Drone Media Coverage Was Scarce During Obama's First Term

CIA Director nominee John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee'. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
CIA Director nominee John Brennan testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee'. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

NEW YORK –- It's been all drones all the time this week. NBC News kicked things off Monday with a major scoop on the administration's legal rationale for targeting U.S. citizens linked to al Qaeda, and extensive coverage followed in print, online and on cable news.

In the three days leading up to White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan's confirmation hearing Thursday to become the next CIA director, the words “drone” and “drones” were used hundreds of times on MSNBC, Fox News and CNN, according to a TVEyes search. The drone media debate over drone warfare, which gained steam in the weeks leading up to President Barack Obama's second inaugural, has only gotten more intense since.

But where was the media during Obama’s first term, given that the president authorized his first drone strike just days after taking office and has greatly expanded the secret program from the Bush years?

Tara McKelvey , a correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, writes in a new report for Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy that in “2009 and 2010, the media fell short in its coverage of the Obama administration’s drone program.”

But, she continued, “once the drone program expanded its range of potential targets to include American citizens and its geographic scope to countries such as Yemen, Libya, and Somalia, however, news organizations increased the breadth and depth of their coverage.”

McKelvey, who was a Shorenstein fellow in the fall, surveyed drone coverage from five publications: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, and Time. She found that drone coverage nearly doubled from the first to fourth year of Obama’s presidency, from 326 articles in 2009 to 625 articles in 2012. And she found The New York Times covered the topic most extensively.

Reporters and editors at The New York Times pursued the story of the targeted-killing program more aggressively than reporters at the other publications, both in terms of the quantity of articles and also in the quality of content. In 2009, the year Obama was sworn in as president, The New York Times published 142 articles. Three years later, The New York Times published 245 articles on the subject, many of which focused on the international angle of the story. The Washington Post published 72 articles in 2009, reflecting in part the newspaper’s interest in the business of Washington, federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency, which were managing the drone program.

Over the next three years, The Washington Post and The New York Times both increased their coverage at roughly the same rate. The New York Times kept its focus on the international angle, while reporters at The Washington Post continued to look more closely at the federal agencies involved in the program. The Washington Post published 234 articles on the subject in 2012, nearly the same number that appeared in The New York Times.

McKelvey writes that two events –- the Sept. 2011 drone strike in Yemen that killed American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and Brennan’s major speech on drone warfare the following spring -– helped “elevate the coverage of the subject.”

Still, while newspapers like the Times and the Post may have increased their focus on drones by 2012, the issue remained largely absent during the 2012 election. That’s likely because political reporters thrive on political conflict and –- with the exception of Texas Rep. Ron Paul –- there was little disagreement over the use of drones among the candidates vying for the Republican nomination or between Obama and Mitt Romney during the general election fight.

Now that a Beltway debate is taking place around the Brennan nomination, the political media is there in force.

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