Good News vs. Bad News: Reporting on Iraq

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The stream of news stories about murders and bombings in Iraq recently prompted President Bush to call for more attention to "good news" from that country. Eric Weiner speaks with other members of the press about what it's like to report on Iraq, and the fairness of charges that only bad news gets covered in a country where security issues are paramount.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, a new look at a Persian literary masterpiece that is more than one thousand years old.

BRAND: First, in Iraq today, gunmen dressed as Iraqi police commandos attacked an electronics store in Baghdad. At least half a dozen people were killed, part of a series of raids on businesses in the capitol.

CHADWICK: There are stories like this everyday from Iraq, beheadings, roadside bombs, terrible violence. The Bush administration recently criticized the news media for having too much negative coverage. Here's NPR's Eric Weiner.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

It would be easy to dismiss the charges of media bias as just another case of shooting the messenger. Politicians, after all, have been blaming reporters for their problems for as long as there have been politicians and reporters and problems. But the belief that the media are ignoring the good news in Iraq extends well beyond the Washington Beltway--all the way, in fact, to Clarksville, Tennessee.

Master Sergeant LOUIS RODRIGUEZ (Army, 101st Airborne): You can not believe everything you see on the news. You just can't.

WEINER: That's Master Sergeant Louis Rodriguez of the Army's 101st Airborne Division. He knows how bad things can be in Iraq. He lost a leg when an IED, a roadside bomb, exploded near his convoy. But he's also seen the good in Iraq, and wonders why that isn't reflected in the coverage.

Master Sergeant RODRIGUEZ: I remember being in a convoy with a whole bunch of soccer balls on the back of my truck, pulling in next to a field and playing soccer with the kids. The kids that the day before were throwing rocks at the U.S. troops. Next thing you know, we're playing with them. I remember a lot of positive things in which people were so grateful that we were there. None of that stuff got reported.

WEINER: One reason it's not reported, journalists say, is that out of security concerns, U.S. officials on the ground in Iraq sometimes discourage them from doing so. Paul McLeary is a reporter with the online edition of the Columbia Journalism Review. He recently returned from Iraq.

Mr. PAUL MCLEARY (Reporter, Columbia Journalism Review): They open a new school, and then reporters show up and, you know, it creates a big stir and then the insurgents hit the school. Or, the same thing with power generating plants. Reporters show up, you know, it's a big spectacle. The insurgents know that this generator's up, and then the generator gets hit. So, the military sometimes asks reporters not to go out there and report these stories.

WEINER: When there is good news in Iraq, journalists say, they cover it and cover it in a big way. This CNN report about the Iraqi elections is a case in point.

(Soundbite of CNN report)

Unidentified Female Reporter: This is the day Iraqis thought they would never live to see. For more than half a century...

WEINER: The Associated Press newswire recently embedded a reporter with the Army Corp of Engineers, specifically for the purpose of covering the reconstruction effort. And reporters in Baghdad bristle at the suggestion that they somehow harbor an anti-war bias. Larry Kaplow is Baghdad correspondent for Cox newspapers. When he wakes up every morning, he says, he's not thinking, how can I find the worse possible news in Iraq today?

Mr. LARRY KAPLOW (Reporter, Cox Newspapers): When I get up, I'm trying to figure out how can I explain what the prevailing direction of the situation is--people's attitudes and the overall tone of things? I think that it's Iraqi attitudes that drive this.

WEINER: The bottom line, journalists say, is that media coverage of Iraq is not the real problem.

Dr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): The real problem in Iraq right now is that things are not good in Iraq.

WEINER: Michael O'Hanlon is a Senior Fellow with the Brookings Institution. He points out that Iraq is, after all, at war. And wars are, by definition, bad news. Yes, he says, there are a few bright spots: more phone service and Internet connections than under Saddam Hussein, but those are the exceptions.

Dr. O'HANLON: The unemployment rate's still very high. Electricity and oil output are still mediocre compared with Saddam Hussein levels. Sanitation services, water services are not very good. The reality is that there isn't all that much great news happening in Iraq, if only we could get below the negativity.

WEINER: Those looking for a different take on the situation in Iraq can find it. A handful of bloggers who have traveled to Iraq paint a rosier picture than does the mainstream media. And even some old fashioned media outlets, something called newspapers, are by dent of geography and demographics stretching to find the good news angle in Iraq.

Mr. RICHARD STEVENS (Executive editor, The Leaf-Chronicle): In fact, we've carried a number of stories like that about, you know, mosques being rebuilt, not blown up, and water systems being restored to bring more comfort to the Iraqis we're trying to help.

WEINER: That's Richard Stevens, executive editor of The Leaf-Chronicle, circulation 25,000. Most of its readers have some ties to the Army. Its coverage of stories from Iraq are by and large more positive than those found in other news outlets.

Mr. STEVENS: We've had a lot of that kind of coverage, and I think we've gotten a good response. People have respected us for reaching for that kind of coverage.

WEINER: But even this relatively positive coverage haven't pleased all of The Leaf-Chronicle readers. Stevens still receives plenty of complaints that his newspaper is too negative, proving that when it comes to coverage of Iraq, pleasing everyone is nearly impossible. Eric Weiner, NPR News.

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