Theoretical Aspects


Miller’s (2002) view on framing may offer an explanation of how media audiences developed their supposed taste for war; or, more specifically, their taste for Saddam Hussein’s demise.  Miller states that framing is essential in the deliberation of agenda-setting whereas agenda-setting, as defined by Zhu & Blood (1997), is the process that occurs when the public is led to topics of public issue by the news media who assign weight to the issues’ criticality.  Miller postulates that in the agenda-setting context, “framing is a process through which the media emphasize some aspects of reality and downplay other aspects” (p. 262).  Further, Miller writes that framing can be performed by the media through the inclusion of specific subtopics of calculated size strategically placed to aide in the telling of the news story as well as through the style of narration, the piece’s overall tone and through the specific details purposively included in or excluded from the story. 

From the political psychology sphere, Allen, O’Loughlin, Jasperson and Sullivan (1994) posited that the media frames and primes news and makes people inclined to comprehend and internalize information in a selective manner.  Allen et al. define framing as the interpretation and subsequent assignment of symbolism contextually and define priming as referring to activating without obstruction, pre-stored attitudes and knowledge from a person’s memory.  Allen et al. write that in priming and in framing people unwittingly refer to judgments that they may not even realize that they had formed.  Additionally, the authors write that by integrating elements of framing, priming and spiral of silence, the media is able to manipulate popular opinion and individual discernment (Allen et al.).  Social psychologists use the term ‘framing’ to describe methodologies utilized in the presentation of information and to characterize on a contextual level how people affectively appraise the meaning of that information.  Allen et al. suggest that media influence on the public’s opinion goes deeper than simply agenda-setting and ‘gatekeeper’ functions.

In times of war, the media is flooded with information.  Editors and producers serve as gatekeepers of information simply by virtue of their positions.  News lives or dies by their decisions.  News frames, too, live and die by their decisions.  Heath and Bryant (2000) state members of the press and those in media gatekeeper positions represent the featured event or particular issue and how their audience consumes the information.  Additionally, agenda-setting and framing are conceptually related, but framing broadens the investigation by spotlighting the existence of the issue versus a specific subject (Heath & Bryant).  The authors cite Gitlin (1980) who wrote that frames include common phrases that evoke common images and definitions and that frames are “persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse” (p. 360).  Heath and Bryant further describe frames as conceptual as opposed to concrete ideas that act to construct social meaning for people.

Kuusisto’s (1998) study offers parallels to present day media framing of Saddam Hussein’s regime.  The author researched the persuasion tactics the United States, Great Britain and France used to justify their actions in the first Gulf war and in the 1992 to 1995 war in the Balkans.  Western nations’ leaders framed coalition effort as a justified cause that sought international peace and order (Kuusisto).  The Bosnian conflict, on the other hand, was framed as a merciless and pointless massacre that outsiders couldn’t do much about (Kuusisto).  The powers that be elected fitting policy versus force to handle the situation (Kuusisto).  Kuusisto writes that the coalition painted Iraq’s president as “the ultimate enemy, dangerous and evil, who had to be crushed in order to make the world safe again” (p. 603), but the momentary foes in Bosnia baffled Western leaders making them indisposed to mandate a solution to the conflict.  Kuusisto stated that the two wars were framed as “heroic battles” and “tragic feuds” respectively and the leaders of Western nations used metaphors to make the two conflicts and their subsequent policies appear important and comprehensive.  Kuusisto summarizes framing by Western leaders of events leading to the conflicts in Iraq and Bosnia as:

The apparently harmless and light-hearted comparisons with children's stories, card games, business deals, and sports competitions induced forceful action in the Gulf; by contrast, paralleling the situation with sad dramas, horrible nightmares, violent natural catastrophes, and treacherous morasses made decisive interference impossible in Bosnia.  The Gulf metaphors made clear to all the folly of leaving the princess in the lurch, not playing a winning hand, passing up the chance for a great investment, or canceling the Cup Final.  In Bosnia, the metaphors made it unthinkable to dash onto the stage to defend the scapegoat, act on the visions of a frightening dream, stand in the way of the whirlwind, or try to cross the quicksand.  (p. 603)

The metaphors Kuusisto points out enabled the media and information gatekeepers to attach negative or positive connotations based on existing schemas – many held since childhood – in order to develop the tenor of public opinion.  In the current war in Iraq, parallel framing tactics are at the very least present and at worst blatant.  Closely related to framing, priming addresses subconcious attitudes one adopts toward a particular topic. 


