Communication Embedded Coverage
Michel M. Haigh
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0051


When examining the stories told about the war in Iraq, one notices reporters reporting from the battlefield, “embedded” with the troops. The war in Iraq marked the first time reporters were “living, eating, moving in combat with the unit,” otherwise known as being “embedded” (US Department of Defense, News Transcript, 2003). The use of embedded reporters significantly changed how the story of the Iraq War was told. Research has examined how the use of embedded reporters altered the tone of print and broadcast stories as well as how the stories were framed. In addition, embedded reporters have been asked about their thoughts on how the process worked. In the end, understanding the use of embedded reporters is important, because they altered how the story of the war was told. The strained history and relationship between the press and the military led the two groups to work together and develop the embedded-press system. The war in Iraq was the first war to employ the use of “embeds.” Research shows that embedded reporters provided more positive accounts of the war in Iraq. Embedded reporters state they were able to tell fragmented stories about what was happening in Iraq but were still able to abide by their professional norms and standards. The 24/7 news cycle and advancing technology made telling the story of Iraq more complicated. The US media rarely showed photos of casualties of the war, especially in the first five weeks. Its coverage of Iraq may be considered sanitized compared to coverage shown in the Middle East. In the end, how the story of Iraq was told may have impacted public opinion about the war. Researchers disagree as to why people support a war, but the media and the military must work together to tell a story so the public can decide.


Research about the press-military relationship, public opinion, and embedded media has appeared in a number of journals. Several of the pieces cited in this article appeared in the International Journal of Press/Politics, the International Communication Gazette, the Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, Media, War, and Conflict, and the Atlantic Journal of Communication.

Media-Military Relations

To grasp how the embed system was developed, it is im portant to understand the history of the military and the press. Paul and Kim 2004 provides a historical outline of the military-media relationship during wartime and how the embedded-press system was developed. The press-military relationship dates back to the Civil War. During the first Gulf War, reporters had no eyewitness accounts of the war (Brightman 2003). The military controlled what reporters saw, and military authorities read the reporters’ stories before sending them on to news agencies in the United States. The military authorities said they read the stories because they were trying to ensure the safety of journalists and the security of the mission (Paul and Kim 2004). After the Gulf War, members of the military and the media worked together to develop the Department of Defense (DoD) Principles for News Media Coverage of DoD Operations. These principles included (1) the military would use a press pool only at the start of the war or when logistics make it too dangerous for the media to maneuver, (2) the military would provide escorts and transportation, and (3) only reporters with past war experience would be assigned to cover the story. The military and the press then decided to try another approach and met in January 2002 to develop the embedded-press system used during the Iraq War (Paul and Kim 2004).

Early Wars

Several sources provide commentary on the military-press relationship during times of war. The historical perspective provides insight into the viewpoints of the military, the press, and the public. There is tension because the press wants to inform the public and the military wants to protect operational security. Understanding this tension and how the military and the press have interacted in previous wars provides context for the embedded-press system used in Iraq. Hallin 1986 dissects the print and media coverage of the Vietnam War. This was the first televised war and the first war where reporters were free to report without military censorship. Daniel C. Hallin examines articles from the New York Times printed between 1961 and1965 and hundreds of broadcast stories from 1965 through 1973. He suggests that the Department of Defense had problems managing the story it was telling about the war and that broadcast coverage idealized the war until public opinion turned. Rid 2007 examines the press-military relationship from the broader perspective. Thomas Rid examines how the press-media relationship told the stories of Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, and the Balkans and how these experiences led to the embedded-press system in Iraq.

  • Hallin, Daniel C. 1986. The “uncensored war”: The media and Vietnam. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Hallin dissects how the story of Vietnam was told in both print and broadcast media. The military blamed the media for losing the Vietnam War. There was tension because what the military was saying and what the press was reporting did not match. Hallin critiques the press-military relationship in this context.

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  • Rid, Thomas. 2007. War and media operations: The U.S. military and the press from Vietnam to Iraq. New York: Routledge.

