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Reporting Iraq

Alistair Burnett Alistair Burnett | 20:39 UK time, Thursday, 24 May 2007

In Iraq on Thursday, there was a suicide bombing of a funeral in Falluja killing at least 25 people, several attacks around Baghdad killing at least 15 people; the body of one of the American soldiers captured last week by insurgents was identified; and there were several attacks in the north and west of the country that killed civilians as well as American and Iraqi troops. Only the attack on the funeral and the identification of the captured American were reported in news bulletins and none of the news programmes decided to cover any of these events in depth.

The World TonightWhy? Have journalists become so inured to the violence in Iraq that it is no longer considered news worthy?

Although there is a stereotype of callous hacks I don't think this is the explanation.

Part of the answer is that there were two other big stories in the Middle East - the escalation in the conflict between the Israelis and Hamas, and the UN report that Iran could be three years away from being able to make a nuclear weapon - which editors judged were more significant on the day than the continuation of violence in Iraq along familiar lines.

The second part of the answer is that editors are aware that we need to find new angles and new ways to tell the Iraq story, otherwise the audience can get to the stage where they mentally switch off if everyday there is a list of incidents of death and destruction. One example this week was when our Baghdad correspondent, Andrew North, went to the campus of one the main universities in the city to talk to students about how they continue to study and live their lives in the midst of the conflict - his report was broadcast on Today (listen here) and the World Service on Monday.

The following day there were attacks on two campuses which killed a number of students, so we on The World Tonight (listen here) interviewed a student who we have spoken to before about her reaction to these attacks, and her hopes and fears for her and her country's future. We hope that by talking to ordinary Iraqis we can help interest audiences in the stories though hearing how people like them live.

In addition to this, when we decide to cover Iraq we try to choose developments that are indicative of trends which can help us make sense of what is happening and why, and how things are likely to develop. So in recent weeks, we have looked at the row over the building of a wall around a Sunni area of Baghdad to try to reduce sectarian violence, which allowed us to look at whether the 'surge' in US troop numbers in the city has had any effect.

We also report the deaths of British soldiers, although as the deaths have become more frequent in the past few months, we have done less analysis of why they are getting killed and whether policy will change, and simply reported the deaths in our news bulletins. I was talking to a military press officer recently who said that sometimes soldiers and their families resent the fact that deaths of British servicemen and women seem to be given less emphasis than in the earlier part of the conflict, but on the other hand he said he understood that the more frequently an event - even the deaths of soldiers and civilians - occurs, the less emphasis it will receive.

It would be interesting to know if you think our approach is the right one.


"We also report the deaths of British soldiers, although as the deaths have become more frequent in the past few months, we have done less analysis of why they are getting killed" - this is a real shame. There's not enough reporting on what the soldiers are doing, let alone when they get killed.

  • 2.
  • At 06:28 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:

Well, as I mentioned on earlier threads the coverage given to Madeleine McCann was not really in proportion to these events in Iraq. That said, I appreciate the condition of 'compassion fatigue' which can set in when telling these stories.

What I find alarming is that deaths in Pakistan under Musharraf's 'reign' seem to get no coverage at all.

I accept your point that coverage of Gaza has led to some switch in emphasis away from Iraq [which did indeed get a lot of coverage at the time of the anniversary], but if Newsnight could cover Iraq with Mark Urban's excellent and compelling reports couldn't the main bulletins find the time ?

  • 3.
  • At 08:53 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • Nick wrote:

No - your emphasis isn't the right one, and hasn't been right from the outset of the occupation of Iraq.

Your coverage has been almost exclusively focused on dramatic events, namely insurgent attacks, civilian and military casualities etc, in and around Baghdad and a few other small areas.

There has been little or no coverage of events elsewhere in the country, especially of non-violent developments and progress.

As a result, it is quite impossible for a normal member of the public to reach any sort of properly informed and balanced view of the true state of Iraq at large.

This is a deplorable state of affairs, and you have let your public down badly.

