An analysis of war coverage mechanisms using the example of US media during the Iraq War 2003
The relation between mass media and war has always been close, but problematic. During the NS-regime in Germany, the media was used as a tool for propaganda, whilst the televised coverage of the Vietnam war led to one of the biggest anti-war protests in history.
It is beyond doubt that the media coverage plays an important role for civil approval of wars.¹
This influence is even bigger nowadays, since – from a western standpoint – nearly all armed conflicts and wars are fought abroad. Therefore, the public solely relies on the media coverage to stay informed.²
But how does the media coverage influence the population during wars? Are the media critics who question the government and spike societal discourse? Are they neutral observers, as we like to imagine the “forth power”? Or are they instrumentalized in order to secure civil approval?
The easy answer is simple: The coverage of each war is different, and due to international differences of media systems, sociocultural factors etc. we cannot answer these questions once and for all.
There also is a more complex and helpful answer, however. Regardless of varying factors, there are mechanisms which shape the media coverage of conflicts. And by understanding these mechanisms, it is possible to identify if a media report has a “neutral”, “critical” or “supportive” stance towards any war or conflict.
The Iraq War 2003: a media war?
To show and explain the aforementioned mechanisms, I chose the Iraq invasion by the USA and its coverage by the US media. This is first of all due to its limited time span: The invasion began on March 20, 2003 and came to an end with the liberation of Baghdad on April 9. Further it took place far from American soil, rendering the media the single source of information for most citizens. But it is also interesting because of its political context. It shows the significant influence that the media can exert over the public opinion as well as the indirect influence it has on the government’s decision to go to war.
During the build-up to the war, the government under George W. Bush justified an invasion with the threat Saddam Hussein’s regime allegedly posed to the US. Bush repeatedly claimed that Iraq directly supported Al-Qaida and was developing weapons of mass destruction. Both accusations were never proven.³
Nevertheless, Bush’s approval ratings were falling since their all-time high after 9/11, and support from the US population was not certain.⁴ Up until the beginning of the invasion there a was a division in the American population. 55% of Democratic voters were against a war.⁵
Bush’s politics were also criticized internationally.⁶ Because France as well as Russia had announced that they would veto an UN-resolution to authorize the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration decided to go to war without authorization.⁷ ⁸ Instead Bush relied on a “coalition of the willing” under US-leadership in order to operate more independently of other nations.⁹
But since Bush was missing international support, he was relying heavily on public approval in the US as well as on approval from Congress.¹⁰ He had to persuade the population that a war was necessary and the right thing to do. This indicates that a supportive stance of the media was of high importance to the Bush administration. And Bush indeed managed to unify the American population during the invasion of Iraq. A so-called rally effect occurred. ¹¹
A rally effect (from: ‘rally round the flag’) is a sudden improvement in the approval ratings of the President by the US population in times of international crisis. This effect takes place because the government has an information monopoly in the event of a fast-developing international crisis and therefore the opposition and the media do not have the tools to question the governments decisions in a meaningful way. To the public, this seems as if the government is doing everything right, resulting in rising approval ratings. ¹²
This shows how big the influence of media coverage in international conflicts is and why it played such an important role in the case of the Iraq War. But how exactly did the rally occur? Let’s take a closer look on how the US media covered the Iraq War and what mechanisms led to the rally.
Mechanisms of war coverage and the US media during the Iraq War Tone. When analyzing if the media take a supportive, neutral or critical stance towards the government in their war coverage, the tone of said coverage is a first indicator. For example, if journalists use the pronoun “us” when talking about the troops of their country, the report has a supportive tone.
For the US coverage of the Iraq War, a study analyzing the US news networks has shown that 1,6% of all reports had a critical tone, 89,7% were neutral and 8,7% used a supportive tone. Most of the tonally supportive reports came from Fox News, however (37,9% of their reports were phrased supportively), so apart from this exception the US media did not use a particularly supportive tone in their coverage of the Iraq war.¹³
Topics. A more subtle way of shifting the viewers' perspective one way or another is to change which aspects of a war are covered. The coverage can show a disproportionally critical picture by choosing problematic aspects such as civilian victims, destruction, war crimes etc., or print a disproportionally positive image by concentrating on military competence or successful missions etc.
Most reports of the US television coverage during the Iraq invasion focused on combat (33,4%) and the second most prominent topic was the military strategy (9%). Other topics were severely underreported. Whilst many million people, including political elites, protested and criticized the invasion internationally, only 1,5% of the reports covered these protests. Reports about international diplomacy as well as reports about civilian victims and killed Iraqis were severely neglected. Allied victims were somewhat covered by the big networks, except by Fox News. Reconstruction and arrangements for the time after the war, a problem proving to remain unsolved for years after the invasion, was only covered somewhat by CNN and Fox News.¹⁴
These results are interesting, because they mirror the Bush administration’s strategy. Bush also focused on a military successful invasion rather than reconstruction efforts ¹⁵, and was leaning on public support (and the support by Congress) rather than international diplomatic efforts.¹⁶
This analysis implies that the US media did indeed follow the government's information and thematically supported the government and its war efforts rather than questioning them. This also shows in the use of speakers (e.g. news anchors, experts or interview partners), providing a stage to military officials in 11% and government officials in 15% of the reports.¹⁷
Framing. Framing means emphasizing or disregarding certain aspects or relations by which a certain picture of reality is constructed. In regard to war coverage this means that the usage of particular pictures, words or themes can show a conflict in a light that is favorable, unfavorable or simply different than reality, even when said coverage appears to be neutral.
