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Media Lit 101: A Guinness Record We Don't Want

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Today another world record is in the bag for Iraq. This time, it's the country to go the longest - 208 days - between holding a parliamentary election and forming a government. (The Dutch were the previous record holders, dating back to 1977 when attempts to form a government dragged on for 207 days.)

Elections are dicey things--consider our own brush with the hanging chads of Florida. What matters, clearly, is not just getting folks to the ballot boxes. That can be challenging in itself. But what comes after the voting matters more. Who takes office? What kind of public mandate do they have (or believe they have)? How do they govern? What advisers and officials do they surround themselves with? What kind of accountability is in place between elections to keep a check on those in power? What does the public know about what's happening?

For those of us watching Iraq from afar, our information comes via the international media. And global media closely follow elections in countries where Americans have keen security interests: Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan. But after the ballots have been counted, the media spotlights turn off, the news goes elsewhere, and we at home turn away to other more sensational stories.

We aren't interested in the messy business of forming a government, and we certainly aren't interested in status quo. That's a problem because Iraq has been mired in stasis for 208 days now. What we are interested in is political conflict and controversy - consider the U.S. midterm elections and the wall-to-wall coverage about the rage in the New York governor's race or about whether a brush with Satanism is this year's equivalent of claiming not to have inhaled.

Yet despite their pandering to the lowest tabloid-esque interests, many media outlets have gotten better at covering elections, even if they are not great in covering what comes next. The International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland recently completed a study of U.S. and U.K. media coverage of five elections over the past 5 years, work conducted in part for a Carnegie Corporation of New York scholar award project. ICMPA researched reporting of the 2010 and the 2005 elections in Iraq, the 2009 Afghanistan and Iranian elections and the 2008 election in Pakistan.

What did we find? The news media have learned some important lessons... although there remains room for improvement. Here are some highlights of our study:

  1. "Terrorism" is abating - at least the practice of reflexively considering those who oppose American-style institutions as terrorists. Media are more careful about what they call 'terrorism.' Following 9/11, U.S. and U.K. media covered elections in the Muslim world as if they were cosmic battles between the forces of terrorism and those of democracy. But for the March 7, 2010 election in Iraq, when media talked - or quoted others as talking - about terror, it was in specific reference to a particular act of terror, such as a suicide bombing.
  2. Who are the new global bad guys? Fraud and corruption. The cases of financial fraud and corruption that have dominated media in the U.S. and U.K. have put corruption of all kinds around the world higher on the agenda. In recent elections, coverage of corruption and fraud has been almost as extensive as coverage of security concerns.
  3. "Islam" is not always a four-letter word. When American and the British outlets focus on election violence, media can still be tempted to broadly characterize enemies - or even just political opponents - by pejoratively referencing religion. So, for instance, while covering the election in Pakistan, media spoke about "radical Muslim clerics," "Islamic extremists," "Islamic radicals" and "Islamic fundamentalists" - all without clear indications of what those phrases meant in context or in relative terms. But when the media focus on politics and policy, as during the 2010 election in Iraq and the 2009 election in Iran, media more clearly identified sectarian divisions and political parties.
  4. The term "Western" is still too casually used in opposition to "Islamic" or "Muslim." Just as monolithic references to a group or a policy as "Muslim" or "Islamic" hides important distinctions, so too does use of the term "Western" obscure differences between the U.S. and the U.K., or the U.K. and other European countries, etc.
  5. U.S. media still too often cover international elections as if they were referenda on American policy, rather than about issues internal to those countries.
  6. Violence makes the news, but media have become blasé about suicide bombings. Bombings are reported, but as a yardstick for assessing the security level of a country. Are terrorists - the Taliban, al Qaeda - gaining ground? What does the level of violence mean for Pakistan, for instance ... and what are the implications for the United States? The problem is that since the perpetrators of violent attacks - as well as the victims - are rarely clearly identified, an audience's understanding of the implications of and possible solutions to the violence is strictly limited.
  7. Coverage of elections remains "top-down." Media pay too little attention to voters beyond talking about voting blocks or regional/tribal divisions. When talking about voters, media too often portray them as a faceless mob, manipulated by politicians and religious leaders. Media too rarely portray the public as being independently responsive to policy decisions by authorities.
  8. Women: Reports on their status continue to be used to evaluate a country's progress toward civil rights for citizens. And reports on their victimization are still used to indict those who abuse them - whether those are husbands or the state. But overall women in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq received little coverage in the time periods of the elections - and significantly less than they did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
  9. With the exception of the 2009 election in Iran, U.S. and U.K. mainstream media have not tapped into social media for local opinions and eyewitness reports. Iranians in the streets covered their own protests after the international press corps was booted out of the country. But in other countries where foreign journalists have had access, there has been little effort to tap into YouTube postings, Tweets, Facebook, the blogosphere or other social media outlets to supplement and deepen coverage.

What's the takeaway from these highlights? That media can do better in covering politics. They can do better in specific ways, and in ways that don't take more money, but that just take more attention to details.

And what are the lessons for us, the audience? That we should ask for - and look for - more coverage not just on the horse race of politics, but on the forming and running of governments. If we are putting billions of dollars into helping countries such as Iraq hold elections, then we the voters need to follow up on the progress of those elections.

Why should we care about whether the Iraqis can form a government? Well, remember that here we are, in the midst of our own midterm elections, already grousing about too much on the docket for the lame-duck session, and worrying that our sitting legislators are going to accomplish too little in that window of time. But at least our Congress will be "sitting," and a president will be in the Oval Office.

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FOR EXTRA CREDIT: What's another world record that Iraq holds? This summer, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that ever since the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraq has been the most dangerous country in the world to be a journalist. Iraq also holds the world record for journalists killed with impunity; no one has ever been prosecuted for any of the 88 murders over the last 10 years.