Fiddling While It Burns

Analysis of News Coverage of the Iraq War

Introduction

The behaviour of news media before, during and after the invasion of Iraq is of unique interest to both media academics and the general public. In a post-September 11 environment of heightened anxiety and news awareness, with an audience newly critical of and concerned with the news they received due to the rise of blogging and the “prosumer” culture, and a highly politically charged environment and sharply raised stakes, late 2002 to mid-2003 was a watershed moment. The two articles, ‘Exploring the Trans-Atlantic Media Divide over Iraq: How and Why U.S. and German Media Differing in Reporting on UN Weapons Inspections in Iraq, 2002-2003’ (Lehmann 2005) and ‘Embedding the Truth: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Objectivity and Television Coverage of the Iraq War’ (Aday et al 2005) both seek to make sense of this period by studying the intertextual frame of news coverage during the run-up to the war and the invasion respectively.

The Trans-Atlantic Divide

Ingrid Lehmann’s article is an examination of how cultural frames and the national consensus affected the coverage of the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq in April 2003 in both the US and Germany. She views the media coverage as having been skewed by three main factors – indexing to elite opinion, as articulated by W. Lance Bennett (1994), policy unity as in Robinson (2002), and a sense of national crisis leading news media to report only from within the sphere of consensus (Hallin 1986).

Lehmann compares two German and two US news media sources in their coverage of nine major events relating to the work of weapons inspectors in Iraq in the period of September 2002 to March 2003. Lehmann uses one print news source and one television news source from each nation – The New York Times (NYT) and NBC News in the US, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and Die Tagesschau in Germany.

Lehmann finds that the US media sources were affected by the post-9/11 sense of crisis, and succumb to the urge towards patriotism over objectivity. In her words, “during international crises, media in most countries usually operate within the sphere of a prevailing national consensus. Journalists as well as citizens are less likely to criticize their governmental leadership during times of perceived threats to national security…. The media, especially those in the nation’s capital, accept governmental cues with less skepticism than in more ‘normal’ times” (Lehmann 2005). The US media sources presented a biased picture of the weapons inspections, by privileging the viewpoints of pro-war officials and former weapons inspectors, and treating with credulity US administration statements while assuming bad faith on the part of the Iraqi government.

The German media did not go into a similar pattern post-9/11, and while alert to the threat of terrorism remained critical and open to other viewpoints. While there was a clear consensus in German society against war, with the ruling party and opinion polls both strongly anti-war, German television sought to provide a range of viewpoints in its coverage. FAZ was strongly critical of the Schroeder government, not what would be expected from the slavish paradigm of war-time media that Lehmann articulates.

In the closing days of the crisis, Lehmann sees a significant widening in the gap between the German and US media. The NYT becomes strongly critical of UN weapons inspectors, particularly Hans Blix, while NBC began to frame war as inevitable. A positive report by Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei is treated with contempt by the US media, while the German media seem to view the report’s implications more clearly, seeing it as a positive sign that war is not in fact necessary.

Lehmann’s findings support the idea that indexing of elite opinion, policy unity, and the spheres of consensus/legitimate controversy limited and directed US coverage of the crisis. Lehmann concludes by calling for all media to seek to air a wider variety of views, and states that “[i]n the period between the 9/11 attacks and the war against Iraq, the media have largely relinquished their watchdog function, a critical function for democratic societies that must be restored” (Lehmann 2005).

Embedding the Truth

Aday et al’s ‘Embedding The Truth: A Cross-Cultural Analysis of Objectivity and Television Coverage of the Iraq War’ (2005) examines coverage of the invasion of Iraq between the 20th of March and the 20th of April, 2003 with the purpose of examining the practice of objectivity in the Iraq War, in the context of accusations of bias toward negative reporting of the US on the part of Al-Jazeera, bias towards the US on the part of the American networks, and widely-aired fears at the time of the war that the practice of “embedding” journalists with troop formations would affect the objectivity with which the conflict was covered.  In discussing objectivity, the article points to the way in which a detached “watch dog” press vanishes in wartime, saying “[t]he public depends on the press to serve as their eyes and ears on the battlefield and in the halls of policymakers….Yet the history of press coverage in wartime shows that the norm is a patriotic, servile press once the shooting starts” (Aday et al. 2005).

