What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Are the conflicts in Afghanistan stealth conflicts?

I remembered this piece from the New York Times today - at the time it was published (June, 2008), it looked at how correspondents saw the difficulties of covering important conflicts that the public is not necessarily interested in, and which the media therefore doesn't necessarily look to cover, either. This is what it said about the coverage of Afghanistan by the three major US networks, CBS, NBC and ABC:
"Coverage of the war in Afghanistan has increased slightly this year, with 46 minutes of total coverage year-to-date compared with 83 minutes for all of 2007. NBC has spent 25 minutes covering Afghanistan, partly because the anchor Brian Williams visited the country earlier in the month. Through Wednesday, when an ABC correspondent was in the middle of a prolonged visit to the country, ABC had spent 13 minutes covering Afghanistan. CBS has spent eight minutes covering Afghanistan so far this year."
Does this mean that the conflict in Afghanistan is forgotten, even while a great number of journalists do risk their lives to get stories out from there? We may suspect so, after all it's the big fish of the media, like CBS, ABC and NBC, that have the most influence. I may love to read lengthy articles on Afghanistan in the Washington Post, in Asia Times Online, or in Dawn, but I belong to a global minority with my curious habits...
The polemic around the media's role in this respect is presented by some as a hen-and-egg problem. Do the public's or the media's preferences determine what's on the agenda of public discourse in the end? To this, other questions can be added, around which a discourse is revolving. Is it the media's fault in the end, that the public shows no interest towards an actually important issue? Is it the media's role to make an important story interesting? Or is it perfectly normal and even positive if the media takes no elitist role in paternalistically guiding the public's attention? And so on.
There is of course more to our world, and to what affects any kind of public discourse, than the "media" and the "public," and a simplistically perceived interaction between them. It's not a two-actor game.
An expert of the subject, Virgil Hawkins writes this in his study about "stealth conflicts" (stealth conflicts are conflicts not high on either the media's, policy-makers', the public's or academics' agendas, with the attention these conficts get being disproportionate to the amount of destruction and loss of life they come with) – footnotes omitted by me (P.M.):
"Agenda-setting research to date seems to support the hypothesis that the media agenda plays a key role in shaping the public agenda, and that the public agenda in turn affects the policy agenda (through public opinion and powerful lobby groups). While the full extent of the so-called CNN-factor is not completely understood, it can be considered that policymakers and the media both exert considerable influence over each other. Clever policymakers use the media to broadcast their policies and raise the position of an agenda item. Conversely, where there is indecision or indifference among policymakers, saturated media coverage can propel an item into a high position on the policy agenda. Collectively, academics are able to project some influence on the policy agenda, but are also subject to considerable influence from the policy and media agendas, as will be demonstrated below.
Whatever the dynamics of the projection of influence, it can be considered that all of these agendas have become tightly intertwined, with each feeding off and mimicking the one that takes the lead in agenda setting (usually the policymakers and sometimes the media). Ironically, this is partly a reflection of the assimilation of the flow of information in society, rather than the diversification that might have been expected with the explosion of the internet and other advances in information technology. The dissemination of information technology has led to a greatly pronounced bandwagon effect in and between all sectors of agenda setting."
Virgil Hawkins, a professor teaching at Osaka University, does by the way have a book published on the same subject. As you may have noted, if you followed the link further above, he extensively studied the DRC case. Therefore it is no wonder that on his agenda the DRC is quite high. In the index, I found ten references to pages mentioning „the attention to” the DRC, five references to pages dealing with the attention to Iraq and only two concerning Afghanistan. Based on the latter case, I have a feeling that it’s not simply an inverse relationship in Hawkins’ book between how high an issue is on his agenda on the one hand, and on the media’s on the other. Which is particularly interesting since at about arm’s reach for me there is another book right now that I’m set to read – How we missed the story by Roy Gutman, concerning how 9/11 was a consequence of developments in Afghanistan having been forgotten/not seen clearly enough.
Anyway, Virgil Hawkins’ book is definitely of interest to me, these Afghanistan-centric preconceptions of mine notwithstanding, and it probably sheds light on some of the key mechanisms affecting agenda-setting in the four domains, a neglect in which can make a stealth conflict.
I’m including the cover image here as well.

7 comments:

Stephen said...

