignored and others emphasized in the process of making the decision.

A CNN reporter hearing about this may see “support for US interests” and mentally file it under “administration hype” (shorthand: ignore) rather than seeing “Iraqis freely demonstrating” and “Iraqis rising up against terrorists” and filing it under “Important changes” (shorthand: cover).

Frames are passed along as part of the culture of journalism. Not always bad, but like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when they’re bad they’re horrid.

Just some thoughts on what’s going on. I think the media is in part ideologically hostile to the administration, but I also think some of this is just lazy pigeonholing. Which doesn’t diminish the harm, just shifts the bias from a wholly thoughted partisanship to lazy perpetuation of faulty themes.

I think this is largely right, though it’s interesting how often “mere laziness” conveniently leads to the same result as “outright bias,” isn’t it?

Meanwhile Gerard Van der Leun offers a media psychoanalysis of his own.

UPDATE: Reader Daniel Schwartz comments on Cornett’s take:

Frankly, I have difficulty even believing the “laziness” excuse. This was an anti-terror demonstration, by and large, not a pro-American demonstration. When thousands of Iraqis take to the streets to condemn terror, it’s quite a stretch to file that under “American propaganda — safe to ignore”. I’d say, rather, that this is an unconscious ideological bias, unwilling to acknowledge details that don’t fit a particular worldview.

That doesn’t sound like professional journalism, does it? And if we assume that it’s NOT necessarily ‘unconscious’ bias, then it’s even worse.

There’s no way this works out to make them look good, that’s for sure.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Dennis Culkin emails:

Just FYI, was listening to C-SPAN on the radio this morning, and Philip Taubman of the NYT said, in reaction to a caller’s question, that HE HADN’T HEARD ABOUT THE IRAQ DEMONSTRATIONS. Wasn’t aware they had occurred. Too lazy to look it up, but Taubman’s a bureau chief for the NYT now. And he was literally unaware of the events.

I was a journalist way-back-when. Susanna Cornett’s “laziness/frameworking” analysis explains much of the plain mediocrity or incompetence of much media coverage on many different topics. But it’s gone way beyond that. If a NYT bureau chief hasn’t heard of a significant event that’s part of the current leading global story, it’s confirmation that major media in Iraq are literally not covering the story, in the most basic sense.

Well, it’s pretty embarrassing.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Reader Michael Sink emails:

I saw where your reader Janice Brown discusses “Demonstrationgate” and suggests that we explore this issue. I personally think that what we are witnessing goes beyond the Demonstration, to a much more fundamental change. My feeling is that this is a time where the bulk of the American public is becoming more likely to trust the Government for news than the news media itself. I do not have much to base this on, except people I know keep saying that “I can’t trust the news anymore”( not that we totally trust everything the Government tells us either). However, it reflects what I feel: that the major news media organizations are simply to ingrained to provide anything close to a balanced content within the news casts.

If true, this is a revolutionary issue with the American public not seen since the opposite happened during the Vietnam war. In both cases one side was putting out information that is clearly in contrast to the actual situation on the ground. So, in this case, maybe Iraqi is like Vietnam.

Interesting. There certainly does seem to be a “credibility gap” developing.

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