Terrorism Shaped 2004 News Agenda
President George W. Bush's November reelection topped the Associated
Press' (AP) annual listing of the top 10 news stories for 2004,
the other leading choices suggested that the news media might have
helped him in his quest.
list, which reflected the votes of 234 national and local editors,
news directors, and similar "gatekeepers," whose media
organizations are part of AP's vast U.S. network, played heavily
into Bush's main campaign theme: that the world was an extremely
dangerous place dominated by terrorists and related evildoers.
the list also suggested greater-than-ever concern about events abroad,
the focus of that worry was confined virtually exclusively to the
threats posed by Islamist terrorism, as well as the shadowy insurgency
for example, the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan which
both Congress and the administration denounced as genocide in mid-year
did not make into the top 10. In contrast, the AP's 1984
list, also headed by the reelection of a U.S. president (Ronald
Reagan), featured the lethal gas leak at a Union Carbide factory
that killed some 7,000 people in Bhopal, India, in the number two
spot, and the Ethiopian famine as number six.
with the arguable exception of the death of Palestinian leader Yasser
Arafat, all five of the clearly international stories featured in
this year's list were Iraq or terrorism-related; none dealt with
global issues, such as HIV/AIDS or other diseases, the global environment,
or even the effect of rising oil and commodity prices on the world
or even the domestic economy.
fact, no economic issues, normally a staple of AP's top 10 lists
and a decided weakness for Bush during the election campaign, appeared
at all, despite the conventional wisdom that people tend to "vote
with their pocketbooks."
to a Gallup poll released this week, local news media almost
all of which depend on AP for their basic coverage remain
the most relied-on source of daily news for about two-thirds of
U.S. citizens, significantly more than cable or network television
news, talk radio, national newspapers such as the New York Times,
or the Internet.
that respect, the gatekeepers whose choices are represented in the
AP poll represent as influential a group on how the U.S. public
sees current events in the world as any other medium, and probably
top 10 stories they chose were: 1. the U.S. election; 2. Iraq; 3.
Florida hurricanes; 4. abuses of detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib
prison; 5. release of the final report of the Sept. 11 Commission;
6. homosexual "marriage"; 7. the death of Arafat; 8. the
death of Reagan; 9. the seizure of a Russian school by Chechen guerrillas
in Beslan; and 10. the train bombings in Madrid by Islamist militants
and the subsequent election defeat of the pro-Bush government there.
Steve Weber, an analyst at the University of Maryland's Program
on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), the list, insofar as it
represents the views of a representative group of news gatekeepers
around the country, is somewhat encouraging. PIPA has tracked U.S.
public opinion about world events and issues for some 15 years.
interesting that five or six are international stories," he
noted in an interview. "It may reflect how America is becoming
more embedded in the world. When you think how little international
news is covered in most American newspapers, it's surprising. It
seems that the gatekeepers recognize that international stories
are more important to citizens, and the media needs to catch up."
also noted the irony that some of the stories particularly
the Iraq war and the Abu Ghraib scandal were shown during
the election campaign to have hurt Bush's standing in the public-opinion
polls, but "it's clear that the larger role of terrorism in
the past year worked for him."
consistently showed public disapproval of Bush's handling of Iraq
but a strong preference for him over Democratic challenger Senator
John Kerry in the broader "war against terrorism"
something that would have been reinforced by the prominence the
nation's news gatekeepers gave to the Beslan school seizure and
the Madrid bombings.
course, their prominence may be a reflection of the "if-it-bleeds-it-leads"
mentality that has dominated U.S. news coverage, especially local
TV news, for at least two decades. And the fact that the world's
news media were on the spot in both Russia and Madrid where
some 330 and 200 people, respectively, were killed to offer
hour-by-hour, sometimes minute-by-minute, coverage of the mayhem
in both events might explain why, for example, Darfur's "genocide"
simply could not compete.
the terrorism narrative, which suggests that the violence inflicted
or provoked by the Islamist perpetrators is directed as much at
the United States as it is at its Spanish or Russian victims, almost
certainly played a major role in explaining the stories' "popularity"
with the gatekeepers.
the list does not mention al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, also
reflecting Bush's public utterances that the man who apparently
directed the 9/11 attacks is no longer the U.S.'s main terrorism
sense in which the violence is directed at "us" also feeds
what some media analysts have referred to as the "narcissism"
of U.S. news coverage.
are given the sense they are some kind of unique victims and heroes
of the world," according to Dan Hallin, who teaches political
communications at the University of California at San Diego. "Everything
revolves around them."
comes through very strongly in this year's list, particularly if
the Beslan and Madrid violence were reported or understood in the
context of the wider "war against terrorism." Only Arafat's
death arguably stands on its own as something that does not necessarily
affect the U.S. directly.
"Florida hurricanes," as the number three story is called,
deals exclusively with the impact of Hurricanes Charley, Frances,
Ivan, and Jeanne on "Florida and other southern states in August
and September, killing 117 persons in Florida destroying 2,500 homes
and causing more than $22 billion in insured losses. Not since 1886
had one state been hit by four hurricanes in one season," according
to the AP summary.
mention here of Ivan's impact in the Caribbean, particularly on
Grenada, where 90 percent of the island's structures were damaged,
a third of its homes destroyed and its all-important nutmeg and
cocoa crops completely wiped out, or on Haiti, where as many as
3,000 people about the same number killed in the Sept. 11,
2001 terrorist attacks died in flooding that destroyed most
of Gonaives, the third-largest city in the Americas' poorest nation.
if U.S. troops had been sent to help with relief operations in Haiti
that story might have made it into the top 10, but such a mission
would not have been consistent with the overriding anti-terrorism
narrative that was at the heart of the Bush campaign.
The Reagan election landslide; 2. The Bhopal disaster; 3. Geraldine
Ferraro (Democratic nominee for vice president); 4. Indira Gandhi's
assassination; 5. The bombing of the U.S. embassy annex in Beirut;
6. The Ethiopian famine; 7. The summer Olympics; 8. Implants of
a baboon heart and an artificial heart; 9. The economy; 10. The
slaying of 21 people at the McDonald's in San Ysidro, Calif.
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service