U.S. Elite and Non-Elite Newspapers' Portrayal of the Iraq War: A Comparison of Frames and Source Use

By Carpenter, Serena | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

U.S. Elite and Non-Elite Newspapers' Portrayal of the Iraq War: A Comparison of Frames and Source Use


Carpenter, Serena, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Stories front two elite and four non-elite newspapers were content analyzed for the use of sources and frames over a three-year period during and after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The study used frames previously applied in studies conducted on elite publications. Results indicate that the use of frames and the inclusion of international, national, and local sources differed significantly; however, the inclusion of military sources was nearly balanced in elite and non-elite newspapers.

Knowledge of any war is limited because no single news organization can communicate all sides of any topic, especially during times of conflict. Citizens who rely solely on one type of information, such as a single television network or a few newspapers, may mistakenly feel as though they understand the war fully, when in reality, they possess information on only a few aspects of U.S. involvement in Iraq.1 The news media are significant contributors to how U.S. involvement in Iraq is portrayed to the public,2 and the publication source type may determine how the war is communicated. To more precisely measure how the war was portrayed by U.S. news organizations, this research analyzed how two different publication types-elite and non-elite newspapers-portrayed the Iraq War.

Framing theory provided the foundation for understanding how the international conflict was communicated in newspapers on both state and national levels in the United States. This study adds to the literature because little research on the Iraq War has analyzed coverage in publications other than elite news sources.3 Elite newspapers are commercial news organizations that focus primarily on the delivery of information daily to a national geographic area, while non-elite publications concentrate their efforts on statewide geographic coverage. Both types are large-circulation publications.

Elite news sources act as agenda setters4 for non-elite publications; however, non-elite news organizations are less likely to mirror elite publications's coverage of international issues because they may not have direct access to the same national and international sources when covering an event such as war. The Iraq War differs from other foreign issues because it directly affects many Americans. Although both elite and nonelite publications consider the Iraq War a topic of news value, geographical and resource barriers may affect the ability of news organizations, especially non-elite ones, to provide comprehensive coverage. No matter the issue, the Commission on the Freedom of the Press5 urged news organizations to present a representative picture of society to ensure that the public can make informed decisions.

The current investigation sought to identify whether differences exist between elite and non-elite newspapers or whether non-elite publications strive to emulate national publications in times of international turmoil. If differences do exist, people who depend on their hometown newspapers as their sole source of news may perceive the Iraq War differently than if they consume only elite news sources.6 Research shows that people rely predominantly on local news media sources for their news.7

Specifically, this study examined the use of frames and types of sources in both elite and non-elite newspapers over a three-year period. The frames studied were military conflict, human interest, the violence of war, anti-war protest, news media, responsibility, and diagnostic frames.8 This current study examined these previously developed frames to determine whether the findings from this research reflect those of past research conducted on elite publications.9

The current research also analyzed the official make-up of sources; whether the story included military sources; and whether the sources had local, national, or international ties to the home state of the newspaper. An assumption is that the inclusion of national and international sources reflects access and resources. …

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