Priming is defined as the subconscious form of human memory, which is concerned with perceptual identification of words and objects and has only recently been recognized as separate from other forms of memory (Tulving & Schacter, 1990).  Priming’s function is to improve identification of perceived objects and does not involve conscious recollection (Tulving & Schacter).  Priming resembles other known types of memory, procedural and semantic, because it enhances perceptual skills and involves cognitive representations of the world and uses cognition, not behavior, to express itself (Tulving & Schacter).  Walter Lippman (1921) is credited for the modern concept of agenda-setting and in his opinion the mass media creates pictures in people’s heads – phenomenon policymakers must be cognitive of.

Kempf (2002) states that 3 turning points exist where the media not only reflects society’s mindset but plays “an active role in stimulating the process of conflict escalation beyond its actual level” (p. 70).  The first point occurs before violence breaks out.  The media gives little attention to conflict as long as violence has not broken out (Kempf).  The second point, according to Kempf, is “when journalists take notice of a conflict, finally, they often rush to antagonistic conclusions without adequate analysis of the conflict constellation” (p. 70).  The third turning point is due to the journalists’ attachment to the elite who provide them with information (Kempf).  In biting the hand that feeds them, journalists run the risk of ostracism (Kempf).  Rather than criticize propaganda, journalists attempt to make it more plausible to their audience (Kempf).

To assess the presence of priming, Allen et al. assessed news coverage of the 1991 Gulf War.  Despite the ongoing debate as to whether or not the United States should go to war, news coverage maintained a pro-war prime.  Of the 2,855 minutes of television coverage of the crisis from August 8, 1990, until January 3, 1991, only 29 minutes, 1 percent, of the coverage showed popular opposition to U.S. military build-up in the Gulf (Ruffini, 1992). Within hours of the January 16 beginning of Operation Desert Storm, public debate ceased and differences in opinion shifted instantaneously to consensus in favor of military action (Ruffini).  Allen et al. (1994) proposed media framing and priming can predispose individuals to understand and interpret information selectively.  The study’s examination explained how public opinion changed during an international crisis by explaining the relationship between media and public opinion (Allen et al.). 

            Kempf (2002) offers a justification for the seemingly biased coverage media may offer during times of war.  Kempf states that when journalists spread the same antagonistic, reduced and distorted images of a conflict as do political and military [e]lites” it does not indicate “a conspiracy between policymakers and the media” (p. 69).  Rather, it reflects on the mere fact that journalists are society members themselves (Kempf).  The journalists’ dilemma as members of society is that they often “share the societal beliefs which help official propaganda to achieve plausibility” (Kempf, p. 70).  While one might argue the media coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom was not propaganda, Kempf asserts that there is little difference between propaganda and war reporting.  If a journalist’s stories and editorials do not conform to societal beliefs, their audience may reject them (Kempf).  Journalists are subject to the same pressures and social norms as their societal peers (Kempf).  In refuting the propaganda image, they run the risk of losing status and influence. 

Parallels between the findings of communication research and the media coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom are apparent.  The media proffers a biased cant of the war to their audience.  The prominence of the war in respective media coverage primes the audiences to consider the military action from the view the media presents. 

Framing and Priming Hypotheses

Based on the theoretical aspects presented and the background provided, the researchers offer the following hypotheses in support of framing and priming coverage regarding Operation Iraqi Freedom:

H1: Coalition print media coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom is biased in favor of the United States-led coalition’s perspective.

H2: Non-coalition print media coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom is biased against the United States -led coalition’s perspective.

H3: The pro or con tone and tenor presented in coalition and non-coalition print media coverage of Operation Iraqi Freedom become increasingly evident as war commences.

            Framing and priming offer partial insights into the role media coverage of the war had on shaping public opinion.  As the media jumped aboard their respective bandwagons, their increasing failure to provide a fair and balanced perspective had, in effect, seemed to silence the respective minorities – anti-war protestors in coalition nations and pro-war protestors in non-coalition nations.  This media induced silence built then perpetuated a notion that the minority views no longer existed.  The voice of protest was silenced.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, a once silent voice emerged triumphant when Baghdad fell and Iraqis could speak their minds.  These behaviors are illustrated in Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s theory on the spiral of silence.