  • 4.
  • At 08:56 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • John wrote:

I noted that your coverage from Baghdad went down as soon as the 'surge' started. In your piece here you mention several incidents occured in Baghdad which killed 15 people. This is very sad but it is a massive reduction in the level of violence compared to December06/Jan07 when thousands of people were being killed in the sectarian violence. Personally, I think you have stopped reporting from Baghdad because reporting a reduction in violence as a result of the surge would be 'off message' in terms of the ongoing campaign that bush/blair/iraq are wrong/failing. Mark Urban did an interesting piece for newsnight showing the Dora Market area being 'surged' by Iraqi/US troops - it had shops re-opening, people walking the streets, a massive reduction in the number of deaths. This is an area which had bodies hanging from lamp posts and no one daring to cut them down a few months ago. If you cut the reports on killings purely because they were becoming old hat, how come you don't do more reports like that from Baghdad?

  • 5.
  • At 09:11 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • Steve Johnson wrote:

Of course it's still newsworthy, but let's not forget the other conflicts happening all over the world. These only seem to attract the odd spurt of coverage before it all calms down again. Darfur was all the rage a few months ago and now it barely warrants two news articles on the BBC News website's Africa page. I think everyone understands that there's only so much you can fit into a new bulletin, but at the same time you have to realise that it's generally the media that dictates what the public thinks and cares about.

  • 6.
  • At 09:34 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • Matthew wrote:

I think by reporting less and less about the deasth toll in Iraq the Bbc gives credence to what Stalin said about "one person dying is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic". We do have a fascination for missing individuals, particularly children and yet this country is involved, like no other country in Europe, in two bloody and increasingly unwinnable wars and I don't think we should be allowed to forget that. Anyone that says they are "bored" by Iraq should get off their fat, spoilt backsides right now and book a flight to Baghdad. They wouldn't be bored for much longer. It would be interesting to hear about peace and positive developments such as in Kurdistan but I don't think that;s the role of the main news bulletins. I want to hear what happened around the world, not what is happening over a long period of time as I feel that is more suited to a programme like newsnight, or Panorama.

  • 7.
  • At 09:41 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • Andrew Dundas wrote:

Our country was made responsible for nation-building in "Mesopotamia" and much of Arabia by the League of Nations and that responsibility continued under a UN mandate until the mid-fifties. So everything that has happened in that region since then should be of interest to us. And especially because of the consequences of the failures of the UN sanctions and weapons searches (Our Country is a permanent member of the Security Council). Overiding all that, events in Iraq that are connected with our invasion in 2003 are of major concern to us because it is our public policy that has triggered the new waves of mayhem and murder that Iraqi people are suffering.

But I do think news media gravitates too much towards the horrifying drama of violence, and not sufficiently on the mundane struggle to create better living conditions, religious freedom and a stable polity in Iraq. Horror is, of course, "sexy" in news terms - understandably so - whilst democracy and law is "boring". But that should not discourage a public news service from covering the important struggle to establish lawful governance and public services, however difficult that may be. Especially in the Basra areas where the UK is even more directly responsible.

  • 8.
  • At 09:58 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • John Potts wrote:

In response to message 4, from John, quoted below:
I noted that your coverage from Baghdad went down as soon as the 'surge' started. In your piece here you mention several incidents occurred in Baghdad which killed 15 people. This is very sad but it is a massive reduction in the level of violence compared to December06/Jan07 when thousands of people were being killed in the sectarian violence.

In fact, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualties website, the civilian and Iraqi forces casualty figures for the months you mention are:

December 2006: 1752
January 2007: 1802

whereas "post surge" or perhaps more accurately "mid surge":
April 2007: 1821

No "massive reduction", but instead a slight increase on the months specified.

For completeness, here are the figures for the rest of 2007:

February 2007: 3014
March 2007: 2977

So there has indeed been a reduction since the levels reached in February and March, but only back to roughly the levels of December 2006/January 2007. The especially awful figures for the month of February seem to have been influential in precipitating the surge.

For further data on civilian casualties: Iraq Body Count

  • 9.
  • At 10:01 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • Joe wrote:

Whenever I hear words like "suicide bomber" and "Iraq" put together, I mentally switch off. Why? News fatigue, I suppose.

I know it's important that we're made aware of developments (or rather, un-developments) in Iraq, but after a while, one would get sick of hearing of all the gruesome things those sick bastards are capable off. One would also not expect the violence to wind down anytime soon, and as soon as another suicide bomber blows himself (or herself, for that matter) up, the reaction would normally be "Oh, again? No surprise there", or "Another suicide bomber? Don't they ever run out of those gits?"

So yes, finding another angle to tell the same story is a good thing, or we'd all start ignoring the growing problem that is Iraq.

  • 10.
  • At 10:01 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • Cynosarges wrote:

More to the point, why don't journalists report the violence in Darfur? The Sudanese government has murdered 450,000 there since 2003 (UN figures) Many more than the total of Iraqi deaths. But where is the wall to wall covering of this act of genocide? Is this like the Second World War, where the Allied governments refused to allow the media to report tales of genocide coming out of Nazi-held territory?

Darfur is the story the BBC refuses to tell. I suspect that this is because giving the tragedy the prominence it deserves would show up other BBC campaigns as biased.

  • 11.
  • At 10:02 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • Edward Radnall wrote:

There can be no making sense of what is happening in Iraq. Nor has there been from the very beginning. That is the very reason why it is vital everything which happens there is kept in the forefront of the public gaze. Those who took us into this awful mess would dearly love us to become apathetic about it. If we do not get the information, we members of the British public can not form a valid opionion as to what should be done next. Like get out quickly for instance.

  • 12.
  • At 10:22 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • Alan Downing wrote:

The latest and accumulated casualties should be regularly listed as a matter of record; not ignored.

  • 13.
  • At 11:56 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • John Farmer wrote:

I have noticed the omission of reporting US troop deaths - even when 11 died on the same day - which makes it look like censorship. For those of us who look at news sites around the world, these omissions are glaringly obvious.
Nobody likes to see soldiers dying, but if it happens, it should be reported, otherwise the spin from Bush and Blair that things are getting better, is not balanced by reality.

  • 14.
  • At 11:56 AM on 25 May 2007,
  • shay wrote:

The BBC front page did not report the death of a soldier on 21 May 2007. I found the news "hidden away" in the Guardian on the 22 May 2007.

Why is this? Simply the BBC and like media trying to ease the way in for Gordon Brown. Shame on you.

  • 15.
  • At 12:22 PM on 25 May 2007,
  • John wrote:

Statistics on Iraq casualties: you have chosen to report statistics to demonstrate nothing is working. Are these the statistics for BAGHDAD (only) or the whole of Iraq? At the current time the surge is focussing on specific areas in and around Baghdad. If you have deliberately chosen to quote statistics for areas outside of this, then that would only reinforce the view that you engage in very selective reporting.

  • 16.
  • At 12:25 PM on 25 May 2007,
  • Isaac wrote:


Iraq is the most important intenational news! as it is the frontier to the very serious & crucial war on teror!

Isaac, London

  • 17.
  • At 02:08 PM on 25 May 2007,
  • Sharad Sharma wrote:

Hey Alistair,

I must appreciate your pondering on reasons and justifications towards western media's stance of selective reporting in Iraq (but not limited to Iraq in general), however, considering something similar happening in USA, UK or other parts of our western world, would the media still use similar logic and reasoning to try and overlook some of the news of killings, daily violence and the plight of the people?

You don't have to answer because it is very obvious that it would be the reverse.

I remember the coverage of Anna Nicole's death by the western media - it was euphorically insane. CNN was close to the coverage they gave for late President Gerald Ford. During that phase hundreds of Iraqis were dead with hardly a word mentioned about them.

I follow BBC and CNN news for a long time (mostly because I have limited choice while talking about TV or Radio) and I have noticed selective journalism and editorial work to suite the local politics and power houses and the local political events. These are the main driving forces behind our western media reporting rather than the actual events themselves.

When the US senate was in a limbo to offer a war budget bill the media keeps suppressing the bad news from Iraq. When I say suppressing, I understand that the news of course would be somewhere - but only somewhere hidden in small lines and short reports. I have also notices that BBC generally makes the Iraq reports so confusing that at times you hardly get the head and tail of the actual happenings.

The issue in Iraq is not just an issue of wrong war or local crimes or sudden interest of some fanatic groups - its an issue where the western powers destroyed a country in a criminal manner and failed to maintain the security in the country which is resulting into hundreds of thousands of deaths. This criminal act was conducted in 21st century under the very eyes of international communities and so-called laws.

