Afghan story not a hit with readers

Executive EditorMay 20, 2012 

Imagine my interest Wednesday afternoon when I learned that reporter Jon Stephenson with our parent company, McClatchy, had landed the first interviews with survivors of the March massacre of 17 Afghan civilians, allegedly at the hands of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

For two months, we’ve worked to lead the coverage about the shootings. In that time, U.S. officials have released little about their investigations, and other media have largely ignored the Afghan side of the story. Finally, we were able to hear directly from a man and a boy who were shot by the gunman and lived to tell about it.

Stephenson’s story, datelined Kandahar, began: “It was early in the morning, perhaps 2 a.m., when gunfire awakened 14-year-old Rafiullah.”

Rafiullah described looking out his window and seeing a man shoot the family cow. The boy and his family members ran to a neighbor’s house, only to be pursued by the shooter who “hunted and herded his victims like animals.”

The story ran at the top of Thursday’s front page, along with a picture of Rafiullah. While horrifying, the story also was riveting.

Our readers, as far as we could tell, were less enthralled.

Website traffic is not a perfect indicator of overall interest, but it’s our only instant readership data, so we pay attention to it.

In spite of running at the top of our homepage for hours, the survivor story garnered only 197 page views by Thursday morning. It was the 78th most popular story on the site over the two days. (More than a dozen stories each day got more than 1,000 clicks each.)

International stories, generally, are a tough sell with our web readers. People come to for news about the South Sound and click to other websites for national and international reporting. The survivor story got 4,900 clicks at, for instance, and was their second-most popular for the day.

Overall, our traffic for the Bales stories reflects a pattern we’ve seen on other foreign military stories. During our recent Afghanistan embed and on last year’s coverage of the Lewis-McChord “kill team,” we saw lots of interest in the first or biggest stories, with a lower hum of interest on others. (As the wife of a retired soldier and the mother of a current one, I admittedly have higher interest in military stories.)

But the readership on this first account from the victims’ side was beyond low-hum; it was abysmal.

We have no way of knowing how many people read the survivor story in print.

A reader who called Thursday morning, however, clearly had read the story. She said the front-page placement, while our coverage of a Lewis-McChord soldier memorial ran on Page A3, indicated we were anti-military. That’s a tough one to take, given our extensive coverage of that beat and of this incident, which clearly is not representative of the behavior of our deployed soldiers.

Editors are notorious for thinking we know better than our readers. Still, we try to find a balance between telling people what they want to know and what they need to know. Making every news decision based on what’s most popular online would result in far more sex offender stories on the front page than any of us could stomach.

Jim Asher, our editor in D.C., had this thought: “I think the story suffered from being about Afghanistan, which much of the nation has tired of.” People already knew about the killings, he said, and some people simply may not want to know more about how an American apparently killed women and children.

This story certainly doesn’t bring honor to the uniform, but we shouldn’t lose interest too quickly, either in the victims of this awful incident or in the war in Afghanistan.

To do either dishonors our soldiers.


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