TV's Bad News Brigade

ABC, CBS and NBC’s Defeatist Coverage of the War in Iraq


Ever since the United States and an international coalition toppled Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in the spring of 2003, the Iraq war has dominated network newscasts. Since then, there’s been a lot of undeniably bad news, as terrorists have launched a savage campaign to thwart efforts to establish democracy in a major Arab state. But are the media giving the public an inordinately gloomy portrait of the situation, as some critics charge? Are the positive accomplishments of U.S. soldiers and Iraq’s new democratic leaders being lost in a news agenda dominated by assassinations, car bombings and casualty reports?

To find out how the three broadcast networks have covered the war so far this year, Media Research Center analysts reviewed every report on the Iraq war that aired on ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News from January 1 through September 30. In spite of their shrinking ratings, these three broadcasts boast far higher audiences than even the most widely watched cable news programs. And the network evening newscasts provide more consistent coverage of serious issues (such as Iraq) than either their morning counterparts or the networks’ prime-time magazine shows, although many of the same packaged reports found on the evening news also appeared in some form on those other newscasts.

chart1-101405[The MRC plans to release an analysis of cable news coverage of the war in Iraq in 2006.]

The war has received a tremendous amount of TV coverage. During the first nine months of 2005, the three evening newscasts have broadcast 1,388 reports about Iraq, making it the year’s single largest broadcast news topic. The CBS Evening News offered the most coverage (499 stories, split between 312 full reports and 187 brief items read by the news anchor). CBS also aired an additional 177 short items paying tribute to “Fallen Heroes,” American military personnel who died while serving our country in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. These items were not considered part of CBS’s daily Iraq coverage, but were reviewed and analyzed separately. (See Sidebar.)

ABC’s World News Tonight discussed Iraq in 447 stories (278 full reports and 169 anchor-read briefs). The NBC Nightly News aired slightly fewer items (442 stories), but more full field reports than either ABC or CBS (325, compared to 117 short anchor-read items). Coverage on all three networks was most intense in January (283 stories), as Iraq prepared for its first democratic, multi-party elections, an exercise that would have been unthinkable just two years earlier. September saw the fewest Iraq war stories (64 stories), as network reporters focused on the damage caused to the U.S. Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina.