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U S media too polarized on Iraq news - panel

By Staff
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NEW YORK, Apr 6 (Reuters) U S media coverage of Iraq is too polarized between ''good news'' and ''bad news'' and all sides are missing out on a complete picture, participants in a panel discussion organised by Reuters said.

That was one of the few points of agreement between journalists, a professional blogger and a U S military spokesman gathered in New York to discuss media in Iraq yesterday.

''If you write a 'good news' story from Iraq you are immediately identified as an apologist for the administration ... and if you write something critical then you're in the other camp,'' said Roger Cohen, a columnist for the International Herald Tribune who was recently in Iraq.

Cohen said both traditional U S media and Internet journals, or blogs, tended to fall into the trap of following a certain line.

''Most of the time you read the first paragraph, you look at the byline and you know exactly where it's going.'' ''Everybody goes to the blog they like to reinforce the view that they already have,'' he said. ''Despite the good and bad news stories, very few people change positions.'' Lt Col Steven Boylan, who returned to the United States in December after 16 months in Iraq as chief spokesman for the U S military, said he found there was less coverage of Iraq in the U S media on his return than he expected.

''I was of the opinion that there wasn't enough good news coming out of Iraq when I first got there,'' he said. ''I came to realize it really isn't the issue of good news versus bad news, because that's very opinion-based.

''It's that the complete story is not being told.'' Bush administration officials have increasingly criticised the media for focusing too much on Iraq's daily violence and ethnic strife rather than on what they say are positive stories, such as relative stability in parts of the country.

VIETNAM SCRIPT James Taranto, editor of OpinionJournal.com, which used to feature a link to a blog called Good News From Iraq, said the problem was most U S reporters were expecting the Iraq war to follow a script from the Vietnam era, where U S troops get bogged down, the war fails and the public is outraged.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi photojournalist, said it was wrong to say journalists were ignoring good news.

''It's a civil war, people are getting killed every single day, every hour ... everywhere in Iraq,'' he said. ''It's a civil war and we're still shying away from the word civil war.'' Zaki Chehab, political editor of London-based Arab newspaper Al Hayat, said security had deteriorated so much in the past year that it was no longer possible for Arab or Iraqi journalists to travel safely outside Baghdad.

Reuters Baghdad Bureau Chief Alastair Macdonald said the agency's about 70 Iraqi staff in some 18 cities around the country were finding it increasingly difficult to work because of sectarian tensions, to the extent that journalists had been forced to leave towns after receiving death threats.

''We have a lot of people very worried about exposing themselves as journalists,'' Macdonald said, adding that writing about reconstruction was difficult when security was so bad.

''We're looking for those stories from our reporters around the country but they're also giving us the message that they're finding their job increasingly difficult,'' he said.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 67 journalists have been killed in Iraq since the U S-led invasion in early 2003 and several panelists noted that recent months had seen an increase in assassinations of reporters.

''There's a very sophisticated campaign to instill fear in journalists, Western and non-Western,'' Cohen said.

Chehab said Iraqi journalists often work secretly, refusing to be identified for fear of being suspected of collaboration. Abdul-Ahad said a Pentagon program that paid Iraqi news organizations to publish positive stories had made life even more difficult for Iraqi journalists.

''How do you expect decent Iraqi journalists to go into the streets and write a positive story? Everyone would be pointing at them saying you've been paid by the Americans,'' he said.

Reuters SHB DB0934

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