Wednesday, October 03, 2007

An analysis of the use of sources in 'The Australian' newspaper

Sources are a crucial part of the news process and warrant careful attention to their use. This report is a contents analysis of use of sources in the coverage of the ongoing Iraqi conflict in The Australian newspaper The analysis covers a period of four weeks in August/September 2007.

While journalists see themselves as impartial and objective in the tradition of the fourth estate, this analysis of sources in Australia’s only national masthead found that coverage of events is skewed in several ways. The study found a preference for western sources over Iraqi ones and also found a preference towards political and military sources. Least objectively perhaps, the study also found a pronounced bias of sources in favour of continued military intervention. While the researcher recommends further analysis, the use of sources in the study period show that the debate over Iraq in The Australian has been framed in terms of its impact to the West - not Iraq.


This media contents analysis is based on a diary of all news articles about the conflict in Iraq in The Australian newspaper during the four weeks between 25 August 2007 and 21 September 2007. 44 articles were chosen for study, approximately two articles for each day of publication.

The full list of articles is included in Appendix A at the end of this essay and attached in the accompanying news diary. The criterion used for inclusion in the analysis was any news article that was predominately about the Iraqi conflict. Therefore stories about political reaction in Washington, Canberra and elsewhere were included even though the locale of these stories was outside Iraq itself. Op-ed articles and stories that appeared in feature pages were excluded from the analysis.

For each of the included articles, the use of human sources was examined. Direct quotes and paraphrasing from named and unnamed sources were included for analysis. Where the source was from a written report or another news article it was excluded from the analysis.

This left a total of 112 sources across the 44 articles, an average of approximately three sources per story. The source data was then examined by three criteria: nationality, occupation, and whether it could be determined if the source was in favour of, neutral towards, or against continued military occupation. The latter criterion was determined either by either the context of the words or the official role of the speaker.

Literature Review:
Hall's "Policing the Crisis" (1984) provide a good analysis of the tendency towards the use of “authoritative” sources which limits the frame of any given debate. Schultz's "Reviving the Fourth Estate" (1998) forensically examines the media’s fourth estate ‘watchdog’ role while McChesney (1997), Breit (2001) and Pilger (2002) discuss the problems caused by the corporate concentration of ownership of the world’s media and the international power these corporations weald. Benedict Anderson 's "Imagined Communities(1983) defines a useful framework for seeing the media as a key part of a nation’s “imagining”. Meadows's "A Return to Practice" (2001) draws on Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci to define the media as cultural resource that attempts to redefine journalism as a conversation not as an elitist alliance between journalists and their sources. White's "Reporting in Australia has a useful primer on sources that is important reading for working journalists.


The media has long claimed for itself the fourth estate position of society’s “watchdog” which it underpins with notions of objectivity and professionalism. But such objectivity is problematic for a commercial entity such as The Australian, a Rupert Murdoch owned newspaper. His News Limited is the archetypal global media firm and is one of the five largest transnational media corporations in the world that own and manage the world’s principal sources of news and information. It is news they transmit in politically safe ways. It is also transmitted in a consistent manner. None of News Ltd’s 174 newspapers worldwide, including The Australian, editorially opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. This study of sources seeks to examine how these biases manifest themselves in a Murdoch masthead four years later. This is important because newspapers are a crucial part of the “imagining” that creates the concept of a nation. This analysis will attempt to show their interpretation of news is the “freedom of the powerful”.

Figure 1 below shows a breakdown of sources by nationality. Firstly, the articles showed a marked tendency to rely on American sources. 65% of all voices in the study period were from the US. And 84% of all voices were from English speaking countries. Only 12% of all voices were Iraqi. The lack of local sources show a truism in news gathering that source obsession gives too much priority to the person that yield the news than the news itself.

Figure 1: Analysis of interview sources by nationality
Total= 112
USA 65%
Iraq 12%
Australia 11%
UK 8%
Others 2%

Figure 2 below analyses the role of the sources used. The striving for objectivity in journalism gives rise to the practice of obtaining media statements from ‘authoritative’ and ‘accredited’ sources. The study bears this practice out as a total of 76 % of all sources are from the ruling elite of politics and the military. All bar one source was male (Hillary Clinton was the sole exception). The skewing towards a mostly male elite class reinforces the notion there is an over-accessing in the media of those in powerful and privileged positions.

Figure 2 analysis of sources by role of source
Total = 112
Politician (or spokesperson) 44%
Military (or spokesperson) 32%
Others 24%

Figure 3 below shows the bias of the sources in terms of their view on the continued presence of Coalition troops in Iraq. The number of pro-presence sources outnumbered the anti-presence sources by a margin almost three to one. Such disparity in views chosen is not reflected in the views of the community served by The Australian newspaper. The most recent Newspoll (another News Ltd company) on Iraq (10/07/07) showed 67 per cent of respondents were in favour of either bringing home all Australian troops immediately or setting a definitive date for them to return. Given the significant contribution of the media to the way in which we ‘imagine’ our community, such results show a jarring disconnect between the views of the media and the public they profess to serve.