You would think that with 24-hour news channels and the Internet the media could cover all the aspects of a presidential campaign. Unfortunately for anyone who cares about journalism, that is not the case. News organizations have completely ignored some of the most important issues of the day. The two most important foreign policy issues for the next president of the United States were barely covered. For example, a Pew Research Center study showed that only one percent of the news coverage from Sept. 8 to Oct 16 concerned Iraq. Afghanistan did not even make the list.
A professor I spoke with said that the media is only concerned with the horse race portion of the campaign. Statistics back his claim. 15 percent of the news coverage had to do with polls and strategy.
This is a problem because both candidates explained how they would fix the situation in Afghanistan. Obama proposed increasing the number of troops in the area and McCain stated that Iraq is the central front in the war, but he embraced a strategy for Afghanistan according to politifacts.com. However, after the candidates made those statements, the media did not follow up on them to see if they could actually solve the problems there. They were more worried about who won the debate because that’s what people care about.
I understand that networks, newspapers and internet websites are in business to make money. In order to do that, they must cater to what their audience wants to watch and read. But journalists do need to inform their audience about important issues, and analyzing the candidates’ positions on Afghanistan should fall into that category. We have seen over the past few years how important a president’s foreign policy can be as it shapes America’s reputation in the world. The press failed Americans by not adequately covering this story.

Péter MARTON said...

Indeed, those are good points all. Hawkins, at least in his shorter study that I know of, focuses on who influences what goes high on the agenda. Could we say that the media (and indirectly the public whose references it is referring to) is the most influential in determining what doesn't go there?

Virgil Hawkins said...

Hello. Virgil Hawkins here. Thank you for the interest in (and for introducing) my article and book. I hope you will have a chance to read the book in full. Yes, my interest is strong in the DRC, but the origins of this interest are in its sheer scale. 5.4 million dead since 1998 (the deadliest conflict in the world since WWII. I wouldn't call Afghanistan a 'stealth conflict', because although it may have fallen off the radar of international consciousness, it was once in the centre of that radar. Perhaps 'forgotten conflict' is more appropriate here (because it was once remembered..). Perhaps it will reappear soon on the radar with the new US administration. Regarding your comment about the media being the most influential, I would argue that the policymakers are still pulling the strings. The media are still followers of the policymakers, to a large degree, and tend to focus on issues in which there are differences of opinion between powerful policymakers. I suspect that the elections have kept coverage of foreign policy in general low, and now that elections are over, and with policy changes on the way, Afghanistan will make a comeback on the media agenda...

Péter MARTON said...

Thanks for the comment, professor.
The title of my post is really a bit deceiving. Your concept of a stealth conflict clearly doesn't fit Afghanistan, and you do present a very convincing case to differentiate the DRC from Afghanistan, by distinguishing between stealth and forgotten conflicts. But I'm thinking that forgotten conflicts could be just a sub-set of stealth conflicts. And the real difference is between the sub-sets of never-remembered and forgotten conflicts. This is how I'd sort this out, at least in this post. Certainly Afghanistan is getting more attention these days, and this attention may even grow. But for a long time Afghanistan did look like a case of stealth conflict. And to a degree it still resembles one.

Virgil Hawkins said...

You make a good point - forgotten conflicts can indeed be seen as a subset of stealth conflicts, considering that I am using 'stealth' to refer to those conflicts that are not on the radar of international consciousness. Despite once enjoying attention, 'forgotten' conflicts end up off the radar as well, so they can also fall under the category of stealth conflicts. Thanks for the contribution to the debate! In any case, I am very happy to see the term being picked up and used. It disturbs me to see the term 'forgotten' being applied to conflicts like the DRC, as if they were once remembered, but just happen to have slipped the minds of those in a position to respond. This is deceiving because the process of ignoring conflicts is not a matter of the existence of conflicts slipping people's (or institutions') minds, but it is the result of a series of deliberate decisions by policymakers, the media, adacademics and others in a position to respond. Thanks for the contribution to the debate. Let's hope it spreads!

Virgil Hawkins said...

Just thought I'd let you know, I've started a blog on the topic of stealth conflicts (http://stealthconflicts.wordpress.com/). I hope you have a chance to take a look.

Péter MARTON said...

Thanks, I'll add it to the blogroll in a minute!