This study analyzed two months of US and UK media coverage of the parliamentary elections in Iraq – February 13, 2010 to April 8, 2010 – analyzing the reporting essentially as events were happening.
The US and UK media substantively covered the 2010 Iraqi parliamentary elections, as did, of course, more “local” news outlets such as Al Jazeera. But there was nothing like the wall-to-wall reporting that there had been five years previously for the 2005 election. By late 2009 and early 2010, the salience of Iraq had dipped considerably for policy makers.
“Iraq is off the front pages, off the television screens and, for the most part, off the main page of major news Web sites,” wrote a McClatchy reporter based in Baghdad in December 2009. “Just as Iraq enters a really critical period, where its leaders will decide whether they will solve differences without violence, and when the country truly stands on its own with a much smaller crutch from the US — many in the West have stopped paying steady attention.”
Most of the hot-button issues from the 2005 election had become, if not precisely settled, then of lessening concern: Iraq as the central hub in the “War on Terror,” the pervasive influence of the Bush administration in the governing of Iraq, the perceived clash of values between Islam and the “West,” the debate over whether democracy and “freedom” would — or could — take hold in Iraq.
- Since 9/11, elections in the Muslim world have been covered as battles between the forces of terrorism and those of democracy. Not this one. Media described outbreaks of violence and questioned the impact on the election, but didn’t make grander claims of terrorism.(Click for further details)
- Remember when Americans used to ask “Why do Muslims hate us?” The media have moved on. In their coverage of the 2010 Iraqi election, US and UK media no longer emphasized an East-West clash of religious values — instead they focused on Iraq’s fragmented sectarian politics. (Click for further details)
- The new bad guys: Fraud and corruption. It’s hard to make sense of a campaign that has over 300 political entities registered to run for 325 parliamentary seats. It’s easier (if not exactly simple) to cover the leading political candidates and their machinations, including voter intimidation and demands for recounts. And when the health of the democratic institutions depends on controlling fraud and corruption, it all makes for a good story.(Click for further details)
- Elections are about people voting, right? But for this election there was little attention to individual Iraqi voters and their concerns. Reporting on the Iran election by contrast emphasized what the men and women in the streets of Tehran cared about. But media reporting on the 2010 Iraq elections focused on top-down politics, rather than the interests at the grassroots. (Click for further details)
The Stack Graphs below trace key trends in what 13 American, British and Arab news outlets had to say during the two months surrounding the 2010 election. The graphics are screen grabs from dynamic charts that can be seen on IBM’s ManyEyes’ site. Click on the charts to go to ManyEyes and see details about the data.
Iraq held its second parliamentary elections close to nine years after September 11, and almost exactly seven years after the US invasion of Iraq. But with all that had occurred over those intervening years, US and UK media no longer reported on Iraq as Terrorism Ground Zero.
During the two months of coverage surrounding the 2010 election, media did track the ferocity of attacks against Iraqi civilians and security forces as well as against American troops — the suicide attacks, car bombings and IEDs, for instance — but they tended to frame the violence as a bellwether of national and at times regional political and sectarian splits, rather than frame the violence as part of a global terrorist offensive.
A February 19 story on a suicide bombing in Anbar province in the New York Times, for example, only mentioned “terrorism” once — the second-to-last-word in the article. Instead the story, like many others during this election period, focused on the political implications of the attack:
“A suicide bomber struck near the government headquarters in the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province on Thursday, the latest in what Iraqi and American officials warned would be a wave of violence before next month’s parliamentary elections. ..
The attack — in Ramadi, an overwhelmingly Sunni city — occurred amid heightened sectarian tensions and came only days after insurgents vowed to disrupt the elections. There have been a series of attacks already this month, many of them with an added political undercurrent.
At least two candidates have been killed. Bombings have struck at least four party headquarters in Baghdad, as well as a candidate’s home in Ramadi. In Maysan, in southern Iraq, gunmen opened fire on a candidate hanging posters for Ahrar, a party led by a cleric who favors a secular democracy, killing one of the candidate’s aides, the party said on Thursday.”
In the coverage of the 2010 Iraqi election, US and UK media used religious terminology such as Sunni or Shia/Shiite as political labels, oft-times to signal sectarian and regional divisions. They weren’t trying to educate their audiences about differing religious beliefs, nor were they making value judgments — i.e. Muslims are good, Muslims are bad — as occurred in the coverage of the 2005 election. (To evaluate the 2010 coverage for yourself, click here to go to a ManyEyes wordtree of the New York Times coverage, for example, and put “Shiite” into the search bar.)
Even when media used the words (or variations on the words) Muslim or Islam, for example, the terms often referred to a political coalition or a governmental agency: Muslim Brotherhood or Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, for example.
If coverage of the 2005 election was all about how the forces of war, terrorism and religion were subverting the election, coverage of the 2010 election emphasized how sectarian divisions were subverting — or could subvert — the electoral process. Even coverage of violence was overwhelmingly parsed through a political lens.
But overall, most reporting that focused on the election itself emphasized problems with the process, especially including:
- The allegations of fraud, corruption, intimidation and irregularities at every stage of the process — and the political maneuverings that lay behind any actual fraud, as well as any allegations of fraud.
- The appeal of the major candidates — especially Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and former interim leader, Ayad Allawi — to various Sunni, Shia and Kurdish factions, and the possible short- and long-term effect of various coalitions. (See, for example, this March 18 editorial in the Guardian.)
Media did not fall into the trap they had previously and represent the 2010 Iraqi elections as a war between the forces of good and evil. But the US and UK media did not entirely retreat from measuring the election against “Western” standards: there was considerable reporting on and assessments about whether the process was “free and fair,” for example, and whether the election would bring greater democracy to the region.
Yet it would be unfair to characterize the coverage, especially that by the newspapers, as once-over-lightly. Much daily coverage as well as the larger media packages reported on the nuances of the party lists and the challenges of creating coalitions to form a government. Most outlets made some effort, online at least, to create graphics to diagram and explain the complicated, internecine political battles that ensued both before and after the March 7 election.
This wasn’t an election that prompted a lot of stories that began with a heart-breaking anecdote about a grieving mother, an orphaned child, a traumatized soldier, a martyred young woman. Stories about the violence included body counts, and stories about the campaigning mentioned the alignment of certain regions behind certain candidates. But most (if not all) of the coverage from was written either in a “Just-the-facts-Ma’am” breaking-news style or in a rather hortative editorial tone — befitting stories about the political process and the sectarian in-fighting.