(AFP) – Mar 25, 2008
WASHINGTON (AFP) — The US death toll in Iraq had just passed 4,000, but on Monday the most viewed story on Yahoo News was "Oil fluctuates as dollar, stocks rise." And the most emailed story was: "1986 message in bottle drifts 1,735 miles."
Five years after the US-led invasion of Iraq began, Americans' interest in the war, and press coverage of it, is flagging.
With slugfest for the White House going on and an economy that is plummeting toward recession, there is less and less interest in news, positive or negative, from Iraq, where US soldiers have been fighting since March 20, 2003.
"People see gas going up and the price of their house going down .... It's more immediate than the Iraq war," said Bob Stover, managing editor of Florida Today in Melbourne, Florida.
The downturn has been especially sharp in the past six months, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ), which measures news content weekly in a mix of US newspapers, websites, and television and radio.
While in all of 2007 the Iraq war occupied an average 15.5 percent of the "newshole" in the media, in the last quarter it fell to nine percent, and then to just 3.9 percent in the first quarter of 2008, according to PEJ's Paul Hitlin.
Instead, soaring concern over the US economy and the pitched battles for the Democratic and Republican nominations for the presidential election in November 2008 dominated coverage.
Stories about the US economy filled 1.9 percent of the newshole last year, according to Hitlin, but hit 8.2 percent between January 1 and March 23 this year.
Even the perils of troubled pop star Britney Spears overshadowed the war since late last year, graphs of news mentions on Google's Trends Labs show.
That trend was momentarily overturned last week, when US media marked the fifth anniversary of the now unpopular war. Stories looking back and assessments of recent progress piled up.
The Tyndall Report, which measures news coverage on the three big broadcast television networks, said that on March 19 some 40 percent of their newshole was devoted to Iraq.
But in a week of tough battling between Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, and deep turmoil on Wall Street, the war quickly fell off.
Reflecting the lower level of news coverage of the war, a Pew Report released March 12 said that just 28 percent of adult Americans knew that the US death toll was nearing 4,000, the mark hit on Monday -- compared to 31 percent who knew the level of the Dow Jones Industrials stock index.
In August more than half knew the Iraq toll roughly. "As news coverage of the war has diminished, so too has public interest in news about Iraq," Pew said.
Ron Nessen, a former NBC television correspondent and White House press secretary at the end of the Vietnam War, attributed the falloff in interest to US successes in quelling violence in Iraq, which has brought the death toll of Americans and Iraqis down from the highs of late 2006 -- though only to 2005 levels.
"Maybe I'm cynical ... but good news is no news. I think you are seeing a little bit of that effect in Iraq," Nessen, now a media expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told AFP.
But, he added, after five years, and in the middle of the presidential race, interest has dwindled generally. With no dramatic daily events, "A kind of fatigue sets in."
Local newspapers across the US ran the story of the 4,000 deaths on Monday, many of them on their front pages. But editors acknowledge a decline in coverage, though they say their readers are still interested -- the readers just get the news more on television and online.
Bill Manny, editor of the Idaho Statesman, said his paper still runs three to five stories on Iraq ever week, in a special nation-world section inside the paper. But, he conceded, "What the Pew poll found is true for us."
The paper sent a reporter and photographer to Iraq in 2003 when some 2,000 Idaho national guardsmen deployed to the war, but since they returned, the coverage has fallen off.
"At some point it all feels similar," Manny said. The coverage has been replaced in a large part by the real estate market crash, which has hit the Boise, Idaho area hard.
"That's just what's on peoples' minds."
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