An Examination of Broadcast News Coverage Depicting Images of War: Description, Effects, and Possible Antidote

People have always been curious about the world around them and wanted to know about events that will have an impact on their lives. For most of human existence, this curiosity was fulfilled by travelers’ tales and gossip. The development of “the news” is the natural progression of how technological advances and introduction of specialized techniques for gathering and disseminating information on a regular basis has steadily increased both the scope of news available to us and the speed with which it is transmitted.

Early forms of transmitting news began with word of mouth; news was limited to what someone saw and re-told and generally was accurate primarily in proportion to the proximity of the events to the site where the news was being told. The opportunity for wider dissemination of news came with the invention of printing using movable type, attributed to Gutenberg in 1439 (Steinberg, 1996). Newspapers began to appear across Europe and even in the British colonies as early as 1690, with the Boston publication, Publick Occurences (Lehman-Haupt, 1951). The first war correspondents were military officers who reported on their campaigns. Julius Caesar wrote lengthy accounts of the Gallic Wars in 54 B.C. More than a thousand years and battles later, the first independent professional war correspondent was assigned to the Crimean War, which ran from 1854 to 1856 (Zangrilla, 2003). William Russell, a correspondent for the London Times, became famous with his reports. Britain’s declaration of war on Russia had proved “popular beyond belief,” in the words of Queen Victoria, and editors at several London dailies decided to feed the public’s hunger for detailed accounts of British victories. The Times of London resolved to send its own reporters to the front, and others followed. More than 150 war correspondents reported on the U.S. Civil War (Knightly, 2004). The reporter could become as celebrated as the soldier, and vigilant reporting could perhaps prevent some of the atrocities perpetrated in wartime (Knightly, 2004).

The Civil War influenced newspapers more than any other event of the century. The extensive competition to report the war news led newspapers to introduce war correspondents or "specials" who were generally freer to cover events than in modern wars. Alexander Gardner’s photos of casualties following the Battle of Gettysburg served to illuminate the costs of war in ways a news story alone never could. Images of combat operations, both positive and negative, can take on an iconic status with the American public (Knightly, 2004).

Further shaping the American culture and views toward war was the invention of television. By the mid 1950s commercial televisions were making their way into homes across America. The first war footage to be broadcast into the living rooms of Americans was the Korean War (Humphrey, 2006). Television was still in its infancy, so the Korean conflict is not widely thought of as a televised war. Ten years later, the combat images of the Vietnam War entered American homes via the television. The presence of television dramatically changed how wars were reported (Braestrup, 1977).

It was one thing to hear or read about the combat operations, but when Americans could see American troops fighting and dying while viewing in the comfort of their own home, it changed war reporting and, some say, American tolerance for war. It was assumed that opinion was also influenced by the visual images of combat operations (Gartner & Secura, 1998). Since the Civil War, the images of war dead have been of interest to both the public and politicians. Some believe these images have the power to sway public opinion for or against combat operations (Perlmutter, 1999). During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt imposed a ban on such photographs but later relented saying that the photos could galvanize support for the war (Perlmutter, 1999). In more recent times, whether or not images have been allowed varies from president to president. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan allowed the photos of casualties of the different missions and conflicts during their terms. It was not until the first Gulf War, when President George H.W. Bush banned the showing of photos of the remains of dead soldiers arriving at Dover Air Force Base. President Bill Clinton lifted the ban only to have it reinstituted by President George W. Bush (Milbank, 2003).

In hopes of adding to the research on the impact of visuals on perceptions and attitudes about war, this paper will examine the impact of broadcast news visuals of war. Specifically, it employs a content analysis to determine the overall tone of war coverage to describe what is covered in television news about the war in Iraq. In addition, it features an experiment to determine the impact of broadcast news footage of U.S. and Iraqi combat operations on viewers. Finally, it examines whether inoculation can protect viewers’ attitudes from the impact of broadcast news footage of combat operations.