|Operation Iraqi Freedom:
How the Media Portrays the War in Iraq
|Are there differences in the way various
media forms cover the war in Iraq? This study attempted to determine if
coverage of the war in Iraq varied across different forms of media, including
television, radio, print, and online sources. We explored the nature of
biases and framing techniques used by the media and explored how various
media forms differed in their coverage of war.
The volume of research on traditional media forms vastly outnumber research conducted on non-traditional forms. Despite the historical foundation, our research probed the coverage of the war in Iraq across all media forms, traditional and nontraditional. We examined print media in the forms of news magazines, national and regional newspapers. We included several forms of television communication forms: network news, political talk, television news magazines, and late night talk. Our radio forms included radio news, conservative talk, and liberal talk. Finally, we included online news sources. The online news sources in this study were specifically Internet-only sights and had no print, television, or radio counterpart. In order to determine how these media forms differed in their coverage, we analyzed each for levels of tone, frame, and emotion.
Our findings revealed that in some cases, there were differences in the way various media forms cover the war; in some cases, no; and in some cases, the findings were significantly different from the expected outcomes. In general, we found that most communication forms, especially traditional forms, depict balanced coverage of the war. This is supported by the comparison of tone and our findings of a lack of emotions displayed in stories about the war in Iraq.
As stated in the first hypothesis and in keeping with the findings of Iyengar (1991), our study anticipated that compared to newspapers, television network news relies more heavily on episodic framing in its coverage of the war in Iraq. As previously stated, framing is the way the media “chooses to shape the presentation of an issue” (Jasperson, et al., 1998, p.205). Episodically framed stories focus on an individual or one-time event (Iyengar, 1991). The results supported our expectation. As Table 2 demonstrates, television network news coverage of the war in Iraq was clearly more episodic.
Although we expected to find a difference in episodic framing between newspapers and television network news, our study also looked to determine framing differences among all communication forms. News magazines and late night television topped the list for episodic-based framing. The use of dominant pictures in news magazines and late night television’s comedic format contrasted sharply with talk radio, both liberal and conservative. Talk radio, with its in-depth ability to explain both sides of an issue, ranked lowest for episodic framing.
Our second hypothesis examined emotion in the media. As stated earlier, media is a powerful and persuasive tool and through its many forms can have a powerful impact on one’s emotional state. Our study compared the emotional content of print communication forms to television network news. Based on Iyenger’s (1991) findings, which stated television relies more heavily on episodic framing than print media, we predicted television would also convey more emotion as compared to print media, comprised of news magazines, regional newspapers, and national newspapers. The data contradicted the hypothesis. We found that print media conveyed more emotion per unit of analysis than the network television news. One explanation for this trend can be found in the way in which print media was coded; newspaper and magazine stories accompanied by one or more photos were coded as a complete unit of analysis. Stand-alone photos were also coded as individual episodically framed samples. News magazines also have more freedom to develop exemplars. Two-page photo spreads were the backdrop to many headlines and numerous photos accompanied single articles. The emotions portrayed in the photos had significant impact on the overall emotional content of the stories.
We also looked to Internet-only sites for their emotional content. We wanted to discover which sites used affective appeals in their coverage of the war. In the areas of fear and sadness, our results showed no significant differences between online news sources and print newspapers. Two areas of note that emerged from this study were that national newspapers depict more anger and happiness than online news sources.
Since our research centered on discovering any differences in the way different communication forms covered the war in Iraq, one of our research questions looked to determine the differences in tone among the forms toward the war in Iraq. Our study revealed significant differences in tone across all communication forms. Conservative talk radio provides the most positive form for war coverage; while, online news sources, liberal talk radio and late night television were found to be the most negative. While conservative and liberal talk radio fit into their obvious ends of the spectrum, it is interesting to note that late night television and online news sources are significantly more negative. As opposed to the politically slanted radio news programs that cater to a specific audiences, online news and late night television serve a wide variety of consumers from very different political backgrounds.
Robinson and Appel (1979) said the tone of network television news is more negative than print news. It has also been stated that the main network news anchors are more liberally based in their coverage. The common perception is that network television is more negative in its coverage of the war. Based on this information, we expected network television to cover the war more negatively than the other communication forms. The results of this investigation determined that television network news is middling when compared to all other communication forms. Online news forums, liberal talk radio, and late night television were substantially more negative, meaning that the common perception is unfounded. If consumers of network television news automatically assume the coverage provided by this media form is more negative, they may be more apt to trust other communication forms. The substantially more negative online news sources may be a prime example of this potential problem based on false assumptions since a quarter of the nation regularly seeks news online (Palser, 2002). The online news sources in this study were specifically Internet-only sights and had no print, television, or radio counterpart. Palser (2002) stated these Internet-only sights publish sensationalized scoops and have changed what was considered the norm for news that is fit to print.
This study also compared the tone of conservative political talk radio and political television to other communication forms to examine the positive coverage of the war contained within. The results of this comparison supported our expectations. When conservative political talk radio and television were combined and compared to other communication forms, the findings were significant. The conservative premise of the political talk radio and political television samples often mirror the current administration that has supported the war in Iraq.
