Is the Declining U.S. Death Toll in Iraq Front-Page News? Should It Be?

By Richard Benedetto

       WASHINGTON – Those who argue that the media play up bad news from Iraq and play down good news picked up some added ammunition for their arguments last week when many major news organizations buried or ignored the news  that U.S. troop deaths in Iraq in September  were at their lowest monthly level since March 2006.

        None of the top newspapers played it on their Oct. 31 front page, the day after the reports were released.  Many, including The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and USA Today played it well inside the paper.  But some, including  The New York Times, Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times, didn’t mention it at all, trumpeting instead bad news from Iraq.

        The Los Angeles Times reported on Oct. 31 that “Three American soldiers were killed Tuesday southeast of Baghdad when their patrol struck a roadside bomb.”   The Boston Globe had a story that led, “The Iraqi government approved a draft law yesterday to lift immunity for foreign security companies including Blackwater USA…”

         The news-play situation was far different last May when the monthly number of U.S. troop deaths in Iraq hit a high for the year in April:

 “April Toll Is Highest Of ’07 for U.S. Troops,” said a Page One headline on May 1 in The Washington Post.  Many other newspapers followed suit, putting the story on their  front pages.

         That’s fine.  But when the news that the U.S. death toll in October was the lowest in 17 months, The Washington Post buried it on page A-14.  On Page One that same day there were two Iraq-related stories, both negative – one about the “frayed alliance” between the U.S. and Pakistan and one on how President Bush’s nominee for attorney general  was losing Democratic support because of his  “unsure” stand on waterboarding, a controversial interrogation technique used on suspected terrorists.

       Meanwhile, the New York Times, which ignored the lower-troop-deaths story on Oct. 31, did have on its front page a seemingly less newsworthy Iraq story that said the U.S. military will oversee private security contractors such as Blackwater USA, which has been accused of recklessly killing Iraqi civilians.

        So what kinds of stories deserve Page One treatment?  Well, we first have to decide if it is news. And what is news?   That’s a difficult question.  In the American University  journalism and political science classes I teach, we talk about that all the time. To be sure, defining news is more art than science.  And in the new Internet age, definitions of news seem to change faster than the click of a mouse.

          But there are some criteria that endure. For example, news editors ask if the item is common or rare, usual or unusual, holy cow or ho hum?   In other words, is it a dog-bites-man story or a man-bites-dog story? Man bites dog?  That’s news!

         Putting that test to the story of declining U.S. deaths in Iraq, most might agree that given the long stream of reports about increasing U.S. deaths, it is unusual rather than usual, and therefore meets one of the main criterion for defining news. Yet, some papers ignored it. Others buried it. What might we conclude?

       We discussed the media’s handling of the declining-death story during my Politics of Mass Communications class at American University last week and most students, many of whom are war opponents, still came down on the side of playing the reort on Page One.

         “If you are going to put stories on Page One when the U.S. death toll goes up, it is only fair to put them on Page One when the deaths go down,” one student said.

         I then asked the class if burying or ignoring the story indicated an anti-war bias on the part of the editors or their papers. While some students said yes, especially the conservatives, most attributed it to poor news judgment.  They were being generous.

          Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent. He now teaches journalism and politics at American University. His latest book is Politicians Are People, Too.

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