A study analyzing the coverage by US networks ABC, NBC and CBS of the Iraq invasion shows that 70% of pictures and statements focused on allied forces. Furthermore, 60% of the protagonists were allied forces. 25% of all frames were identified as positive and 14,4% as negative. The majority of frames showing Iraqi protagonists were negative (55%), only 9% showed Iraqis in a positive light.¹⁸
Another study concludes: “For American viewers in particular, the portrait of war offered by the networks was a sanitized one free of bloodshed, dissent, and diplomacy, but full of exciting weaponry, splashy graphics, and heroic soldiers.” ¹⁹
In the coverage by the US networks, framing made clear who “the good guys” were in this war. Overall, framing is a very powerful mechanism, especially concerning the pictures shown, and it exerts considerable influence over the viewers' opinions on wars.
Embedded journalism. Embedded journalism is a form of war coverage, in which journalists accompany a military unit to the front and report on events and developments on the site. They live, eat, sleep and travel with the unit and are relatively depended on it. ²⁰ ²¹
This closeness and dependency theoretically may influence their coverage.
In the case of the Iraq invasion, one study came to the conclusion that the reports of embedded journalists were mostly neutral ²², another study however found that they were more positive towards the military and war efforts than reports from their non-embedded colleagues. ²³
An analysis of frames published in the same study supported the latter.
Overall, it is not fully proven that the US coverage by embedded journalists was more positive towards the invasion, but as a mechanism of war coverage, embedded reporting should still be critically questioned by the viewer.
Manipulation by the government and the media's influence on the government
But what makes these mechanisms problematic and how do they impact the public?
As mentioned before, the government has an information monopoly during wars and is to a certain degree able to control what information reaches the public via the media. This means the government can emphasize some aspects or keep others secret in order to achieve higher public approval. This is especially problematic, however, if misinformation and propaganda supplied by the government is broadcasted by the media without being fact checked, or if the government interferes with free and independent coverage.
Both happened in case of the Iraq War. Embedded journalists accompanying the troops had to sign a contract regulating what information was allowed to be released. And whilst the networks had reports and material on the civilian casualties, on the destruction and the suffering, it was often not broadcasted to due ‘political concerns’. ²⁴
Furthermore, there was a widespread misinformation campaign by the US government. Often, statements by the administration were distributed without being fact checked, only to be quietly redacted later on, if they proved to be wrong. ²⁵ The British newspaper “The Guardian” published an overview of these claims and corrections during the Iraq invasion. ²⁶
This dynamic has – and had in case of the Iraq invasion – serious consequences. An empirical study has shown that the majority of the American population supported the Iraq war because of statements made by the administration. These statements, uncritically broadcasted by the US networks, included for example claims that the Iraqi regime directly supported Al-Qaida and possessed weapons of mass destruction, making an invasion necessary. ²⁷ Both claims were never proven.
The media coverage before and during a war can have a considerable influence on the public opinion, whilst the public opinion and approval ratings influence political decisions – after all, politicians usually aim for reelection. This means that the media also have some power over decisions and proceedings before and during wars.
Furthermore, it has been shown that even seemingly neutral coverage, through a number of mechanisms, may turn out to produce a certain picture of a war, sugarcoating it or showing it in disproportionately negative light. Also, the media often is not only morally, but also structurally and economically depended on various organizations or persons, further increasing the difficulty of a balanced coverage.
Peace researcher Johan Galtung proposes to put peace-sensitive journalism in place of “war journalism” and recommends that journalists should handle war as a societal problem instead of only covering new and dramatic developments, and violence. He imagines war coverage as a process of developing a mutual understanding and diplomacy by showing the complex backgrounds and various facets of a conflict on both sides.²⁸
The media, due to their dependencies, might only be able to implement such a framework slowly or not at all. But the viewers can become active themselves. Knowing about the mechanisms described previously, they can identify possible distortions in any coverage. And they can remind themselves of the ugly side of any war: That there will be violence, death, suffering, despair and civilian victims, that wars rarely contribute to the stability of a region and that the affected regions will be confronted with environmental and economic consequences which often last for years or decades after the war has ended. ²⁹
1 Mandelbaum, M. (1982). Vietnam: The Television War. Daedalus, 111(4), pp.157-169.
2 Bytzek, E. (2005). Kosovokrieg, Kriegsberichterstattung und die Popularität der deutschen Regierungsparteien und -politiker. Medien & Kommunikationswissenschaft, 53(2-3), p. 370.
3 Kull, S., Ramsay, C. and Lewis, E. (2004). Misperceptions, the Media, and the Iraq War. Political Science Quarterly, 118(4), pp. 569f.
