Baghdad Urban Legends: How Come So Many People Think Weapons of Mass Destruction Have Been Found in Iraq, or That Saddam Hussein Was Personally Involved in the September 11 Attacks? Are the News Media to Blame?

By Robertson, Lori | American Journalism Review, October-November 2003 | Go to article overview

Baghdad Urban Legends: How Come So Many People Think Weapons of Mass Destruction Have Been Found in Iraq, or That Saddam Hussein Was Personally Involved in the September 11 Attacks? Are the News Media to Blame?


Robertson, Lori, American Journalism Review


Armed with at least the opportunity to have learned much about the war in Iraq--what with the months-long build-up, the up-close-and-embedded coverage, the pages upon pages of newsprint and hours upon hours of airtime--and prodded with multiple-choice and yes-or-no answers, the American public still fared poorly on current events polls.

The results from throughout this year suggest that a good portion of the public didn't do its homework. Polls have revealed people harbor a number of misconceptions or bits of false reformation about Iraq. For instance:

* In a January Knight Ridder poll, half of the respondents said that one or more of the 9/11 hijackers was an Iraqi.

* Fifty-three percent of respondents in an April CBS/New York Times poll said Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in the 9/11 attacks.

* In May, a poll for the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland revealed that 34 percent of those surveyed believed weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, and 22 percent said Iraq had used chemical or biological weapons in the recent war.

* The next month, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found a similar result: Twenty-four percent said Iraq had used such weapons against American soldiers. (Six percent said the U.S. had used those weapons against the Iraqis.)

We could cite these statistics as more evidence that the American public doesn't care about what happens outside U.S. borders or isn't paying attention to the news. The funny thing is, people are paying attention. Or at least they say they are.

In August, a time when most Americans have traditionally shunned news coverage in favor of serious beach time, 84 percent said they were either very closely or fairly closely following news about the situation in Iraq. That's according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which has been measuring the public's levels of interest in news since 1986. Other polls have found high levels of news consumption as well.

And consuming news usually--and logically--leads to greater understanding. Studies have shown that when the public is following a story and the press is covering a subject well, public knowledge increases. With the war in Iraq, it seems, this hasn't happened. Who is at fault? Did the news media fall down on the job? Could they have done something differently to better inform their audiences?

Or can we safely pass the blame to the clueless American people and their personal biases? What about the rhetoric of the Bush administration?

"What's curious is that [people] say that they're following it closely ... and the news talks about it a lot, and somehow this is not getting through," says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes.

Kull and others say no matter the cause of mistaken notions, it's the media's responsibility to set the record straight. "If there are misperceptions emerging, if there are biases," he says, "if the goal is to end up with an informed citizenry or electorate, then one has to compensate for these tendencies."

Stephen Hess, for one, is not losing sleep over the public's lack of political acumen. "I don't want it to sound like I think Americans are dumbbells," says Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a one-time White House speechwriter. But the U.S. is "simply the most apolitical country in the world." Ask people what's on their mind, says Hess, and they'll answer family, health, job, religion. Anything but politics or foreign affairs.

Most of those interviewed for this story agree that the public often is misinformed, particularly when it comes to international events. But some, like Michael Traugott, chair of the department of communication studies and professor of political science at the University of Michigan, say the current phenomenon is a little more disconcerting than similar findings in the past. …

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