Political Persuasion during Times of Crisis: The Effects of Education and News Media on Citizens' Factual Information about Iraq

By Johansen, Morgen S.; Joslyn, Mark R. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview
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Political Persuasion during Times of Crisis: The Effects of Education and News Media on Citizens' Factual Information about Iraq


Johansen, Morgen S., Joslyn, Mark R., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Education is a powerful cognitive resource that undermines the persuasiveness of political propaganda. However, little is known about the conditions that weaken this resource. This study examines whether lopsided media coverage preceding and during the initial phases of the Iraq War provided an information environment sufficient to overcome the positive effects of education, finding that for viewers of the unbalanced and partial CBS and Fox, the educated were as likely to be misinformed about Iraq as the uneducated. Findings are discussed within the context of persuasion theory and the watchdog role of the news media.

The Iraq War has raised compelling questions about the power of the executive branch of government to persuade and the capacity of the media to educate. Several studies have uncovered troubling misperceptions about the war, much of them disseminated directly, or by implication, by the Bush administration and transmitted by the news media.1 The administration encouraged the public to believe Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and forged a rhetorical link between Iraq and the al-Qaeda terrorist group.2 Much of the public and press accepted these false assertions and utilized these "facts" as justifications for war.3

Ideally, news media act as a filter, sifting and sorting information in a manner that ensures a reliable and accurate source from which citizens can base judgments about war. The news media fell far short of this ideal and exacerbated the spread of misinformation about Iraq.4 Major television news coverage of Iraq was overwhelmingly pro-war.5 Indeed, leading news organizations emphasized administration information over contrary information to the extent that two prestigious newspapers later apologized to their readers because they "lost focus on other voices."6 The news media did not do their job protecting the public against political propaganda.

But the media are not the only protector of the public from propaganda; education plays a vital role in the persuasion process. Decades of research point to education as a powerful cognitive resource that can undermine political propaganda. More educated people, for example, call upon many sources of information and possess a greater mass of stored information that can be utilized to question and counter new information.7 The educated public thus would be the least likely persuaded by war propaganda. This much is straightforward from the literature. But far less is known about conditions likely to lessen or altogether deny this impact of education. This research outlines such a condition. Because of the media environment surrounding the Iraq War, institutional as well as individual barriers to propaganda were not effective and much of the public believed facts about Iraq that were not supported by evidence.

This article investigates the extent to which educational attainment and news sources influence citizens' factual knowledge about the Iraq War, contributing to the literature in two ways. First, it further supports research findings that during the crucial initial phases of the Iraq War, the news media were unable or unwilling to combat political propaganda.8 This finding leads to exploration of what happens when the news media fail to function as a critical filter of political information. Second, the study explores how a one-sided news environment affects the mediating role of education in the effect of political propaganda on the public.

The diffusion of misinformation about Iraq provides a unique opportunity to examine political persuasion. In the highly skewed news environment that helped produce high levels of misinformation among the public, educational attainment was an agent of resistance, diminishing the propensity to report misinformation among the most educated respondents. However, this propensity disappeared after exposure to CBS and Fox News Channel; factual inaccuracies were in fact equal among the least and most educated strata.

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Political Persuasion during Times of Crisis: The Effects of Education and News Media on Citizens' Factual Information about Iraq
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