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    Rid was the first to examine the embedded-press system. He traces the history of the military-press relationship through Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, the Balkans, and Afghanistan. Rid examines how the military and the press learned from the past to create the embedded-press system.

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Iraq War

Not only is it important to understand the history of the press-military relationship, it is important to understand how the 24/7 news cycle changed how the Iraq War was shared with the public. There are several books examining how the war in Iraq was reported via multiple mediums. These sources provide context about the Iraq War from a broader media perspective than the use of embedded and unilateral (nonembedded) reporters. There are numerous books about the Iraq War, but the ones included here provide a broad, scholarly perspective on a number of different topics. Bennett, et al. 2007 provides a critique of how the press-media relationship has changed. The authors posit that the media lost its objective edge and independence when telling the story of Iraq due to not questioning the George W. Bush administration’s information about weapons of mass destruction and not investigating the government sources and information being provided. Berenger 2004 and Berenger 2006 attempt to examine how new forms of media impacted the story about Iraq. Iraq was the first war in which the Internet was used in reporting and commenting on events. Media consumers could read blogs, watch late-night comedy jokes about the war, and read stories online instead of in print. The 24/7 news cycle forced the media to fill the information void about Iraq and compete with nontraditional forms of media. There is a fine line between objectivity and propaganda. The use of political “infotainment,” blogs, online news stories, YouTube, and other sources changed the way stories about war are told. New forms of media were available not only to the press but also to the enemy. There was thus a constant need to combat enemy propaganda. Ralph D. Berenger’s books examine how technology and new forms of media altered how the story of Iraq was told. Hess and Kalb 2003 contains conversations with journalists and public officials about the struggle in Iraq to balance free speech, the public’s right to know, and operational security. One of the interviews is with Victoria Clark, creator of the embed system. Other participants include reporters from CNN, ABC, and Al-Jazeera.

  • Bennett, W. Lance, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston. 2007. When the press fails: Political power and the news media from Iraq to Katrina. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    This book critiques how the Bush administration “spun” information to support the war in Iraq and argues that the press acted as a “cheerleader” instead of asking “why.” The opposite was found for Hurricane Katrina coverage. That is, the media did not ask the hard questions prior to Iraq but did during Katrina.

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  • Berenger, Ralph D., ed. 2004. Global media go to war: Role of news and entertainment media during the 2003 Iraq War. Spokane, WA: Marquette Books.

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    This edited book has thirty chapters examining the Arab media, news credibility, the cognitive and emotional effects of the Iraq War stories, and the impact of late-night comedy and blogs. Essays also examine how the Iraq War was discussed in the Indian, South African, and Hong Kong media.

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  • Berenger, Ralph D., ed. 2006. Cybermedia go to war: Role of converging media during and after the 2003 Iraq War. Spokane, WA: Marquette Books.

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    An edited book examining how convergence impacted the Iraq War story. Iraq was the first “online” war. Chapters examine Al-Jazeera, the use of e-mail as propaganda, how the New York Times and Yahoo News covered the war online, what Arab youth homepages were discussing, and the use of blogs.

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  • Hess, Stephen, and Marvin Kalb., eds. 2003. The media and the war on terrorism. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

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    This edited book is a series of conversations with public officials and distinguished journalists. They discuss the tension between the military and the press due to the conflict between the public’s “right to know” and the fact that information may endanger operational security. This balance is becoming harder with advancing technology and the 24/7 news cycle.

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Embedded Versus Nonembedded Stories

The embedded-press system allowed reporters access to military personnel, allowed them to report information about casualties, and allowed them to report the location of military targets previously under attack (see Paul and Kim 2004, cited under Media-Military Relations). Embedding a reporter with a military unit cost the news outlets around $100 million. About fourteen hundred reporters were unilateral (nonembedded), and more than six hundred US and foreign journalists were embedded during the beginning stages of the war (see Paul and Kim 2004 cited under Media-Military Relations). Academic research shows that there were differences in how stories about the war in Iraq were told based on reporter status (embedded or unilateral). This explains how the use of embeds changed the way the Iraq War story was told. Research has found that unilateral reporters actually placed themselves in the stories more frequently than embedded reporters did. The embedded reporters formed relationships with the units they were embedded with, because they relied on the military for food, transportation, and security. Being embedded led to more positive stories about the war. The reporters embedded with the units told stories with a more positive tone, and they appeared to be more committed to the military’s mission. Embedded reporters admit that their reports told a fragmented story about the war in Iraq. Research has examined how embedded reports varied from nonembedded reports, but there is still a missing link examining the audience’s perception of the use of embedded reporters.