Objectivity is studied at two levels, by story and on a “bigger picture” level by compiling data on what sort of stories were covered (composition). The researchers taped five US television networks and Al-Jazeera, and took a sample of each network’s coverage for comparison, using the half-hour nightly newscast from ABC, CBS and NBC, a 5-5:30pm and 6-6:30pm sample from CNN, 5-5:30 sample from Fox News Channel (FNC) and the hour-long nightly newscast from Al-Jazeera. They then used a coding system to rate each story’s objectivity, using such indicators of bias as use of personal pronouns to identify with the actions of one group, use of value-laden adjectives to describe troops such as “courageous”, or description of the Coalition forces as an “army of occupation”.

The study found that on a story-by-story basis the overwhelming majority of reportage was neutral in tone on all networks other than FNC, where numbers were distorted by the network’s conscious rejection of the convention of journalistic detachment in instituting a policy of using the first person plural when discussing American forces. Regarding composition, however, the article notes that many areas were neglected – particularly, the US networks neglected stories on civilian casualties, worldwide and domestic dissent to the war, and stories on reconstruction. The focus of all networks appeared to be on the more exciting aspects of battles and strategy, with the US networks providing a sanitised view of the war. Al-Jazeera, however, focused significantly more on Iraqi casualties, both military and civilian, and this is where a significant proportion of its stories coded as non-neutral came from.

The article compares the reporting of embedded journalists with “unilaterals”, journalists covering the war separately from the US military. It finds that while there is no significant difference in terms of tonal bias, the composition of the embedded reporters differed significantly from unilaterals. Specifically embedded reporters were more likely to report on battles, and to feature individual soldiers in a way that might engender sympathy, while unilaterals were far more likely to feature wounded or dead Iraqis in their coverage, and covered a wider variety of stories.

Aday et al. conclude that, while there were problems with story selection and important aspects of the war going uncovered, in general the reportage of the war was fair and objective, less FNC. They dismiss fears about embedded reporters, pointing out that despite small disadvantages, the program is a vast improvement over the way previous conflicts were covered.

Comparisons & Criticisms

The two articles share common theoretical underpinnings. Both study media from a cross-cultural perspective with a sceptical approach towards objectivity. Both apply Hallin’s model of the spheres of consensus, controversy and deviance, and Bennett’s theory of indexation to elite opinion to understand why media have not achieved the objectivity they aspire to.

Both studies suffer from small sample sizes. Lehmann uses only two media sources from each nation in her study, a sample size so small that nothing can actually be conferred from her findings. Aday et al. suffer similarly, as while they make claims to study coverage of the invasion of Iraq from a cross-cultural perspective, in fact they have used only one non-US source.

The articles have adopted significantly different approaches in report design. Lehmann has used a narrative style, recounting the details of her nine major events and then summarising the coverage of her selected media sources. Her design is flawed in that she frequently brings up other media sources to give an idea of the broader environment, yet she has not actually included those media sources. Aday et al. have adopted a more statistical approach, coding all news stories and tabulating the data. This methodology is vulnerable to the researchers’ own creeping bias. The article makes specific reference, for example, to use of the term “occupation” as a value-laden term indicating anti-coalition bias, whereas occupation is in fact what happens when a force invades and then remains in an area, and what the coalition did was an occupation by definition.

Importantly, the articles both fail to discuss the gamesmanship that was engaged in by the US administration. The revelation of Judith Miller’s uncritical acceptance of anonymous administration “leaks” intended to game the news agenda (Umansky 2004), and the extraordinary mea culpa of NYT in May 2004 are of particular relevance to Lehmann, and is difficult to excuse her leaving it out as NYT was one of her major media sources. The revelation of payments to conservative commentators and the planting of Jeff Gannon in White House press conferences (Boehlert 2005) would also have merited inclusion in both articles.

