There is no clear evidence that broadcast images of war affect public opinion; it has certainly been an underlying assumption. However, tangible evidence supporting such claims is scarce. Braestrup (1977) posited the utilization of television fundamentally changed war reporting during the era of the Vietnam Conflict.
This study examines 92 segments within three years of broadcast evening news coverage from three major television networks spanning a year after “The Fall of Baghdad.” The content analysis examined overall tone of coverage, use of objectivity, frames, and the depiction of U.S. and Iraqi casualties. Many suggest the weak support in public opinion is a direct result of negative media coverage; the results of this study show otherwise. This study demonstrated there is little coverage about public opinion tied to the war in Iraq, and the tone of coverage was slightly more positive over time. This study also examined the visual impact of combat operations, expanding on a study of print images by Pfau and colleagues (in press). Broadcast images are processed differently than print images; therefore, they tend to stir more emotion than print images due to their vivid nature (Strivers, 1994). This study posited that people would process broadcast news stories more experientially and it compared the impact of television news stories about combat in Iraq by visual footage to stories without such footage. It found that news reports of combat operations elicit emotional responses in women viewers and stories accompanied by visual footage of combat undermines support for continued U.S. military progress in Iraq. Finally, this study tested whether it is possible to inoculate against the impact of broadcast news coverage.
The content analysis was the first to empirically examine the actual content of television news reports featuring Iraq. It examined three years of coverage.
Research Question 1 examines the content of television news reports about Iraq. Different topics were discussed at different times. For example, progress in Iraq was covered slightly more often during the second timeframe of the study. Casualties were frequent after summer 2004. U.S. politics were not the focus of much coverage; however, it was discussed more frequently in the last timeframe of the study. Coverage of other topics has changed over time possibly as a result of limited embedded reporters. This further results in more thematic framing as opposed to episodic framing in nature.
Research Question 2 analyzed the degree of objectivity of broadcast news stories about military operations in Iraq. The results showed the coverage for U.S. military casualties and Iraqi casualties were the same. This suggests the carnage of war is not prejudicial in the perspective of viewers. Research Question 3 explored the overall tone of broadcast news coverage about the Iraq war. Contrary to the expectation that tone in coverage has been negative, results revealed that tone has become more positive after summer 2004 and then leveled off throughout the rest of 2004, all of 2005, and early 2006. The overall tone of coverage is best described as neutral.
In response to Research Question 4, 44% of broadcast news stories coded depicted U.S. military casualties while about the same percentage of stories depicted Iraqi casualties. Most frequently covered were wounded Iraqi casualties more than half the time. Wounded U.S. military were covered just over a third of the time.
The results of Research Question 5 revealed public opinion when featuring reports regarding U.S. casualties was not discussed much in news and feature reports about Iraq. When public opinion was covered, it was probably related to the U.S. election taking place in November 2004. The number of casualties was discussed most frequently from late 2005 to early 2006. There were more “Fallen Hero” stories from late 2004 to June 2005. There has also been less discussion about the Iraqi government since the beginning stages of the war.
Research Question 6 showed news coverage was deemed more thematic across time. It fell ranked near 4 on the 1 to 7 scale. There was less use of episodic news reports, which could be related to fewer embedded reporters. News reporters were not spending as much time with troops, which would lead to more background type reports.
The experiment examined how people process broadcast news coverage. Hypothesis 1 predicted broadcast news stories about military operations in Iraq featuring footage of U.S. combat elicit more negative affective responses in viewers than stories featuring footage of Iraqi combat. This, too, proved to be false. There is no data to support a difference in emotional response to combat footage depicting U.S. and Iraqis. However, women, in general exhibited more emotions overall. This could suggest simply that women are more emotional than men when presented with visuals of combat. It is possible that women have a higher ability to empathize and therefore, women are able to feel more deeply the pain of those who have lost loved ones as a result of war. Another possibility is that men are more detached from graphic images because of their inherent nature as hunter/gatherer/warrior. Consistent with the previous study (Pfau, et al., in press) women experienced more emotional responses to broadcast news stories depicting combat casualties than did men.
It also examined how the process of inoculation could be used to protect against the impact of combat visuals. Hypothesis 2 predicted broadcast news stories about military operations in Iraq featuring footage of combat are processed more experientially by viewers than stories without footage of combat. The results revealed that this is not the case. There was, in fact, little difference in processing of news stories about Iraqi casualties or U.S. casualties.
Hypothesis 3 predicted broadcast news stories about military operations in Iraq featuring footage of U.S. combat exert greater negative influence on viewers’ support for continued U.S. military presence in Iraq more than stories without footage of combat. Results indicate broadcast news stories featuring combat footage about military operations does not affect individuals already having strong initial attitudes about the war in Iraq. Surprisingly, the converse is true. The stronger an individual’s initial attitude about the war, the more pride they experienced and the more involved they become in the issue and the less likely the participant was to feel negative emotions such as anger, puzzlement, or sadness when viewing images of war casualties.
These results indicate (1) an individual’s initial attitude will make them more positive toward the war and less likely to experience negative emotions. From a public affairs point of view this means the best time to secure support for military action when necessary is before the conflict begins. If positive attitudes are solidified prior to the start of the conflict there is less chance of a change in those attitudes taking place as a result of visual broadcast image exposure. (2) There was no difference in how news stories were processed. The reason for this is unclear, though, it may be due to pre-existing positive attitudes about the war.
The research does support the position that broadcast stories featuring combat footage do affect viewer’s attitudes toward the war. This is consistent with Nabi (2003) which states “pictures have an unquestioned capacity to arouse emotions and such arousal might influence attitudes directly or indirectly by impacting message processing” (p. 202). Participants viewing broadcast news stories containing video footage of casualties experienced a significant change in attitude and support for continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. Those who did not view the casualty footage were not similarly affected. Whether the casualties were U.S. military, Iraqi civilian, or Iraqi military did not matter. What this means is that a correlation does exist between visual images of war casualties and positive attitudes and support for the war. Regardless of the identity or national origin of those killed; death is death.
The impact of inoculation in this study is being suppressed because this study featured only controls for the message rather than controls for the visual images. Later data will be collected to gather control subjects who will be exposed to images of casualties; however, they will not be inoculated. Evidence suggests that inoculation will be effective. It is important to note there was no difference in the effects generated by print inoculation or print plus picture inoculation. This suggests that the information is processed similarly whether it is written or visual.
Participants inoculated previewed the stories featuring casualties. The control condition in the current study is a true control group. They did not receive an inoculation message or view any video of casualties. This limited the comparison of protecting against the impact of visuals because some participants who were not inoculated needed to view video of casualties as well.
This study edited together 4 different broadcast news stories. However, there is a lack of significantly gripping video that shows death in evening newscasts. Locating video clips of casualties that would meet broadcast news standards in the U.S. was challenging. There was an abundance of footage containing civilian casualties; however, footage of U.S. military casualties was scarce. This may be due to reporters respecting DoD policy on American families.
Future research in successfully inoculating men against the effects of visual images of war is still to be conducted. Previous findings revealed that inoculation is primarily effective on women and their attitudes about war (Pfau, et al., in press). Previous research shows that men experience significantly less emotional response than women to news stories about war casualties. The reasons for this are not known. Another potential area for research is conducting a study of the effects of visual images and support for the war on military personnel. Do visual images of war change the opinion and, possibly, dedication to duty of military members?