4 Eichenberg, R., Stoll, R., Lebo, M. (2006). War President: The Approval Ratings of George W. Bush. The Journal of conflict resolution, 50(6), p. 790.
5 Lindsay, J., Smith, C. (2003). Rally ‘Round the Flag: Opinion in the United States before and after the Iraq War. The Brookings review, 21(3), p. 21.
6 Foyle, D. (2004). Leading the public to war? The influence of American public opinion on the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 16(3), pp. 286f.
7 Foyle, D. (2004). Leading the public to war? The influence of American public opinion on the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 16(3), p. 287.
8 Kull, S., Ramsay, C. and Lewis, E. (2004). Misperceptions, the Media, and the Iraq War. Political Science Quarterly, 118(4), pp. 569f. and 287.
9 Yordán, C. (2006). America's Quest for Global Hegemony: "Offensive Realism, the Bush Doctrine, and the 2003 Iraq War." Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, 110, p. 141.
10 Foyle, D. (2004). Leading the public to war? The influence of American public opinion on the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 16(3), pp. 279ff.
11 Lindsay, J., Smith, C. (2003). Rally' Round the Flag: Opinion in the United States before and after the Iraq War. The Brookings review, 21(3), p. 22.
12 Bytzek, E. (2005). Kosovokrieg, Kriegsberichterstattung und die Popularität der deutschen Regierungsparteien und -politiker. Medien & Kommunikationswissenschaft, 53(2-3), pp. 370f.
13 Aday, S., Livingston, S. and Hebert, M. (2005). Embedding the Truth. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(1), pp. 12ff.
14 Aday, S., Livingston, S. and Hebert, M. (2005). Embedding the Truth. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(1), pp. 11ff.
15 Yordán, C. (2006). America's Quest for Global Hegemony: "Offensive Realism, the Bush Doctrine, and the 2003 Iraq War." Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, 110, p. 150.
16 Foyle, D. (2004). Leading the public to war? The influence of American public opinion on the Bush administration's decision to go to war in Iraq. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 16(3), pp. 279ff.
17 Aday, S., Livingston, S. and Hebert, M. (2005). Embedding the Truth. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(1), pp. 14f.
18 Kolmer, C. and Semetko, H. (2009). Framing the Iraq War. American Behavioral Scientist, 52(5), pp.648ff.
19 Aday, S., Livingston, S. and Hebert, M. (2005). Embedding the Truth. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(1), p. 18. [rough translation]
20 Haigh et al. (2006). A Comparison of Embedded and Nonembedded Print Coverage of the U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Iraq. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 11(2), pp. 142f.
21 Kumar, D. (2006). Media, War, and Propaganda: Strategies of Information Management During the 2003 Iraq War. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 3(1), p. 61.
22 Aday, S., Livingston, S. and Hebert, M. (2005). Embedding the Truth. Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(1), pp. 14f.
23 Pfau et al. (2005). Embedded Reporting During the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq: How the Embedding of Journalists Affects Television News Reports. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 49(4), pp.468-487.
24 Kumar, D. (2006). Media, War, and Propaganda: Strategies of Information Management During the 2003 Iraq War. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 3(1), pp. 60ff.
25 Kumar, D. (2006). Media, War, and Propaganda: Strategies of Information Management During the 2003 Iraq War. Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 3(1), pp. 62f.
26 Lawson, A., O'Carroll, L., Tryhorn, C. and Deans, J. (2003). War Watch: Claims and counter claims made during the media war over Iraq. The Guardian, [online] Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/media/2003/apr/11/pressandpublishing.marketingandpr> [Accessed 30 October 2020].
27 Kull, S., Ramsay, C. and Lewis, E. (2004). Misperceptions, the Media, and the Iraq War. Political Science Quarterly, 118(4), pp. 569-598.
28 Galtung, J., and Fischer, D. (2013). High road, low road: Charting the course for peace journalism. Johan Galtung, pp. 95-102.
29 bpb.de (2011). Kriegsfolgen. [online] Available at: <https://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/medien-und-sport/krieg-in-den-medien/130590/kriegsfolgen#:~:text=Menschliche%20Opfer,gro%C3%9Fes%20Leid%20%C3%BCber%20alle%20Betroffenen.&text=Die%20%C3%9Cberlebenden%20leiden%20oft%20bis,und%20Freunden%20oder%20ihrer%20Heimat.> [Accessed 10 November 2020].
Picture credits (chronologically):
Houghton, John, Jr. 2003: UStanks baghdad 2003.JPEG. URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UStanks_baghdad_2003.JPEG. Abgerufen am 12.01.2021. Public Domain.
Connoley, William. 2002: Banners on STW march, September 2002. URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:London_anti-war_protest_banners.jpg. Abgerufen am 12.01.2021. CC BY-SA 3.0.
Stikkel, Helene C. 2003: Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and President Bush. URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pingnews/290165818/. Abgerufen am 21.01.2021. Public Domain.
DanChurchAid. 2008: Abdullah Yaqoob. URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clustermunitioncoalition/. Abgerufen am 12.01.2021. CC BY 2.0.