On Wednesday evening New York Time at the Reuters headquarters in Times Square, bloggers from around the world joined in a live panel debate over whether the media is telling the real story in Iraq. See the Reuters news story summarizing the event here and a blog post about it on one of The Guardian blogs here.
UPDATE: Video has now posted on the Reuters site. You can watch the whole thing or some selected highlights, including: Bloggers weigh in, why the complete story isn't being told, the dangers of reporting, and how partisan criticism and pressure from both left and right puts pressure on journalists.
The conclusion of the panelists seemed to be that the media isn't presenting a full picture of what's happening in Iraq, but there were no concrete ideas as to what can or should be done about this problem. Problems with the coverage include: It's too politically polarized. There isn't enough background and context due to space and time limitations in news outlets. News organizations are businesses and must tailor their reports to the interests and sensibilities of their audiences (which explains why non-Iraqi victims get more play than Iraqi victims in the Western media). There are physical limitations on what Western, other Middle Eastern, and Iraqi journalists can physically report on because the situation is so physically dangerous. Etc.
We had about 40 people or so who watched the webcast around the world and joined a live IRC chat. We had our own parallel discussion going, and I managed to relay some of the online questions into the room so that the panel could address them.
The consensus among bloggers in the chatroom was that the media does indeed fail to provide a comprehensive or truly objective picture of what is happening in Iraq. However people disagreed on why, or what is to be done. Fayrooz Hancock asked: “why when a foriegn journalist is kidnapped, the media cover it extensively. When an Iraqi journalist is kidnapped (we have two right now), the story is forgotten the next day.” The media representatives answered honestly that unfortunately, audiences back home are more concerned about victims from their own country than Iraqi victims. The concerns of the audiences do drive coverage.
Global Voices Iraq contributor Salam Adil asked why the media doesn't do a better job at explaining the context of news events: “I heard a lot of talk for and against the media. But here is the problem – things happen and the media is flailing around for answers. There is no good background reporting to explain why things are happening.” Panelists admitted that news organizations generally don't do enough on that score.. but blamed lack of audience interest or attention as the main reason why better context and background is not given. Salam responded to this on a blog post titled “the real problem with the media“: “Why are people blaming journalists – when it is the editors who are failing to inform the public or put the politicians on the spot.” I then asked his question as a follow-up to the panel. Panelist Roger Cohen of the New York Times responded that editors actually do follow and respect the guidance of journalists in the field. His claims, provoked the following exchange on the IRC chat:
[extraneous chitchat deleted]
JelloWorld [former news correspondent]: omigod b***s**t alert
MarvinHutc: Roger – wrong. You are the limiting factor and not as good as your correspondents. You being “editors”.
salam_adil: its not just the correspondents – what about commentators
RMacK [me]: i agree w/ you jello. i was fighting w/ my editors constantly
pokegirl: did you expect anything else?
JelloWorld: no. just scary to hear it again…said so bloodlessly
rachelrawl: profit. there we are. news is widgets. a product
JelloWorld: 1. report 2. ???? 3. Profit!
pokegirl: audience line. no wonder newspaper subscriptions are dropping. they have no clue what audiences want! i'm not involved with the media world at all and he's got it all wrong
Salam followed up on his blog:
my question gets answered – but it had to be asked twice and there are no editors willing to explain themselves. One former editor blames the correspondents. Oh dear.
So what about all the comment and analysis? What about all those panel shows held in CNN and the like where the speakers only argue two sides of the same point? People sit there pointing at journalists and no editors are taking the blame.
Here is the point – if we had a full debate in the media on Iraq would this tragedy have been allowed to happen in such a disastrous way? Would there be some understanding for when and how troops are to leave Iraq? Would the Pentagon have felt safe to throw away the State Department's Future of Iraq plan and go for its scorched-earth-year-zero plan?
Up to now the media as a whole has not done its job as a pillar of democracy – and its failure will be felt for years to come.
While all agreed that media coverage of Iraq is very incomplete, there was a wide range of views about whether the media is biased in a left or right direction. Several military bloggers on the chat voiced the view that the media is overwhelmingly against the U.S. presence in Iraq and reports accordingly. Said “Cannoneer04“: “The insurgency thrives on getting their message out. They require journo assistance for that.” Omar, who blogs from Baghdad at Iraq the Model remarked: “each news outlet has an agenda. and I think the way they report news from Iraq reflects that agenda. the media is telling the truth but not the whole truth. and is unfortunately adding or omitting some fine details according to their agenda.” Fay addressed the problem that embedded journalists seem to be the only non-Iraqi journalists who are able to spend much time outside of their secure locations: “Real reporting comes from walking the streets and talking to people. Most embedded journalists are being there to report what's the army doing not what people lives look like.”
The discussion continues in the blogosphere. This post will be updated with more links after the archived video gets posted on the Reuters website and key quotes get posted, giving bloggers who were asleep in the Middle East during the discussion time more opportunity to react and share their views.