Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Influence of Television News Depictions of the Images of War on Viewers

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

The Influence of Television News Depictions of the Images of War on Viewers

Article excerpt

The Bush administration has repeatedly criticized news media coverage of the war in Iraq as imbalanced because, as former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, put it, the "horrific images of violence that we see on our TV screens" drown out all other stories about Iraq (Media Matters, 2006, p. 2). President George W. Bush assumes, just as Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did more than 30 years ago, that television news' coverage of the carnage of war erodes public support for war. The notion that media depictions of casualties undermines public support for continued military operations is known as "casualty shyness" (Dauber, 2001) or "casualty intolerance" (Burk, 1999).

There is mixed evidence as to whether news images of casualties affect public support for war and, if so, how. Retrospective studies of America's use of military force since World War II support the casualty intolerance hypothesis (Larson, 1996; Mueller, 1994). However, Gartner and Segura (1998) maintain it is not casualties per se that affect public opinion, but what they term, "marginal casualties," which place casualties in context. Studies suggest communication affects how the public responds to casualty reports (Herrmann, Tetlock, & Visser, 1999), sometimes enhancing public support for military operations (Feaver & Gelpi, 2004) and sometimes eroding it (Dauber, 2001).

This investigation compared the impact of network television news reports of combat operations in Iraq (with and without graphic combat footage) on viewers, and tested the efficacy of inoculation as an antidote to the influence of television news images of combat operations. This study is important because, despite the assumption of political and military leaders that news images of combat can sway public opinion, actual evidence about the influence of news footage of combat is scant. Domke, Spratt, and Perlmutter (2002) maintain that "systematic investigations of the ... influence of visual news images are rare" (p. 194). As a result, Perlmutter (2005) calls for systematic study of "the actual influences of visual images on foreign affairs" (p. 111).

The Influence of Network News Coverage of Combat in Iraq on Viewers

Network television's visual depictions of combat operations should influence viewers by evoking an emotional response, which causes them to care more about U.S. military operations, and affecting attitudes about continued U.S. military presence.

Visual Depictions of Combat Elicit an Emotional Response

Network television news provides viewers with a front row seat to view combat. Beyond simply telling viewers about combat, visual footage provides what Cho and colleagues (2003) call "a sense of presence" (p. 312). As a result, they argue that television news communicates more emotion than other news venues. This tendency is even more pronounced with graphic images of war, which Zelizer (2004) characterizes as "among the most powerful visuals known to humankind" (p. 115).

Television news footage is processed differently than the same content communicated by words alone. Visual content is processed using more of the right brain, which is more holistic and emotional (Barry, 1997). Paivio (1986) posits that, "affective reactions would ordinarily occur more quickly to pictures than words because the former have more direct access to affect-mediating images" (p. 79). Visual content is processed quickly and heuristically, sometimes bypassing conscious thought (Zhou, 2005). Graber (1987) argues that people process visual information "simultaneously rather than sequentially" (p. 76). Thus, visual content is absorbed quickly.

Research indicates that television news images can evoke a strong emotional response in viewers, which influences how people respond to stories. Nabi (2003) found visuals arouse emotions that affect message processing. Lang (2000) posits a limited-capacity approach to television viewing. …

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