Spiral of Silence

            The spiral of silence theory proposes that for a society to embrace unity, that society must believe there is a threat of isolation from others who deviate from the common values of that society (Noelle-Neumann, 1991).  The theory posits that public opinion – the strength of common convictions – results from our social nature as human beings who fear isolation (Noelle-Neumann).  People who believe that the current or future climate of public opinion is hostile to their own opinions will “avoid speaking out to avoid ‘isolating’ themselves” (Glynn, Hayes, & Shanahan, 1997, p. 453).  “As these individuals choose silence, they actually do isolate themselves” (Allen et al., p. 264).  According to Price & Allen (1990), this self-censorship by those whose views are “out of line with the prevailing trend of opinion” over a protracted period bolsters the perceived strength of the majority (p. 1).  This perpetuates the minority’s dilemma by placing further increased pressures upon them to conform (Price & Allen).  Individuals employ a “quasi-statistical sense to gauge the climate of public opinion (Glynn et al., 1997).  In observing the social environment, he assesses “the distribution of opinions for and against his ideas, but above all by evaluating the strength [commitment], the urgency, and the chances of success of certain proposals and viewpoints” (Noelle-Neumann, 1974, p. 44).  Moscovici (1991) describes this component of the theory in stating that people should be capable of identifying what they have in common with those around them and subsequently anticipate the tendency that is dominant.  This discovery, Moscovici continues, influences the person’s willingness to speak up or keep silent in siding with either the majority or minority.  The spiral of silence as a whole is truly a sum of its parts, each assumption feeding off the other.

“The more clear-cut the majority and the minority are in the climate of opinion, the more it may be assumed that this will influence the willingness to speak out or keep silent in public” (Noelle-Neumann, 1991, p. 262).  An individual is in one of two situations.  One is either “aboard the bandwagon of developments” (p. 149) where one finds more and more people are like minded and their opinion is spreading (Noelle-Neumann, 1979).  Or, an individual’s ideas are losing ground in the face of vocalized public opinion (Noelle-Neumann, 1979).  In this instance, one becomes cautious, insecure and unsure of oneself, ultimately withholding personal views (Noelle-Neumann, 1979).  “In this climate of self-censorship, the gulf between themselves and those of the perceived majority appears to widen” (Allen et. al, p.264).  The ever-increasing spiral of silent conformers continues while the vocal majority continues to speak out with fervor (McDonald, Glynn, Kim, & Ostman, 2001).  This phenomenon was expressed as the kickoff of Operation Iraqi Freedom neared.  Meanwhile, as the majority continues to hear their views aired by like-minded people, they believe their position is spreading (Allen et al.).  This, of course, leads them to express themselves more fervently (Allen et al.).  This, too, was evident as the impending war approached.  People favoring military action gained momentum, fed by the information and views presented by political pundits and the media’s talking heads.

            Noelle-Neumann (1991) posits that when the above four theoretical assumptions are taken together, they are “responsible for the formation, defense, and alteration of public opinion” (p. 260).  The spiral of silence is evidenced only in controversial topics that one would consider “morally loaded” (Perry & Gonzenbach, 2000).  In citing Noelle-Neumann’s 1993 book, Perry and Gonzenbach explain morally loaded as those found to be pressing in the process of public opinion, thus requiring the issue to be negotiated.  “They are emotional, value-laden, and evoke the perception of right and wrong but not exclusively in the sense of good and evil.  The desire to reach a consensus in society is necessary for an issue to be morally loaded” (Perry & Gonzenbach, p. 270).

            Noelle-Neumann (1991) interprets the word “public” within the concept of public opinion as visible to all in the public eye and as such it serves as a social control.  Publicly visible and audible expressions of opinion and public behavior toward highly moral issues capture Noelle-Neumann’s concept of opinion in the equation.  Thus, public opinion becomes the controversial opinion that one is able to express in public without the fear of isolation (Noelle-Neumann, 1977).  When arriving at the intersection of personal preferences and the considerations of the dominant views of society, the individual is confronting the public opinion process (Noelle-Neumann, 1979).

