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Media caught in Iraq's war of perceptions

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Yet US editors and media analysts counter that the spreading guerrilla attacks on the US-led coalition are rightfully major news in Iraq today, and take precedence over coverage of repairing schools or restoring water. Iraq is not a PR problem, but a policy problem, they say.

"No matter how many reporters are there, you are always going to have more coverage of Americans dying than [of] an electricity grid coming up," says George Condon, Washington bureau chief of Copley Newspapers. "That's how it should be, because that's what Americans care about."

At the heart of the debate is what constitutes "news." News is, by definition, something unusual, different, revealing, or dramatic - whether it be the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue or the car bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad.

But the news is not comprehensive.

"It's an inherent limitation of news. It can't give you all of reality. It necessarily focuses on a tiny piece of reality that is making the most noise at the moment," says John Watson, assistant professor of communications at American University here. In hotspots, "most news organizations are unable to devote the time and manpower" to covering breaking news while also providing thorough overviews for perspective.

Another factor influencing coverage of Iraq is the media's practice of holding the government accountable for its stated policies. In this way, the Bush administration's success in Iraq is being gauged by expectations set in Washington, experts say.

"If the administration had said, there may or may not be weapons... but we will oust a brutal dictator and there will be thousands of casualties, the press coverage would be different," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center in Philadelphia.

"The administration has managed expectations poorly, and then blamed the press for not meeting those expectations," says Ms. Jamieson, author of "The Press Effect," a book on media and politics.

Similarly, the administration's assertion that US troops would be widely welcomed as liberators has fallen short of reality. "We had this archetypal vision of the American troops rolling in as in France and handing out Hershey bars and nylons, and that's not happening," says Mr. Watson.

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