Differences in Content

Research has examined the differences in content between embedded and nonembedded (unilateral) reporters. Fox and Park 2006 examines the differences in reports on CNN during the start of the Iraq War and found that embedded reporters used more personal pronouns than nonembedded reports but that this did not influence the objectivity of the news report. Kuypers and Cooper 2005 examines how news stories were framed, examining the frames used to tell the story of Iraq and the differences in topics discussed by embedded or nonembedded journalists. Pfau, et al. 2004; Pfau, et al. 2005; and Haigh, et al. 2006 examine more specific content differences between embedded and nonembedded reporters. These works look at the tone of coverage, the frame employed, the depiction of the military, and a number of other variables to see if there were specific differences between embedded and nonembedded journalists. These works also provide an account of the difference in coverage as the war progressed from the beginning of the war to the occupation phase.

  • Fox, Julia R., and Byungho Park. 2006. The “I” of embedded reporting: An analysis of CNN coverage of the “shock and awe” campaign. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 50.1: 36–51.

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    Examining CNN’s coverage at the start of the Iraq War, the authors found that nonembedded reporters used “we” or a form of it when telling a story more than embedded reporters did. Embedded reporters used first-person singular nouns more frequently. Whether the reporter used “I” or “we” did not impact the objectivity of the story, however.

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    • Haigh, Michel M., Michael Pfau, Jamie Danesi, Robert Tallmon, Tracy Bunko, Shannon Nyberg, Bertha Thompson, Chance Babin, Sal Cardella, Michael Mink, and Brian Temple. 2006. A comparison of embedded and nonembedded print coverage of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. International Journal of Press/Politics 11.2: 139–153.

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      This study found that print stories by embeds were more favorable toward the military, conveyed greater trust in the military, and were more credible than stories from nonembedded reporters. There were no differences in coverage between the invasion phase and the occupation phase of the war in Iraq.

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      • Kuypers, Jim A., and Stephen D. Cooper. 2005. A comparative framing analysis of embedded and behind-the-lines reporting on the 2003 Iraq War. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication 6.1: 1–10.

        DOI: 10.1080/17459430500262083Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

        Three weeks of newspaper stories were examined. The results indicate that embedded journalists discussed the weakness of Iraqi army resistance and the joy of Iraqi civilians, while stories by unilateral journalists described the war in terms of the potential of Iraqi forces to mount counterattacks and the civilian anger at collateral damage.

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        • Pfau, Michael, Michel M. Haigh, Mitchell Gettle, Michael Donnelly, Gregory Scott, Dana Warr, and Elaine Wittenberg. 2004. Embedding journalists in military combat units: Impact on newspaper story frames and tone. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 81.1: 74–88.

          DOI: 10.1177/107769900408100106Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

          This study found that coverage of the first five days of the Iraq War was more positive compared to the first five days of Operation Enduring Freedom (the war in Afghanistan, starting 7 October 2001) but not as positive as the first five days of the first Gulf War.

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          • Pfau, Michael, Michel M. Haigh, Lindsay Logsdon, Christopher Perrine, James P. Baldwin, Rick E. Breitenfeldt, Joel Cesar, Dawn Dearden, Greg Kuntz, Edgar Montalvo, Dwaine Roberts, and Richard Romero. 2005. Embedded reporting during the invasion and occupation of Iraq: How embedding journalists affects television news reports. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 49.4: 468–487.

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            A content analysis found embedded reports more favorable toward the military, more positive in tone, and more committed to the military’s goals than nonembedded reports. Coverage during the first five days of the invasion phase of the war was more positive when compared to the occupation phase of the war.

