PEJ News Coverage Index: Oct. 5-11, 2009, For the First Time, Afghanistan Tops the Week's News

  • October 14, 2009

Amid signs of disagreement over war strategy within the Obama administration, Afghanistan led the news last week, the first time since the News Coverage Index began in January 2007 that the eight-year-old war has emerged as the top story.

From October 5-11, Afghanistan accounted for 20% of the newshole, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, double the previous high-water mark for coverage of the country.

It may mark an emphatic end to the sense of Afghanistan as a low-level conflict occurring largely out of public view and could change the political backdrop against which the impending Obama decision on how to prosecute the war will have to be made. The media attention last week was at a level that accompanied the politically explosive domestic debate over Iraq strategy several years ago.

Afghanistan was even more heavily a television story last week. It filled 30% of the airtime studied on network news and 25% on cable news. That narrative was driven largely by apparent disputes over whether the U.S. should employ a troop “surge” or opt against a major infusion of soldiers in favor of a focus on Al Qaeda rather than the Taliban—or select a strategy in between. Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week rebuked top Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal for going public with his recommendation that the U.S. significantly expand its forces. And a meeting between Obama and lawmakers reportedly included some tense moments with Republicans pressing for a quick build-up of American troops.

The next biggest topic in last week's news agenda generated a little more half the coverage devoted to Afghanistan. The No. 2 story, at 12% of the newshole, was the economic crisis, although no single theme dominated that narrative. Next, at 10%, was the debate over health care reform, as the legislative process continued to grind along on Capitol Hill. That marked the third week in a row when coverage has hovered at around 10% after a summer run in which the health care debate often generated twice or even three times that much attention.

Read the full report For the First Time, Afghanistan Tops the Week's News on the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism Web site.