Five years on: media's role in Iraq

The press plays an unwitting role in the subtle battle to influence public opinion.

This fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq offers a chance to look at how the US media has portrayed the war. Mostly they have done well, but they've also played an unwitting role in the subtle battle to influence public opinion.

Despite their best efforts to be credibly neutral and act as the eyes and ears on a distant war, journalists must also contend with efforts by both the Pentagon and insurgents in Iraq to practice what experts call "information operations," or IO – attempts to sway media reports.

A new Harvard study, for instance, indicates a strategy by terrorists in timing their bombs. When news of violence created a spike in US public debate from 2003 to 2007, the study found, insurgents increased attacks by 5 to 10 percent in an apparent attempt to influence that debate even more.

The US government, too, can influence how reporters frame the war's story line.

The press already stands accused of not doing enough before the war to probe the Bush administration's arguments for the invasion, whether it was Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons or the prospects of implanting democracy in Iraq. Hollywood has even made movies, such as "Redacted," to make up for what it sees as lack of coverage.

Journalists admit they rely too much on US officials and on military escorts for protection in gathering information. They often have little choice. While the war has killed nearly 4,000 US soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis, journalists are also participants because they, too, are hunted down by insurgents out to influence US opinion and intimidate Iraqi journalists. Iraq has become the most dangerous war for journalists in the last century, with close to 130 killed.

Despite their courage under fire, reporters in Iraq must take extreme precautions in how and where they travel. This limits the selection of topics, often leaving an unintended bias in coverage.

In a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center of journalists who worked in Iraq, more than a third said their poorest coverage was in the war's impact on Iraqi civilians. And in a story this week in the Los Angeles Times, a reporter wrote that because of "fears and the inefficiency" of getting around Baghdad, "good news" stories evaporated "before I could tell them." He had to file "mostly 'bad news' stories."

Many journalists say that their daily fare of reporting violence often lacks context about the larger story. That simplistic reporting often feeds into the terrorists' intent, as the Harvard study suggests. Another result, as one reporter told the survey, is that "the media has in some way bored its audience with the violence."

The Pew poll shows reporters have learned much in how to deflect the "IO" of all sides. Seventy percent said their reporting in 2007 provided an accurate picture of the situation; 15 percent said it makes the war look better than it is; 3 percent said it makes it look worse; 12 percent didn't answer.

A few independent reporter-bloggers in Iraq have filled gaps in US media coverage while many journalists now offer more context in reports and avoid attempts by the US military to use the "embed" process to highlight "good" stories.

The longer this war goes on, the more Americans have information to critically judge media reports, while journalists can learn from their successes and mistakes.

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