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            Effects on Journalists

            The researchers Shahira Fahmy and Thomas J. Johnson have examined how the use of embedded reporting changed the way the stories of the Iraq War were told, including asking reporters about their experiences of being embedded. Reporters stated one of the main differences in being an embedded versus a unilateral reporter was access to sources. Embeds had unlimited access to members of the military, whereas unilateral reporters had more access to the Iraqi people. The reporters had access to report different kinds of stories. Embeds admitted that their stories favored the troops they were embedded with, which confirms what the content analysis research found. The final difference between embeds and unilateral reporters involves their perceptions of safety. Some thought embedded reporters were in more danger because they were traveling with the troops, while others saw unilateral reporters as being in more danger because they did not have military protection (see Fahmy and Johnson 2007). Fahmy and Johnson 2005 examines how journalists perceived the use of embedded reporters. Many criticized the use of embeds because they said their stories provided only a small slice of what was happening, while supporters of the embed system said this system allowed reporters to give eyewitness accounts and correct any misinformation the military was providing. Fahmy and Johnson 2005 is a survey of 159 reporters who were asked about the objectivity of news reports by embeds, the accuracy of reports, and whether the reports provided the broad picture or only a narrow slice of the story. Johnson and Fahmy 2010 extends this research by comparing survey results from 2004 to a survey conducted in 2005–2006 in an attempt to determine if the perceptions of embedded reporters changed after they had been removed from the situation for a bit of time.

            • Fahmy, Shahira, and Thomas J. Johnson. 2005. “How we performed”: Embedded journalists’ attitudes and perceptions toward covering the Iraq War. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 82.2: 301–317.

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              This survey of embedded journalists found that they thought their stories were fragmented. Most felt the stories were accurate and fair because journalistic norms influenced how they performed in the battlefield. Older reporters with more years of experience had more positive perceptions of the embed experience.

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              • Fahmy, Shahira, and Thomas J. Johnson. 2007. Embedded versus unilateral perspectives on Iraq War. Newspaper Research Journal 28.3: 98–114.

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                The authors interviewed unilateral and embedded reporters. Respondents agreed that their stories provided a fragmented view of the war. Unilateral reporters were able to pursue more stories and interact more freely with the Iraqi people. The differences in access to military or Iraqi people impacted how the story was told.

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                • Johnson, Thomas J., and Shahira Fahmy. 2010. When “good” conflicts go bad: Testing a frame-building model on embeds’ attitudes toward government news management in the Iraq War. International Communication Gazette 72.6: 521–544.

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                  Authors compared data collected in 2005–2006 with data collected in 2004. The results showed that reporters’ attitudes about media access to war information did not change between the invasion and the occupation stages of the war. Professional norms and values had the most impact on how journalists framed their news stories.

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                  Public Opinion and War

                  There is little research examining embedded media. The most relevant books and articles have been included in this bibliography. This article is unique because it is limited specifically to “embedded coverage.” However, gaining an understanding of the relationship among the media, the military, and public opinion is important when examining military conflicts. The use of the embedded-press system led to more favorable coverage of the war in Iraq. However, the George W. Bush administration blamed the media for eroding public support for the war. At that time the number of embeds had declined, and the United States had entered the occupation phase of the war. As the number of embeds dropped, the tone of coverage appeared to become more neutral.

