An analysis of news reports about the war in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2010 shows that reporters at three major US news outlets wrote increasingly negative stories. The negative tone was particularly pronounced in stories posted by reporters embedded in military units.
“When the war in Afghanistan started, the tone of the stories that reporters filed was generally neutral,” says Michel Haigh, associate professor of communications at Penn State. “However, over time, and as casualties increased, the coverage became more negative.”
In 2003, as the media began to focus more on the conflict in Iraq, reporters for the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times wrote less than 20 stories about Afghanistan.
Haigh and colleagues examined articles about the war from these three major newspapers during the 10-year period from 2001 to 2010. Between 2009 and 2010, when casualties reached their highest levels, there were more than 450 articles written about the war in Afghanistan.
The negativity toward the war effort was reflected in stories written by reporters in the field, as well as articles written by journalists in the US and in other countries, says Haigh.
While reporters who were embedded in military units in previous conflicts tended to be more positive about the military, embedded reporters in Afghanistan were typically negative. In fact, reporters in Afghanistan wrote stories with tones that were slightly less positive about the military than reporters who wrote their articles outside the country.
“This isn’t the type of story we expected from embedded reporters,” Haigh says. “Typically, the use of embeds in a military unit leads to more positive reporting, however, coverage in Afghanistan was negative, regardless of whether the journalists reported from in Afghanistan or outside the country.”
Published in Newspaper Research Journal, the study also shows that reporters framed their stories differently as casualties rose. Framing refers to how reporters decide to tell the story. For example, a journalist may decide to focus the story on the war on terrorism or on casualties.
In this case, reporters both inside and outside of Afghanistan reported on the increasing casualties. Reporters who were not in Afghanistan also wrote stories on the economic and political impact of the conflict.
There were fewer embedded reporters in Afghanistan than in previous conflicts. Because newspapers pay to have embedded reporters travel with the troops, the cost of sending reporters to file stories in Afghanistan was too expensive for most news outlets that were struggling during the economic downturn. War fatigue may have been another reason for fewer embedded reporters. The American public was tired of hearing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the study, researchers examined more than 1,100 articles. A group of eight coders was trained to analyze the frames and tone of the stories. The coders did not consider opinion and editorial columns when they analyzed the content.
Source: Penn State