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Outside Voices: David Vaina Compares Middle East Coverage On CBS News And BBC News

(David Vaina)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, David Vaina, a research associate at the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, compares one week's worth of coverage of the Middle East crisis on CBS News with that of BBC News. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Here's David:

No one can deny that network news today faces a number of challenges. First, there is the well-documented decline in audience numbers. According to recent estimates, viewership for the Big Three networks
has decreased by 25 million (or 48%) since 1980, the year that CNN started.

Another challenge for network TV comes from the Internet. More and more Americans are turning to the Internet for their daily news. And while it used to be that Old Media only had to worry about how to engage more teens and young adults, new survey data from Pew Research suggest that as many 50- to 64-year olds regularly get their news online as 18-year olds.

Clearly, network television now has a solid foothold in online media, but without a way to generate more advertising revenue from the Web, there may not be as much money to reinvest in newsgathering operations that can provide us with high-quality, informative programming.

Now, there is what some media critics have called the next British invasion. Increasingly, several British media outlets have launched campaigns to expand their audience reach in the United States. The BBC has offered a commercial-free half hour news program on PBS for some time and attracts roughly a million viewers a night, Media Life Magazine reported in June. The BBC News Web site's unique audience grew nearly 30% in 2005. Most noticeably, huge audience spikes were recorded in the first few weeks of the Iraq war back in March of 2003.

The Economist, meanwhile, has long enjoyed success as a more sophisticated alternative to Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report. Now, The Economist hopes to double its U.S. circulation in just five years. The Guardian and the Times of London have also begun efforts to sign up more American newspaper readers.

The threat remains relatively mild up to this point as most critics feel these British outlets will mainly appeal to an elite audience. Thus, a likely scenario would be that they would cannibalize, say, NPR, rather the more general audiences that network news attracts.

Nevertheless, the BBC and others increasingly see the U.S. market as an appealing one and continue to beef up their investments. Last month, the BBC introduced a 24-hour news channel that was marketed as a more cosmopolitan outlet than its American rivals:

"This has the feeling of Americans deciding they need something outside the system to get a perspective of what's going on," Nick Shore, a media consultant, told the New York Times in June.

But does the BBC offer a distinctly different news product? I decided to conduct my own mini-content analysis by comparing CBS News' coverage of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict with the BBC's half-hour newscast aired over local PBS affiliates during the week of July 17 - July 21. I wanted to look specifically at what types of stories ran, the degree of impartiality, and how the two viewing experiences differed—if at all.

Interestingly, I felt there was considerably more in common than one would expect. Both the BBC and CBS News ran a large number of stories about their foreign nationals trying to flee Beirut and be ferried to Cyprus. Though there was some criticism that the military and governments were slow to respond, viewers from both countries were left with a feeling that their nation's military had done an adequate job.

Each outlet frequently ran pieces that captured the effects of bombings on civilians. Moreover, both built these stories largely around emotion.

There was also a concerted effort for both to remain politically neutral, though there were a few glaring exceptions that will add fuel to the fire for those critics who think British media coverage tends to be pro-Arab and American media too sympathetic to Israel. For example, the BBC began one segment on July 18th with a comment that "Israel is still bombarding from the air…" and later referred to Israel's "punishing bombardments." Then on July 21, a correspondent appeared somewhat aggressive and confrontational when interviewing an Israeli spokesman by asking three consecutive follow-up questions that yielded very little new information.

Meanwhile, CBS News seemed a bit eager on at least one occasion to characterize Hezbollah as the lone culprit in the conflict, referring to the group on July 19th as "Hezbollah terrorists who started the trouble in Lebanon."

Neither the BBC nor CBS offered much historical context to the crisis. I found very few references to the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s and 1990s. For a richer and more in-depth understanding of the Lebanese-Israeli relations, one would have to turn to a newspaper or reference book, it appeared.

Where they did differ was in the amount (and breadth) of coverage devoted to international diplomacy. Based on my own rough calculations, the BBC ran nearly twice as many stories on international diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation. While the BBC ran several segments which included fairly lengthy statements from UN officials, representatives from the European Union, and other official international groups, CBS tended to focus on Condoleezza Rice's efforts in the Mid-East with only passing references to the UN. There was very little attempt to explain the maneuverings outside the
State Department or the White House. For example, the following segment on the July 19 "Evening News" typified the sparse CBS coverage on international diplomacy:

"Syria's President Bashir Assad called on the international community today to impose a cease-fire in Lebanon, blaming the conflict on Israel and the United States. But the White House said that talks with Syria, one of Hezbollah's chief supporters, would be a waste of time."
Indeed, one would have sensed the UN was only a minor player based on the CBS coverage.

What, then, can explain the difference in the amount of coverage on diplomatic affairs? It was noted earlier this year that CBS was operating in 11 overseas bureaus. BBC, it has been reported, operates in over 50. Having personnel in countries scattered around the region may create more opportunities for correspondents to gather information on how different government leaders are working to defuse the crisis. While CBS may possess well-staffed bureaus in Paris, Tel Aviv and London, it may be as little as one correspondent and a producer in some of the network's smaller bureaus outside of Europe. It is no secret that American network television has made cutbacks in its foreign news coverage over the last decade or so.

Larger forces may also account for the disparate coverage noted above. Despite Time magazine's recent declaration of the end of "cowboy diplomacy," Americans are considerably more distrustful of international governing bodies than people from other countries, including the British. In June, the Pew Global Attitudes Project's survey found that barely half (51%) of all Americans had a favorable opinion of the UN; in the UK, the favorability rating was 65%. Is it possible, then, that a country's media coverage is a reflection of how its citizens think international crises should be addressed?

In their discussion on Western media systems, press scholars Robert Giles and Daniel Hallin identify three models. The liberal model is one "centered on such norms as objectivity, balance and fairness." Most reporters in the UK and US are practitioners of such a form of journalism, they argue. By and large, it appears BBC and CBS News' coverage of the Middle East is well situated within this noble tradition. Polarized critics will point out glaring exceptions and scream bloody murder. What is paramount, I believe, is that critics and citizens continue the debate about how the media can better understand what should be expected from them when covering the Middle East. The stakes can't be any higher.