                  Images of War

                  Television has become the main source of information about war, and it has the power to influence public support for or against a war. One powerful aspect of war is the visual image. It is assumed that public opinion is influenced by the visual images of combat operations. There are numerous content-analysis studies examining the photos shown at the start of the Iraq War. Results of these studies indicate that less than 10 percent of the stories depicted casualties. Survey research indicates users of the Al-Jazeera English-language website thought the Western media was sanitizing the Iraq War by not depicting photos of dead or wounded soldiers and civilians. Pfau, et al. 2006 and Pfau, et al. 2008 provide experimental evidence for how visuals impacted attitudes and emotions about the war in Iraq. Pfau, et al. 2008 examines the impact of network television news reports of combat operations of the Iraq War on viewers, comparing reports with and without graphic combat footage. The authors found that broadcast news stories showing visual footage of combat did not elicit greater emotional responses than the same story packaged as a “reader” (without visuals). However, participants who viewed television news stories showing visual footage of combat had less pride in the US military than those watching a “reader.” Similar results were found when examining print stories and photos of casualties. Pfau, et al. 2006 examines print photographs of the Iraq War and tries to determine how these photos impacted public support for the war. The authors compared a number of different ways to package a news story (e.g., photo plus caption, full-text story with no photo, or full-text story with photo and caption). Their findings indicate that print photographs of casualties caused emotional responses in readers. News stories showing a photograph plus caption elicited more negative emotions (e.g., puzzlement, anger, sadness) than stories about casualties without a photo. Johnson and Fahmy 2010 is a survey of the general public asking about perceptions of images of war. There is a debate that Western media sanitized the coverage of the war compared to media in the Middle East. This study verifies how the public perceives differences in images of war based on different media.

                  • Johnson, Thomas J., and Shahira Fahmy. 2010. “When blood becomes cheaper than a bottle of water”: How viewers of Al-Jazeera’s English-language website judge graphic images of conflict. Media, War, and Conflict 3.1: 43–66.

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                    A survey of 913 users of the Al-Jazeera English-language website found support for their use of graphic images. Respondents felt Western media was too sanitized in its coverage and stated that it was right to show images of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians because these are the “realities of war.”

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                    • Pfau, Michael, Michel M. Haigh, Andeelynn Fifrick, D. Holl, A. Tedesco, J. Cope, D. Nunnally, A. Schiess, D. Preston, P. Roszkowski, and M. Martin. 2006. The effects of print news photographs of the images of war. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 83.1: 150–168.

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                      The authors found that stories reduced readers’ support for the military presence in Iraq. Findings also suggested that discussing ongoing battles increased support for the war. However, it might not be the impact of just one news story but rather a series of news stories seen through repeated news exposure to the war that influenced attitudes.

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                      • Pfau, Michael, Michel M. Haigh, Theresa Shannon, Toni Tones, Deborah Mercurio, Raina Williams, Blanca Binstok, Carlos Diaz, Constance Dillard, Margaret Browne, Clarence Elder, Sherri Reed, Adam Eggers, and Juan Melendez. 2008. The influence of television news depictions of the images of war. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 52.2: 303–322.

                        DOI: 10.1080/08838150801992128Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                        In this study the authors found that broadcast stories with visual footage of combat undermined viewers’ attitudes about the US military presence in Iraq. These stories reduced viewers’ pride about the US military presence in Iraq, enhanced viewers’ involvement levels about the war, and reduced viewers’ support for the war.

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                        Much research has examined the visuals used to portray the story of the Iraq War. Fahmy and Kim 2008 compares the differences in the types of war images used by the New York Times and the British paper the Guardian. The authors Susan Keith, Carol Schwalbe, and William B. Silcock have conducted a number of content analyses examining the images of Iraq. Silcock, et al. 2008 is an examination of more than twenty-five hundred images displayed in various media during the first five weeks of the Iraq War. Schwalbe, et al. 2008 examines the visual frames used to tell the story of the Iraq War. Keith, et al. 2009 examines how different forms of media varied in the visuals they used to depict the war.

                        • Fahmy, Shahira, and Daekyung Kim. 2008. Picturing the Iraq War: Constructing the image of war in the British and US press. International Communication Gazette 70.6: 443–462.

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                          The authors analyzed 1,305 Iraq War photographs that appeared in the New York Times and the Guardian. Almost 25 percent of the New York Times photos portrayed coalition troops and no visuals of combat. The Guardian, however, ran more photos depicting the destruction of war.

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                          • Keith, Susan, Carol Schwalbe, and William B. Silcock. 2009. Visualizing cross-media coverage: Picturing war across platforms during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Atlantic Journal of Communication 17.1: 1–18.

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                            The authors analyzed how media channels (print, television, or web) differed in how they depicted 1,822 war-related images. They found that visual differences were driven by media type and rarely converged. However, there were a few cases where content converged, but the authors state this is probably due to “extra-media influences.”

