I was going to title this post, “Media Ignores War, Normalizes It,” but I realized that wouldn’t be accurate. Read on for the truth:

Bill Boyarsky made the point a few days ago that we’ve forgotten the war in Afghanistan, an argument we’ve ironically forgotten others have made.

The truth is in the numbers. Boyarsky cites Pew to write the following:

Remember the war, the one in Afghanistan? The recent Memorial Day weekend forced the news media to briefly focus on it. But otherwise the war and its heavy toll have faded from our national consciousness, leaving President Barack Obama free to continue the combat without much pressure to get out.

Just how forgotten the war has become is revealed in the latest news coverage report of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. The project gives its findings in a nonjudgmental, just-the-facts manner, no how maddening they are. The Afghanistan War didn’t make the top five stories covered in newspapers, online or on cable and network television for the period May 16-May 22.

Now, I can’t find the report he mentions here. But I can find plenty of other information that demonstrates the obvious truth that this is nothing new.

Timeline of media coverage of Afghanistan

The spike corresponds with President Obama’s decision December 1st, 2009, to send 30,000 extra soldiers to Afghanistan. At that time, other leading news stories included the ongoing economic crisis, Tiger Woods, White House party crashers and the health care debate. Notice that at its peak, Afghanistan only accounted for 9.5% of the “newshole”  (available content in news media). That news actually followed  findings by Pew stating support for continued US troop presence in Afghanistan was declining.

But other spikes exist as well – in July 2010, the topic of Wikileaks led to a jump in coverage that accounted for 7% of the newshole.

On a July 27 NBC newscast, correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported that inside Washington, the big question was “whether this is a game changer” in terms of U.S. war strategy. In the same report, Obama was quoted downplaying the new information, declaring that “these documents don’t reveal any issues that haven’t already informed our public debate on Afghanistan.”

Of course, Wikileaks itself led the coverage. As anyone can remember, despite very good work by the Guardian and others, the content of the leaks have been less relevant to the popular media than the ethics of their release – an ironic twist of convention due to the subject matter, as Obama himself makes clear.

Most recently, the killing of Usāmah bin Lādin has created renewed interest in the topic. During the week when 69% of media coverage was devoted to the death of bin Lādin, of the 42% of viewers expressing heavy attention to the topic, 39% were interested in “the impact of the killing on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.” This still pales next to the numbers of  those interested in

  • “The chance of a terrorist attack on the U.S. in retaliation for the killing of the al Qaeda leader” (57%)
  • “how the military raid was carried out” (44%)
  • “whether Pakistan knew or should have known where bin Laden was hiding” (44%)

After the killing, optimism among the public raised but there was still no more support for troop coverage (those figures have steadily dropped over the past year, and groups like Rethink Afghanistan have done an excellent job of tracking and publicizing those numbers)

The News Cycle

Now, this pattern of remember/forget/remember isn’t something Boyarsky is unfamiliar with. It’s just another convention of journalism. Audiences make a lot of demands of their news providers – they’re fickle that way.

Deepwater Horizon trending results

Remember the oil spill in the gulf last year? It’s not that there’s no more story. It’s that most people are tired of hearing about it. As Mother Jones reports,

The Gulf oil disaster largely disappeared from the headlines last August, after the well was finally capped and the federal government declared that most of the oil was “gone.”

For Gulf coast residents, though, the nightmare was just beginning. A year later, business hasn’t come back for many in fishing and tourism, and the compensation check from BP still hasn’t arrived. In the areas closest to the shores, people are reporting health problems consistent with exposure to chemicals. Dead turtles, dolphins and fish are still washing ashore. So are tar balls. So while most of the country has moved on, a number of Gulf coast residents have been in DC over the past week to tell decisionmakers one thing: It’s not over.

It’s not that the news media has a short attention span: it’s that we do. Here’s the trending results from 2004-present on Afghanistan:

They’re slightly more inflated than “Afghanistan war”, but I thought it would be interesting to note the same peak and overall shape. For such a long, dare I say, “forgotten” issue like Afghanistan, it takes immediacy and new events to return it to the public’s attention. Haiti and Japan are two recent foreign examples of natural disasters which, because of the magnitude of events, entered the news cycle here, and eventually drifted and faded in the same manner as the Gulf Spill.

There is plenty of people out there who say that the media shortens the attention span of its audience – I believe, to some degree, it’s the other way around. Michael Newman at University of Milluake-Wisocoson wrote this:

…much of the cultural concern with diminishing attention spans over the past few decades requires a nostalgic projection of how our minds used to work before modern technologies came along and corrupted us. There is a dystopian rhetoric that runs through much of the thinking about advanced media technologies and their social effects. If only we could get back to that idealized past before the invention of the transformative machines. This is fantasy of unattainable authentic experience. Buying into it might help us manage our anxiety over the changes that accompany the introduction of new media technologies.

I’m more inclined to believe that the news industry caters to the latent wishes of it’s audience, which creates a self-perpetuating  lack of focus towards long-lived issues or complex topics. America’s historical counterpart to Vietnam (now our second-longest war)  remained in the public awareness  because of  well organized antiwar efforts and the social effects of the draft on the general population.  The immediacy of those effects relates to President Obama’s 2009 decision to send 30,000 troops. Americans care about issues when they have personal effects. “When will my spouse come home?” “Will my child have to serve another tour?” This is why Rethink Afghanistan’s campaign of focusing on the American dead is so effective. It’s undoubtedly why people in Louisiana still “care” about the BP spill, Japan and Haiti still “care” about their disasters. Caring seems like the wrong word to use though. Because it implies that if we don’t want the war in Afghanistan in the news cycle anymore, then we don’t care about the dozens of Afghanis killed every month of our continued involvement – unless perhaps an American was killed as well.