Media Coverage of the Drone Program


Tara McKelvey

Tara McKelvey

Shorenstein Center Fellow, Fall 2012
Correspondent, Newsweek and The Daily Beast

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President Barack Obama authorized his first drone strike three days after his inauguration. Since then, he has approved more than three hundred drone strikes against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Pakistan, six times the number of attacks that were carried out during President George W. Bush’s two terms in the White House. In addition, strikes have been carried out against terrorism suspects in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and the Philippines.[i] The drone program represents a shift in strategy for the United States, turning the nation away from large-scale deployment of troops and instead focusing on drones and small bands of special operators who carry out lethal operations. Under the Obama administration, the targeted-killing program has become the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism strategy. The Obama White House program of targeted killing is unprecedented in its mission and scope; moreover, the administration’s approach to fighting terrorists is likely to be adopted by presidents in the future, whether Democratic or Republican. For these reasons, it makes sense to examine the role of media in the public debate about the program and moreover to see how journalists have fared in their efforts to cover the story of the targeted-killing program.

Ever since the Al Qaeda attack on the United States in September 2001, executives at media organizations have devoted considerable resources to the coverage of national security. Indeed, scholarly research shows that overall the coverage of terrorism has remained relatively strong for much of the past decade,[ii] despite widespread layoffs in the media industry. More recently, journalists and editors have shown a special interest in the subject of the drone program and its role in national security, and the reporting on this subject increased steadily during President Obama’s first term. For this paper, an informal survey of news articles about drone strikes was conducted, looking at pieces that appeared in five major U.S. publications: The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. The media coverage of strikes in these publications nearly doubled during the Obama administration, from 326 articles in 2009 to 625 articles in 2012 (as of November).

[i] Mark Mazzetti, “The Drone War,” The New York Times, July 6, 2012.

[ii] Aaron M. Hofmana, et al. “How Does the Business of News Influence Terrorism Coverage? Evidence From The Washington Post and USA Today.” Terrorism and Political Violence. Volume 22, Issue 4, September 8, 2010.

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