SMPA profs analyze war coverage

Two GW professors are analyzing thousands of hours of television to examine how different media organizations covered the war in Iraq.

Steven Livingston, associate professor of political communication and international affairs, and Sean Aday, assistant professor of media and public affairs, launched their research in February 2003. The project – TVNewscan – analyzes differences among various American and foreign networks’ coverage of the war.

The professors worked with three undergraduate and four graduate students to record 5,000 hours of war coverage between March 17 and April 26.

“There is a massive cross-cultural interest around the world about how different media covered the same event,” Aday said.

The researchers recorded American networks ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and FOX News Channel 24 hours a day, and nightly newscasts from Arab network Al-Jazeera, Egypt’s satellite channel ESC-1 and Canada’s CBC. To date, 150 hours of coverage have been analyzed. Researchers said they are unsure when analysis will conclude.

American troops invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, in a push to overthrow former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime. After 43 days of occupation, President George W. Bush declared an end to combat on May 1, but American troops have remained in the area.

Livingston said he and Aday were interested in examining “how the American news media covered the war” and “how technology will offer unprecedented opportunities to see things in a way that was not seen before.”

The researchers said they examined the topics that the networks chose to cover, the tone of the coverage and differences in coverage based on whether the journalist was embedded.

Aday said embedded journalists are trained to “keep up” with the troops and are assigned to specific units. Aday and Livingston compared coverage of embedded, unilateral and other types of journalists. They found that there were not as many differences between the types of journalists as they had anticipated, but that unilateral – or non-embedded journalists – were more likely to report civilian casualties.

In their comparisons of U.S. media and Arab media, researchers found that Arab media covered more stories on diplomacy and civil protest, while the American media included more battle coverage. They also found that American channels conveyed a more pro-war tone than Al-Jazeera. While most American channels were neutral in tone, Fox News Channel’s stories adopted a supportive tone in about 40 percent of stories.

Aday and Livingston said they hired a native Arab speaker unaffiliated with GW to analyze the Arab news broadcasts in their original language.

“We thought that it was important not to translate so that we could get the cultural context without losing anything in the translation,” said Maeve Hebert, a graduate teaching assistant in the School of Media and Public Affairs who assisted with the project.

Hebert said her responsibilities included helping to coordinate data processing and data recording.

“We try to look at patterns and trends and see how the American media differs from Arab media,” she said.

She said researchers are currently examining how different networks showed more traumatic elements of the war such as casualties and bloody images.

Livingston said that prior to the study he was “overly optimistic” about the “effects of new technology” on enhancing war coverage. He said he expected that new technology such as video phones would show more “vividness.”

Aday and Livingston said that despite advanced technological resources the U.S. television media broadcast few have the “technology to do it, you are just not seeing it.”

Aday added that Al-Jazeera did not necessarily have more stories concerning casualties but that the coverage was “longer and more lurid.”

The researchers gave their first formal presentation in October to the Defense Writers and Editors Association. Aday and Livingston will be attending a conference in Montreal to display their research and will probably attend a conference in Chicago as well.

Aday and Livingston said they are working in collaboration with other universities including the University of Texas at San Antonio and the University of Leeds in England, both of which plan to use their research methods for similar studies.

Aday and Livingston said they have longstanding interests in politics and foreign policy and have participated in other research projects regarding media and politics. Aday said he took part in a project analyzing the public’s trust in the government and the media following Sept. 11, 2001. In 1995, Livingston conducted a study on the impact of the military and the media in humanitarian crises.

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