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                            • Schwalbe, Carol B., William B. Silcock, and Susan Keith. 2008. Visual framing of the early weeks of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq: Applying the master war narrative to electronic and print images. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 52.3: 448–465.

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                              This content analysis examined 1,822 images from US network and cable television news outlets, websites, newspapers, and news magazines. The results indicate that the visual framing shifted from the conflict of war to that of human interest. The first five weeks depicted themes of shock and awe, conquering troops, heroes, victory, and control.

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                              • Silcock, William B., Carol B. Schwalbe, and Susan Keith. 2008. “Secret” casualties: Images of injury and death in the Iraq War across media platforms. Journal of Mass Media Ethics 23.1: 36–50.

                                DOI: 10.1080/08900520701753205Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                A content analysis of twenty-five hundred images of casualties appearing on American television, in US newspapers, in US news magazines, and on online news sites during the first five weeks of the war in Iraq was conducted. Only news magazines showed images of death or injury during the first week of the war.

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                                Other Mechanisms of Influence

                                Research says military casualties drive public support for war (Mueller 1973, Mueller 1994). Americans do not support a war if there are large numbers of casualties (Mueller 1994). Gartner and Segura 1998, however, suggests public support for war is based on more than just the number of casualties. Public support decreases as casualties increase, but if the government can say the operation is important, the public may support the losses (Feaver and Gelpi 2004). The George W. Bush administration blamed the media for eroding public support for the Iraq War. When the Iraq War started, more than 70 percent of Americans supported it. By June 2007, four years after the start of the war, 70 percent of Americans opposed it. Bush stated that the stories about Iraq were negative and did not depict progress and that this negativity led to a decline in public support. The military blamed the press for losing the Vietnam War, and President Bush blamed the media for eroding support for the Iraq War. There is a debate over what really drives public opinion. Mueller 1973 and Mueller 1994 examine the Korean and Vietnam conflicts as well as the Gulf War. John E. Mueller’s research consistently shows that support for a war declines as the number of casualties increases. There has to be ongoing success and a victorious end in sight for the public to continually support a war (Feaver and Gelpi 2004). Berinsky 2009 argues that public support for a war is influenced less by what it costs in lives and resources and more by political interest groups. Adam J. Berinsky’s research finds public support for war can be tied to public opinion about domestic issues during times of peace.

                                • Berinsky, Adam J. 2009. In time of war: Understanding American public opinion from World War II to Iraq. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                                  This book provides a detailed history of public opinion and war from World War II to Iraq. Berinsky argues that public support for war is not related to the cost (e.g., in lives and money) but that support for war is related to attitudes individuals have toward political interests and group affiliations.

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                                • Feaver, Peter D., and Christopher Gelpi. 2004. Choosing your battles: American civil-military relations and the use of force. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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                                  This is an exhaustive analysis of civil-military operations examining whether Americans will tolerate American casualties during military operations (“casualty phobia”). The authors conclude that the American public is defeat phobic, not casualty phobic. US casualties are acceptable as long as the civilian and military leadership show progress toward the end.

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                                • Gartner, Scott, and Gary Segura. 1998. War, casualties, and public opinion. Journal of Conflict Resolution 42.3: 278–300.

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                                  This study expands on Mueller’s use of the log of cumulative casualties. The authors employ Mueller’s opinion data from the Vietnam and Korean Wars to find that marginal casualties are also important in explaining public opinion. The log of cumulative casualties is not the sole predictor of opinion about war.

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                                  • Mueller, John E. 1973. War, presidents, and public opinion. New York: Wiley.

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                                    This book examines public opinion data during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Mueller examines how polling results are misused in the press and by politicians. He provides insight on public support for war and the president that leads the United States to take part in wars.

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                                  • Mueller, John E. 1994. Policy and opinion in the Gulf War. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                                    This book analyzes the Gulf War by relating the conflict to the Panama, Vietnam, Korea, and Falklands conflicts. How public opinion impacted the media and the misuse of public opinion polls is also discussed. Almost three hundred tables depicting public opinion through the Gulf War are included.

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