Conclusion

The Iraq War represents an extraordinary failure of the news media. Administration officials operated as guerrillas, taking advantage of the media’s predictable patterns of movement and response to push their agenda. Safe in the knowledge that the media were dogmatic in their approach to “objectivity”, the administration could leak inaccurate information and know it would be treated with credulity, move the agenda to the right by taking radical positions and know their actions would be treated as being in good faith.

The failure of the news media to defend themselves from this manipulation makes study of the intertextual frame of coverage of Iraq in 2002-2003 of unique importance to news and media scholarship, so these articles must be lauded for their attempt. They may not provide the depth of study and examination which the topic requires, but they provide a good jumping-off point for what will no doubt be an area of study for media scholars for decades to come.

References:

Aday, S, Livingston, S and Hebert, M, 2005. ‘Embedding the Truth: Cross Cultural Analysis of Objectivity and Television Coverage of the Iraq War’, Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(1): 3-21

Boehlert, E 2005 ‘Fake news, fake reporter: Why was a partisan hack, using an alias and with no journalism background, given repeated access to daily White House press briefings?’ website post, Salon.com, accessed 12/04/2009, http://dir.salon.com/story/news/feature/2005/02/10/gannon_affair/index.html

Boehlert, E 2005 ‘Third columnist caught with hand in the Bush till: Michael McManus, conservative author of the syndicated column “Ethics & Religion,” received $10,000 to promote a marriage initiative’, website post, Salon.com, accessed 12/04/2009, http://dir.salon.com/story/news/feature/2005/01/27/mcmanus/index.html

Lehmann, I., 2005. ‘Exploring the Transatlantic Media Divide over Iraq: How and Why U.S. and German Media Differed in Reporting on UN Weapons Inspections in Iraq, 2002-2003, Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 10(1):63-89.

Umansky, E 2004 ‘Miller Genuine Wrath’, website post, Slate, accessed 12/04/2009, http://www.slate.com/id/2101261/

‘The Times and Iraq’ 2004, The New York Times, accessed 12/04/2009, http://tinyurl.com/3abn4

Annotated Bibliography – additional material:

Kull, S, Ramsey, C & Lewis, E, 2003, ‘Misperceptions, the Media, and the Iraq War’, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 118, No. 4 (Winter, 2003/2004), pp. 569-598

Kull et al. use polling results from before, during and after the Iraq campaign to study three commonly held misperceptions about Iraq that contributed significantly to momentum in favour of war, namely that strong connections had been established between Iraq and al Qaeda, that world public opinion was in favour of an invasion of Iraq, and that weapons of mass destruction were found after the invasion. They found those primarily informed by certain news sources were far more likely to hold these misconceptions. It is useful in understanding how the media was used to promote an unpopular war.

Bibliography cont.:

Goddard, P, Robinson, P & Parry, K, 2008, ‘Patriotism meets plurality: reporting the 2003 Iraq War in the British press’, Media, War & Conflict Vol. 1(1): pp9–30

Goddard et al. have recorded and coded by subject and tone all stories published by 7 U.K. national newspapers relating to the Iraq War. They find that pro-war papers were strident in their position, whereas anti-war papers were constantly qualifying their positions to protect from accusations of not “supporting the troops”. They propose that papers’ support or opposition on the subject of war stem primarily from historical editorial patterns. As a study of the news media in a nation that also went to war in Iraq, it complements Aday et al.

Kaufmann, C, 2004, ‘Threat Inflation and the Failure of the Marketplace of Ideas: The Selling of the Iraq War’, International Security, Summer 2004, Vol. 29, No. 1, pp5-48

Kaufmann examines the threat inflation that allowed the Bush administration to generate support for the Iraq War, and considers whether it could be repeated in another conflict. He looks at the ways in which the democratic marketplace was manipulated, by portrayal of Saddam Hussein as undeterrable, terrorist-linked, and in possession of WMDs, and through the tactics of political manipulation and use of the tools of incumbency. He examines all this from the perspective of prevention of future misdirected adventures.

1 Comment »

  1. You write for intellectuals, but even for ordinary people, your points are excellent.

    Comment by Marj — 09/06/2009 @ 2:28 pm


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