Americans’ limited interest in foreign affairs has long been lamented. But surely, the war in Afghanistan deserves more press coverage than the death of a pop star?


NPR‘s David Folkenflik reports that “According to a review conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism at NPR’s request, Afghanistan has received no more press coverage this year than the passing of Michael Jackson  —  which is “especially striking because Jackson’s death just occurred in late June.”

“This is not just another war in some Godforsaken place on the other side of the world,” says John Sifton, a former senior researcher for Human Rights Watch who has traveled to Afghanistan repeatedly. “This is a place that has a direct relationship to the events of the morning of Sept. 11 and our ongoing security down the line.” But when the Bush administration shifted its attention to Iraq, Sifton says, so did the media and the public.

“It’s a tough sell for readers and viewers and listeners. They think about the economy, they think about Iraq,” says Sifton, now executive director of One World Research, which investigates human rights allegations around the world. “Iraq steals a lot of the oxygen, and you really have to try to get people to care about this. It’s not easy.”

But the war in Iraq was naturally going to generate more interest, not simply because the Bush administration placed so much emphasis on it, but because it was until recently much more violent. 

Indeed, a new PEJ study shows a 213% increase in Afghanistan coverage since July 1.

With a critical presidential election looming in the country and the U.S. forces pressing the fight against Taliban strongholds, the war in Afghanistan made a significant amount of news last week. From August 10-16, the subject attracted the most attention of any week in the more than two and a half years that the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism has been tracking media coverage on ongoing basis.

But last week’s spike, for those who have been paying close attention, didn’t come out of the blue. It was the latest sign of a growing focus on Afghanistan as U.S. policy there and the situation in Iraq have changed.

Last week, the war in Afghanistan was the third-biggest story in the news, filling 5.5% of the newshole as measured by PEJ’s weekly News Coverage Index.

So, as events in Afghanistan have become more newsworthy, they’ve made more news.

Beyond that, the Michael Jackson saga is almost tailor-made for television.  Afghanistan?  Not so much.  Folkenflik:

There are three factors worth remembering about the challenges in reporting on Afghanistan. First, it’s complicated.

“It’s dozens, if not hundreds, of small countries, essentially, that you’re trying to cover,” says former CNN and NBC reporter Jane Arraf, who was last there in 2002. She is now the Iraq correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and is planning to return to Afghanistan this fall. “In Afghanistan, there’s so much below the surface that I think most of us, myself included, probably, aren’t even aware of how little we know about it.”

Second, it’s dangerous. New York Times reporter David Rhode was kidnapped by the Taliban and held for more than seven months. A photographer for The Associated Press lost his foot this month after being badly wounded by a roadside bomb.

Third: It’s expensive. “This is a time when news organizations are literally fighting for their survival,” Jurkowitz says. “They’re in bankruptcy. They’re being sold for pennies on the dollar. “In that kind of environment, the idea of being able to spend money to send journalists — in a smaller newsroom — overseas becomes not just a luxury, but almost an impossibility,” Jurkowitz says.

By contrast, the Jackson story is phenomenally easy to cover:  Point a camera at invited guests.  It’s mostly speculation, reminiscences, and blather.  And, frankly, it’s juicier fodder for the cable “news” networks, which mostly do infotainment during prime time absent breaking hard news.

The situation in Afghanistan is a slow-burning story.  Coalition troops have been in country going on eight years and it might take decades of steady work to achieve our goals there.  That’s very hard to cover on television even aside from the danger, complication, and cost.  Aside from the occasional firefight and terrorist attack, it’s the theatrical equivalent of watching paint dry.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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