The war in Afghanistan — a subject that has generated periodic spikes in media interest but not a high level of sustained coverage — was back atop the mainstream news agenda last week. And this time, the catalyst was neither violence on the ground nor deliberations in Washington, but the leak of about 90,000 classified war reports by a whistleblower website.

Driven by WikiLeaks’ dissemination of those documents — which highlighted the difficult challenges faced by NATO forces — Afghanistan led the news for the week of July 26-Aug. 1, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Taken together, coverage of the WikiLeaks saga and the overall war effort combined to fill 19% of the newshole.

Afghanistan coverage has generally followed a roller-coaster trajectory in the past year. It jumped to 9% of the newshole in the last quarter of 2009 when President Obama decided on his surge of 30,000 troops. It then plunged to only 3% in the first five months of 2010. In late June, coverage spiked again when Obama removed Gen. Stanley McChrystal as Afghanistan commander after Rolling Stone published negative comments by him and his staff about the administration.

The WikiLeaks story triggered a renewed debate over the wisdom of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. But it remains to be seen how long that will keep the war prominent in the headlines.

A number of other events, though, also competed for space last week. Indeed, four of the five media sectors examined in PEJ’s News Coverage Index had different lead stories. The WikiLeaks story led network news, but the economy topped the newspaper and radio sectors, the Gulf oil spill was No. 1 online and immigration was first in the cable sector.

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