The role of the media here is far greater than just reporting the daily deaths in Iraq - which by the way is needed to keep the people aware of the killing grounds US and UK has created, but to report the crimes committed by western powers so that they can be brought to international justice.

Failure to do so would be a failure of western media, western culture, society and the international organizations like UN, ICC and UNHRC.

  • 18.
  • At 07:05 PM on 25 May 2007,
  • Lance Mawdsley wrote:

I wish the media would also show the positive things that the coalition forces are doing to rebuild Iraq. It seems only the violence is newsworthy but 80 percent of what is going in Iraq is positive. Remember U.S. troops still have not left Germany.

  • 19.
  • At 11:04 PM on 25 May 2007,
  • insertname wrote:

I see someone has mentioned the biased Iraq Body Count site. Now all we need is someone to repeat the discredited Lancet figures. Over to you BBC reporters.

  • 20.
  • At 03:55 AM on 26 May 2007,
  • John Smith wrote:

In all honesty, the news reports are largely worthless. Not because the BBC isn't doing its best, but because it simply isn't possible.

Reports on the road, outside of "embedding" with the military (which means reporting only on where they take you and what they will let you record) is dangerous in the extreme. Reporters have often ended up kidnapped and/or killed.

Without that freedom, though, you only have the official counts to go by - which are far lower than the morgues are reporting, and who knows how many of the dead ever get that far?

There are many strange, secretive and insular sects in Iraq - including the last surviving descendants of the Essenes, the authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I cannot imagine any of them handing their dead to a Sunni or Shi'ite morgue, or reporting casualties to potentially hostile religious governments.

There might - just might - be some members of such groups who would be willing to give a perspective on Iraq outside the usual three-way sectarian views. That might be something worth chasing.

Also important is the history of Iraq. There's a lot of it, but how much has survived? Babylon was badly damaged by American forces, but how badly? Baghdad's museum largely survived the war, was looted some after the Americans took over, but how much is left today?

(That might seem a little strange, but think for a moment. Oil isn't easy to smuggle and is only worth a few tens of dollars for an entire barrel. A Sumerian stone tablet would be easier to hide and worth thousands to a collector. You could fund a lot of conflict with very little stolen art, and there is unquestionably stolen art in circulation.)

  • 21.
  • At 05:34 PM on 26 May 2007,
  • Andre wrote:

"The BBC front page did not report the death of a soldier on 21 May 2007."

Yes they did - there were two reports on it.

"Why is this? Simply the BBC and like media trying to ease the way in for Gordon Brown."

Given you didn't bother looking for the reports in the first place, such conclusions don't seem terribly sound.

  • 22.
  • At 09:59 PM on 27 May 2007,
  • Andrew Hirst wrote:

Each day I read various news sources across the internet regarding events in Iraq and when I compare them to the articles on the BBC website (supposedly the best news site in the world) I find the picture the BBC paints is one that is extremely lacking in balance, scope and depth. So when you comment that you need to find,

" angles and new ways to tell the Iraq story",

I can only scratch my head in disbelief. This is because like the majority of the media you fall into the trap of concentrating your reports on violence and death in terms of large scale bombings and discoveries of dead bodies. Additionally most of these reports are in and around Baghdad meaning that deaths and events elsewhere in the country are extremely under reported. Yet remarkably you also say you that you are wary,

"the audience can get to the stage where they mentally switch off if everyday there is a list of incidents of death and destruction."

If you consistently report car bomb deaths and little else that's surely a guaranteed way to get your audience to "mentally switch off" and do the very thing you want to avoid? A very important but under-reported and non-headline grabbing fact is that the vast majority of attacks in the country are on US troops. This can be seen by looking here -

More importantly I find this a very weak and insulting excuse for not reporting the depth of the human tragedy unfolding in Iraq. Can you personally imagine saying that if these numbers of people were being killed in a similar fashion in New York or London? Do you believe the lives of Iraqi people are worth less than British or American people? Perhaps you should let your readers and viewers decide what is and isn't worth reading/watching instead of deciding for them via omission of information?