The media plays a significant role in the individual’s perception of whether their beliefs fall within the majority or minority.  Television plays a very critical role in the creation of the information environment (Gonzenbach, 1992).  Television’s “over-powering presence as a source of information; ... the continuous repetition of messages in the media over time; and … the congruence of journalists values and the content of their messages that is seen as a direct reflection of their values” (Gonzenbach, p. 633) shapes public opinion.  Print and radio journalism weigh into the creation of public opinion as well (Gonzenbach).  By selecting which stories to present and through sculpting the valence of presentation, the “ideologically consonant media” influences public opinion (Gonzenbach, p. 636).  In 1979, Noelle-Neumann (1983) expanded her research to incorporate the effects of mass media on the spiral of silence.  This interested her because mass media effects research to that point had been “squirreled” away in journals and forgotten, or the researcher was discredited in public (Noelle-Neumann).  “Communication research that finds strong media effects also comes into conflict with journalists because such findings violate one of the most important aspects of journalists’ self-image – their objectivity” (Noelle-Neumann, p. 161).  Using Walter Lippmann’s assertions, Noelle-Neumann said that journalists’ are deceiving themselves if they believe that their reporting is not influenced by their political attitudes.  Noelle-Neumann states “journalists themselves must be protected against the pressure to conform that arises in systems that are too large, as well as against political pressure from the outside, which very extensive media power tends to invite” (p. 163).

Salmon and Neuwirth (1990) state that factors such as involvement and knowledge directly influence one’s expression of opinion.  Education and gender, on the other hand, indirectly influence the expression of opinion (Salmon & Neuwirth).  In his 1991 article, Lasorca applied Noelle-Neumann’s theory to a random sampling of adults in the Austin, Texas, area.  In his research, Lasorca (1991) zeroes in on another of Noelle-Neumann’s key points with regard to vocalizing one’s opinion publicly:

It] does not even matter much what we ourselves personally conclude to be the correct position on an issue.  What matters is our perception of the trend in the popularity of our position in the “general public.”  As she puts it: “Even when people see plainly that something is wrong, they well keep quiet if public opinion … speaks out against them.” (p. 132)

Lasorca’s research found the silencing of opinion, however, is not always the case.  If a person strongly believes his position to be correct, he may be more inclined to speak out despite the climate of opinion (Lasorca).  This hardcore stance reflects the confidence in correctness of that position rather than to the individual’s confidence in the potential popularity of that position (Lasorca).  “It would appear, then, that it is possible for a person, suitably armed, to fight the spiral of silence” (Lasorca, p. 140).  

As the build up for Operation Iraqi Freedom continued, a small vocal minority continued to make views against the war and President Bush’s administration heard.  The Hollywood elite and country music’s Dixie Chicks exercised their rights to speak out – but not without a price.  Their voices were amplified by millions of anti-war protestors around the world and by influential leaders in Allied nations.  This reflects Solomon Asch’s research which found that roughly one-fifth of those in the minority would express their views anyway, completely discounting the threat and ignoring the fear of isolation (Noelle-Neumann, 1974).  This “hardcore” element continues to speak out regardless of the climate of opinion because they “may be driven by a need to express their deeply cherished values especially when in jeopardy, so as to define themselves and convince others” (Shamir, 1997, p. 610).  Shamir hints this may motivate the hardcore to “override social pressures and encourage the overt expression of opinion” (p. 610).  Their fortitude is bolstered by the observation of other hardcore members as they defy the majority (Moscovici, 1991).  This vocal minority eventually stalls or neutralizes the majority’s message leading the majority to feel less sure of themselves (McDonald et al.).  As the avant garde gains confidence in airing their minority views, those who had become silent in the face of the majority become more willing to voice their minority opinion (McDonald et al.).  As the trend of opinion reverses itself, those who were in the majority fall increasingly silent for fear of isolation (McDonald et al.). 

            Public opinion is highly susceptible “to social, political, and media manipulations, and as a social phenomenon in which social pressures and conformity are major driving forces” (Shamir, 1995, p. 15).  People, Shamir says, seem to rely on mass media for substantive information about political developments and events.  However, this is not always the case.  Using the Israel’s Intifada in his case study, Shamir illustrates that an economic crises or civil unrest “create conditions in which many people have firsthand experience with the situation” (p. 17).  Corroborative information based on experience is easily shared through interpersonal channels when interpersonal networks are well developed (Shamir).  This reduces one’s dependency on the media as the collaborating source of one’s opinion (Shamir).  When mediated and unmediated information from different sources converge, they cross-validate each other if the information cues are consistent with one and other (Shamir).  In the major information context – such as Israeli public opinion with regard to the Intifada – this serves to shape public opinion even more formidably that pure social climate cues (Shamir).  However, Shamir says:

the more ambiguous [the] situation, the easier it is to interpret stimuli in a number of ways; the more people tend to interpret it in ways consistent with their worldviews, expectations, goals, and needs; and the more leeway there is for social political, and media manipulations. (p. 17)