Figure 3: Analysis of sources by their stance on the continued presence of the US-led forces in Iraq
Clearly in favour 61%
Clearly against 22%
Neutral or could not be determined 16%

Figure 4 below analyses the 25 anti-presence sources from figure 3 to determine their nationality. 86 % of all these sources were from the US and Australia. They mostly represented political parties opposed to the military engagement. In four weeks, The Australian published the voices of just two Iraqi opposed to the US-led presence. In the media’s favoured way of setting up topics, they maintain what the Birmingham media group describe as “strategic areas of silence”.

Figure 4: Analysis of sources against the continued presence of the US-led forces in Iraq by nationality of source
USA 54%
Australia 32%
Iraq 10%
Other countries 4%


Through an analysis of sources, it is possible to argue The Australian newspaper has several pronounced biases in its coverage of the conflict in Iraq. These favour a profile of American male privileged elites who favour continued involvement of US-led forces in Iraq. These biases often manifest themselves by as much as what sources are not used (women, Iraqis, and non-privileged citizens generally) as the powerful ones that are used.

But perhaps this is too large a claim for a four week analysis period. The war in Iraq has been going for four years. A complete analysis of four years’ data from The Australian of the same criteria would leave a researcher with more solid grounds for drawing this conclusion.


Appendix A: full list of considered articles
date page title author total sources
25-Aug 2 Bush and Howard to talk Iraq Greg Sheridan 2
27-Aug 12 Iraqi PM lashes out at Clinton over
sack call AFP, AP 2
27-Aug 14 Bush recasts defeat in victory quest Sunday Times 10
29-Aug 9 Sarkozy calls for Iraq pullout AFP 1
29-Aug 12 Prepare for long war: UK general The Times 2
29-Aug 12 Arms supply investigated Agencies 0
31-Aug 1 Surge working: top US general Dennis Shanahan 2
31-Aug 10 Shia rivalry forces cleric to cease fire
Agencies 1
1-Sep 1 Bush in warning to Rudd on troops Geoff Elliott 3
1-Sep 13 Rebuild Iraq police force, urges panel Reuters, AFP 4
3-Sep 11 confidence in US plan surges across
Baghdad Sunday Times 4
3-Sep 12 US Anger at Brits move out of Basra Sunday Times 4
3-Sep 11 UK troops give up Basra base The Times 6
3-Sep 11 Bush heads down under via the war zone Geoff Elliott 0
4-Sep 11 Bush in surprise detour to Iraq Geoff Elliott 2
4-Sep 14 President signals troop withdrawal Agencies 2
5-Sep 14 Engagement may have reached its
high-water mark Geoff Elliott 1
6-Sep 1 Face-off on Iraq looms for Rudd Dennis Shanahan 2
6-Sep 9 Iraq war 'remains winnable' Mark Dodd 2
7-Sep 1 Bush charm fails to sway Rudd on Iraq P Karvales 2
7-Sep 13 Iraqi police force should be scrapped,
says report AP 2
8-Sep 12 Petraeus to suggest gradual cut in forces AFP 2
10-Sep 11 paying the Sunnis to fight al-Qaida Sunday Times 3
11-Sep 9 British troops remained at Basra Palace
at insistence of US AFP 2
11-Sep 9 Military chiefs split on success of surge The Times, 2
12-Sep 1 Iraq troops surge working Geoff Elliott 1
12-Sep 2 Troop withdrawal not an option: PM Mark Dodd 4
12-Sep 15 Democrats turn on the general they
welcomed The Times 1
12-Sep 15 Protests muted, at least from the publicThe Times 3
12-Sep 15 After a half hitch, a knotty reckoning The Times 1
12-Sep 15 US winning war: Petreaus The Times 4
12-Sep 15 Petraeus to visit UK to defuse Basra rowThe Times 2
13-Sep 8 Bush challenged on Iraq war plan The Times 9
14-Sep 9 Heat on Clinton over Iraq criticism David Nason 4
15-Sep 13 Bush bid to build bridges is too late Geoff Elliott 2
15-Sep 13 Sunni tribes vow to avenge murder of
pro-US leader Agencies 2
15-Sep 13 America stands alone as a mighty
world power for good The Times 0
17-Sep 1 Barmy armies' pitch battle in Iraq Martin Fletcher 2
17-Sep 11 War in Iraq all about the oil Graham Paterson 1
18-Sep 11 Greenspan backs off 'Iraq war for oil'
claims Reuters 2
20-Sep 8 Iraqis ward off attack by al-Qa'ida AFP 3
20-Sep 8 Blackwater guards 'fired without cause' MCT, AP 4
21-Sep 11 Democrats lose Senate bid to win troops
more home time AP 2
21-Sep 1 Labor policy on troop withdrawal
is a big con Dennis Shanahan 2

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