Secondly there never has been a daily and comprehensive "list of incidents of death and destruction" on the BBC news bulletins and website. Why not make use of the vast amount of space you have on the website to at least do a synopsis of all the reported daily violent and non-violent related stories? Why not use your scrolling ticker service on BBC news bulletins in a similar fashion? You fill them with all sorts of other information so why not on comprehensive daily events in Iraq? I can find a fairly detailed collection of reports on the Reuters news service and on the excellent and primarily donation funded iCasualties website, so why not on the BBC?

These points I believe weaken your argument that you,

"try to choose developments that are indicative of trends which can help us make sense of what is happening and why."

If you don't report deaths and events elsewhere in Iraq on a consistent basis, how can you expect people to begin to understand these trends? The increase in numbers of US troops in Baghdad has been reported by yourselves to have led to an increase in killings elsewhere in the country, yet looking at the BBC website most days you'd be hard pressed to find any examples of this increase. How many articles do you have on the very under reported use of British and US air strikes in Iraq? Can you tell readers how many towns and cities are under the direct control of Iraqi/US forces and how many are under insurgent control? You find time to report in great length about the role of Iran, so why not these other issues?

Here are a few brief examples amongst the dozens of stories that have not (as far as I can see) been reported on the BBC website over the past week and that in my view give a more round picture of events in the country.


Helicopters hit by mortar rounds at U.S. base in Iraq -

British military airstrike kills militiamen in Basra -

U.S. disbands unit created to pressure Iran and Syria -

Saboteurs set an oil well on fire in a town near Kirkuk in northern Iraq -

200 man prison break attack by insurgents in Mosul -

Iraq to spend 1.5 billion dollars on weapons -

Nine US warships enter Gulf in show of force -

Former Australian army lawyer says Rumsfeld's handling of Iraq almost criminal -

U.S. Spy Agencies Warned of Iraqi Sects, Panel Says -

Morgue Data Show Increase In Sectarian Killings in Iraq -

  • 23.
  • At 02:32 PM on 30 May 2007,
  • Paul wrote:

you have used the bloodshed of Iraq as the main porn in your news in recent years, so it is only right that you stay consistent, not only when it suites you. maybe you should add a daily Iraq section to each programme, and even extend the news by five minute at least, lets face it, there's nothing else worth watching, unless you think silly dramas are more important!

  • 24.
  • At 10:07 AM on 01 Jun 2007,
  • Andrew wrote:

Lance wrote: "I wish the media would also show the positive things that the coalition forces are doing to rebuild Iraq. It seems only the violence is newsworthy but 80 percent of what is going in Iraq is positive. Remember U.S. troops still have not left Germany."

To suggest that 80% of things happening in Iraq are positive means that the violence takes up only 20% of events. The fact is reconstruction is extremelty limited due to the severity of the violence and what reconstruction there has been has been reported by US bi-partisan reports as extremely shoddy and vastly overbilled.

Yes, there is some reconstruction, but to suggest that "80% of things happening in Iraq are positive" is clearly a made up statistic.

Perhaps the BBC could however do another article on the US's building of the worlds largest embassy in Baghdad costing an estimated $1bn. This seems about the only place in Baghdad where cranes can be seen dotting the skyline and electricity flows uninterruped. I dare say the water quality will be nothing like the poor quality Baghdad residents receive.

Article here:

  • 25.
  • At 04:12 PM on 01 Jun 2007,
  • SadSaid wrote:

Dear Mr. Burnett,

I'm interested in reading your story, esp. the part you talked about reporting the ordinary people rather than those disgusting and hypocritical American politicians. What they concern about are the steady oil supply , oil money, and the casualities of their soldiers because they are under immense pressure domestically. But they don't care about the plights and sufferings of the ordinary people living in Iraq. They are the real victims of this unjust war in the excuse of WMD. Hope more interesting and touching stories from you and your colleagues. SadSaid

  • 26.
  • At 04:08 PM on 05 Jun 2007,
  • Andrew wrote:

Again, why has the BBC failed to report that Fallujah is under a 2 week seige by US troops and just like Baghdad the city is being sealed off by concrete blocks? This makes awful reading.


"The city that was mostly destroyed by the US military operation Phantom Fury in November 2004 has been under curfew for more than two weeks, with no signs of relief.


Concrete walls have been set up by the US military to partition the city into small areas, possibly in advance of a new wave of raids by occupation forces."


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