Finally, we examined coverage of the war in Iraq among several media forms in which there was very little research to draw upon. Newspapers, news magazines, television news magazines, and late night talk television were all analyzed to determine if there were any differences and if so, what kind of differences occurred among those media forms. As discussed later in the limitations portion of this study, television news magazines were dismissed from the study due to lack of a significant sample size. The findings of our study ranked the communication forms in order of positive tone: Conservative political talk radio; national newspapers; print news magazines; political talk television; regional newspapers; radio news; television network news; late night television; liberal talk radio; online news sources.
Prior research in the area of mass communication shows that media do in fact express emotions through various techniques explored in this study. However, when we examined our data we discovered that the mean scores measuring tone, whether positive or negative, did not score above three for every communication form analyzed. Meaning, political talk radio, for instance, covered the war more positively than other communication forms, but on a five-point scale measuring tone, only scored a 2.96. Additionally, the means for emotional portrayal scored surprisingly low. Though our research made no specific predictions regarding the level of emotions measured, we expected to find significantly higher scores in this area. Again, measured on a five-point scale, the highest score on the emotional scale was only 2.23. Data does support that communication forms use tone and emotion to frame stories, but the degree is minimal.
The findings of this study supported the research on mass communication forms. We believed our most interesting findings were those regarding television and online news sources given that prior research on television network news stated that the form has more emotional content and that it is generally more negative than other media forms. If consumers of television network news assume coverage is biased negatively, that stereotype will incorrectly bias audiences’ opinions of other media forms. This has tremendous implications in terms of those forms that were found to be negative, specifically, online sources.
The growing popularity of online sources, readership grew 12% in two years, makes this media form powerful (Palser, 2002). Because there are few limitations and little oversight over the content of Internet-only sites, this media does not have to provide balanced coverage of an event. Essentially, it can frame a story in a way that will appeal to audiences, without having to practice and maintain any principles of reporting.
There were several aspects of the sample population that may have affected the overall findings of the study. The wide variety of communication forms led to an uneven number of samples with national newspapers samples leading the sample size with 120 units of analysis. Originally, in the sample population, television news magazines were excluded from the study due to the lack of samples contained within. Five hours of television news magazines were originally scheduled to air during the population timeframe. One hour was preempted due to Olympic trials. Of the other four hours of potential sample material, Olympic and presidential campaign coverage dominated the programs, leaving only one sample item during the population timeframe.
Category heterogeneity had an effect on data collected from political talk television as the results reflected a middling effect. Hardball and the O’Reilly factor are known for distinct differing views, but were coded within the same category. Category homogeneity also had an effect as conservative talk radio and liberal talk radio were coded within their own categories.
The entire content of national and regional newspaper articles were coded as single units of analysis. This coding regimen assumes that the consumer reads the entire story. By reading a partial story, a reader may be bombarded by the initial sensationalism and not receive the benefit of the more balanced content detailed later within the article. The typical inverted pyramid style of writing may have warranted separate units of analysis for the beginning and overall articles.
Radio news focused on National Public Radio and Associated Press hourly newscasts. The hourly newscasts broadcast by AP frequently featured live press conferences unrelated to the Iraq war or there were no newscasts available, while NPR broadcasts were consistent in their broadcast style.
Political talk television shows included segments counter-point scenarios where not one opinion emerged as dominant within the units of analysis.
One last limitation was the variance in sample length among like categories. The Late Show with David Letterman and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno were analyzed for the content within the monologue; however, the Leno monologue was much longer than that of Letterman. Likewise, network television news included half-hour broadcasts from NBC, CBS, and ABC and hour-long broadcasts from CNN. The extended timeframe of CNN allowed more opportunity to cover the events in Iraq.
Recommendations for Future Research
Our sample base of online sources, specifically those without a companion news source limited the exploration of the online analysis. Interestingly, our data revealed that the most negative news sources analyzed were online news sources. Research in this area has shown that the popularity of online sources is growing rapidly; however, research also shows that these sources have little to no oversight on the content of the product. These findings suggest that online news sources have no obligation to produce a balanced story. These unfettered stories could have a tremendous affect on public opinion, especially if the public begins to rely more heavily on online sources for up-to-date information regarding current events. Further research could also explore the different means with which online sources with companion news sources present information versus online sources without a companion news source.
Conversely, the most positive portrayal of the war in Iraq came from conservative talk radio. Generally, hosts and guests alike applauded the decisions of the administration in place because the current political administration is predominantly conservative and therefore shares the viewpoints promoted in those venues. Would the findings be dramatically different if the administration at the helm was predominantly liberal? More than likely, yes; however, future research could affirm the idea that conservative talk radio is supportive of the war because it backs a conservative administration. Whereas, liberal talk radio, which had an overarching negative view of the war in Iraq, would support the war if a liberal administration was in place.
This study did not look at the affect the analyzed media had on the general public, nor did it sample a population to discover what media form is the most popular. By determining what media form is relied on most heavily for up-to-date information on current events, researchers can evaluate public opinion of a national topic, like war. Ultimately, this research would lead to the discovery of media forms’ agendas and the extent of their effectiveness.
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