Here, the public’s reliance on the media and the depth of their ability to gauge where they fall in the climate of public opinion rests heavily with the media (Shamir).  This heightened dependency on the media increases media effects, leaving a broader scope for social adjustment mechanisms and for spirals of silence (Shamir).  Given the broad implications of the media’s influence on the climate of opinion and how public may react either by speaking out or keeping silent, it behooves scholars to delve deeper into the various assumptions contained within the spiral of silence.  Noelle-Neumann, a political scientist and pollster, finds evidence for the spiral of silence hidden within the results of public opinion polls. 


A Gunther (1998) study contends that while a person may not agree with the media slant of an issue, they may believe they are in the minority because they believe the media is the majority opinion.  This persuasive press inference theory is seen to bolster a theoretical contribution to the spiral of silence hypotheses because of the person’s belief in the power of the media.  The Gunther study summarized “what mass media are saying today must be what the public will be thinking tomorrow” (p. 487).  Since the spiral of silence relates directly to an attitude of having a minority opinion, attitudes toward the power of the media would have a direct correlation to its importance according to a later study (Gunther, Christen, Liebhert, & Chih-Yun, 2001).

Ladd (1980) writes of the unique contradictions in the media polling environment.  With the advent of 24-hour news and the competition it entails, it’s no wonder the polling process itself, which requires time and planning, is suffering.  Ladd observes that solid scientific research cannot sacrifice planning, time, and analytical process despite modern media’s craving of instantaneous answers.  With the appetite for a quantity of news, Ladd contends even a well-executed poll can’t possibly be evaluated in what is often a 15-second sound bite.  “Tight editing equals gross oversimplification” (Ladd, p. 576).  Additionally, Ladd contends what constitutes news today would not be news without polling or poll information.  “The tendency to assign a story based on a published poll is a problematic character of the press polling connection” (Ladd, p. 582).

Gollin (1980) explores the liaison between polling and the press, highlighting the phenomenon of news creation and its effects on the public.  The idea of the self-fulfilling prophecy is paramount in the discussion of creating pseudo-events through polling.  Joining in an established description of polling as a “social science in a hurry,” Gollin says the media and polling organization are in the same lifeboat and risk devalued public opinion of their interests if they continue to essentially scratch each others’ backs (p. 457).  The media is encouraged to view public opinion apparatus as a genuine tool, rather than as an excuse for lazy journalism. 

Allen et al. (1994) examined the influences the media had on public opinion during the first Gulf war.  When Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the U.S. faced its first large-scale war in nearly 20 years.  “As the threat of war increased, American public opinion was sharply divided about the government’s response to the deepening crisis” (Allen et al., p. 256).  Polling data contradicted this media-driven impression of the growing support for United States action to remove Saddam Hussein’s forces with military might (Allen et al.). 

In his analysis of American public opinion concerning the Gulf War, John Mueller [1993] observes that “ … a substantial public anti-war movement had been launched in the fall of 1990 … It put together protest demonstrations … that were larger than most marches of the Vietnam era.”  Many Americans wished to avoid war so much that only hours before the bombing began, a plurality of the public agreed with a proposal to end the crisis by giving a piece of Kuwait to Iraq, if Kuwait would agree.  (Allen et al., pp. 256-257)

Americans, it seemed, did not favor war.  News coverage did not reflect this rift in opinion (Allen et al.).  Instead, news accounts of the impending military action offered a growing consensus in favor of the government’s actions even as the political elite and ordinary citizens incessantly debated the matter (Allen et al.).  Reported surveys in September and early January 1991 revealed a significant population of Americans who wanted to hear the views of those opposed to the build up of forces in the gulf.  Within a few hours of the first sorties in Operation Desert Storm, public debate had ceased (Allen et al., 1994).  Differences in opinion had endured the 5-month build up for war despite media inattention.  To explain this disparity in public opinion polls and media coverage, Allen et al. (1994) integrated media framing and priming with the spiral of silence theory.

Media induced or self-induced, the spiral of silence as presented by prior research is evident in the climate of opinion surrounding Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Media’s role as an information gatekeeper perpetuated this silence and, in fact, led protestors to vocalize their support for people in the military so as not to appear unpatriotic.  Iraqi citizens emerged from a Saddam Hussein imposed pit of silence as Baghdad fell.