Television's Myopic Global Eye

AIDS killed three million people around the world last year, more than two million of them in Africa. The three major U.S. television network evening news programs devoted a combined total of 39 minutes to the problem in 2003.

The American Geophysical Union and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences both concluded last year that greenhouse gas emissions almost certainly contribute to global warming which is altering the Earth's weather and climate in potentially catastrophic ways. The three evening network news devoted a total of 15 minutes to the issue in 2003.

Over the same year, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq, an operation in which some 8,000 people may have been killed, the same toll as that imposed by AIDS in a single day. The three major U.S. television network evening news shows devoted a combined total of 4,047 minutes to Iraq in 2003.

It is statistics like these, compiled annually by ADT Research of New York, that make UN Secretary General Kofi Annan observation last month sound ludicrously understated. ''All of us -- leaders, politicians, diplomats and journalists -- have been very focused on Iraq this year," he told reporters at his year-end press conference. ''We simply haven't paid enough attention to the many other pressing challenges facing us."

The 2003 ADT statistics were compiled by its president, Andrew Tyndall, who has been monitoring the half-hour evening news shows for more than a decade, carefully tracking how many minutes and seconds are given to coverage of which issues and events each weekday. They suggest that Iraq shone so brightly in the television universe of 2003, that it blotted out almost every other piece of foreign news. In Tyndall's words, ''Iraq sucked the oxygen out of the other international news stories.''

''It shows that the news agenda is being set in Washington when it comes to foreign news, in particular," says William Dorman, who teaches political science and journalism at California State University in Sacramento. ''It focuses our attention on something -- Iraq -- that many people never really considered a major threat in the first place and distracts us from very real dangers in the world."

Recent surveys have shown that about 80 percent of the U.S. public say they get most of their news from television, as opposed to other media sources, such as newspapers. While cable news television, such as CNN and Fox News, is more widely watched in recent years, particularly during crises such as war, the three networks normally attract about 30 million regular viewers each evening, according to recent surveys. For many North Americans, the nightly news is the only contact with the world outside U.S. borders.

ADT's ''Tyndall Report," a weekly summary of the national network news broadcasts that is considered authoritative within the industry, covered all of the 14,635 minutes of news coverage on the three networks' evening shows from Monday through Friday throughout 2003.

Of the year's top 20 stories (all those which claimed more than 107 minutes of coverage), Iraq-related stories ranked one through four. Invasion and combat stories, which featured ''embedded'' reporters, was the top single story at 1602 minutes, followed by coverage of the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime (1007 minutes), the post-war reconstruction effort (658 minutes), and the pre-war UN weapons inspections and controversy (575 minutes). All Iraq-related stories added up to 4047 minutes, or about 30 percent of all news in 2003 and about 25 percent more than the networks' combined coverage of the 2000 presidential elections.

Claiming the number five position was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which accounted for a total of 284 minutes during the year, a dramatic drop from 2002 when it was the top news story, with 999 minutes.

The California governor recall election and Arnold Schwarzenegger's victory ranked number six (239 minutes), followed by domestic terrorism preparedness (205), the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster (198), the SARS outbreak in Asia and Canada (178), and the electricity blackout in the Northeast (165).

Besides SARS, the next most-covered foreign-based stories in the survey included the hunt for Al Qaeda members (132); while North Korea's nuclear program, which, unlike in Iraq, is believed to have already produced weapons, ranked 19th in the top 20.

Remarkably, Afghanistan, which ranked first in 2001 and third in 2002, fell below the top 20 in 2003, despite the resurgence of Taliban activity and the continued operations of some 11,000 U.S. troops there. In 2003, the three networks gave Afghanistan a total of only 80 minutes, or less than 20 percent of the attention it received last year.

The next-most-covered international story was the civil war in Liberia (72 minutes), primarily, however, due to the debate last summer over whether to send in U.S. troops, who had been deployed just off-shore, to help secure a cease-fire.

Liberia was the top story for Africa as far as US network television was concerned, followed by the AIDS crisis, and Bush's trip to the continent (18 minutes). Terrorist attacks against tourist facilities in Kenya earned that country eight minutes of coverage, while the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is believed to have claimed three million lives over the past five years, was covered for a total of ... five minutes.

''It seems that Africa receives attention only when Americans are there -- either in the form of warships, Bush, or tourists," notes Salih Booker, director of Africa Action, a grassroots advocacy group. The paucity of Africa coverage, including that of the AIDS crisis, he added, ''confirms Africa's status as the invisible continent."

If Africa was virtually invisible on network news, however, so was Latin America, for all practical purposes. The U.S. response to violence in Colombia and repression in Cuba were the top-rated Latin American stories of the year, with each receiving 18 minutes on the three networks.

The total amount of foreign-related news that appeared on the network news broadcasts in 2003 was about 25 percent higher than average for the past 15 years, according to the Tyndall report. But much of it, particularly regarding Iraq, ''was not really foreign coverage," says Daniel Hallin, a political science professor at University of California at San Diego and the author of an influential book on television coverage of the Vietnam War. ''If you look at the coverage, you'll find it's mostly about Americans, not Iraqis," he points out, although adding that more attention is being paid to Iraqis now than was ever paid to the Vietnamese during the Vietnam War.

Dorman says that, through its policy of ''embedding'' reporters with U.S. troops, the Pentagon probably succeeded in claiming much more time in news broadcasts than if they had barred reporters from the action, as in the first Gulf War. ''It was 'gun-slit journalism,'" he says. ''It wasn't surprising that television was overwhelmed by it; it was like reality TV writ large, although, like reality TV, it totally distorts our sense of global realities."

Dorman says that the U.S.-centered agenda illustrated by the ADT statistics underscores the ''narcissism of American news." Hallin agrees: ''Americans are given the sense they are some kind of unique victims and heroes of the world; everything revolves around them."

But as Booker points out, this lopsided coverage has far graver consequences for the rest of the world: ''People ask: How is it possible that so many people could perish in 2003, and the world failed to act. Well, the abject failure of the media to adequately cover the worst (AIDS) epidemic in recorded history is a big part of the answer."

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