War in the media: Differences and similarities between Iraq and Vietnam in American newspapers Looking at two human rights violations and how they influenced media opinion

Media reports suggest the federal government’s plan to withdraw Australian troops from Afghanistan may signal the end of over 10 years of conflict and danger for our troops.

However, is this really true? A number of Australian Special Forces troops will remain to train Afghani troops so they can better protect their nation. However, it is a well known fact that many foreign troops have been killed by insurgents amongst the ranks of the very troops they are training and protecting. Here we can plainly see that, despite the news, not all of our troops will be returning home.

What role, then, does the media play in shaping public opinion about such events?

Habermas (1964) suggests that the media serves first and foremost as a “mediator of public discussion”, with news articles shaping the way that the public thinks in the way that articles are selected for publishing based on the reaction they will draw from the public, as seen in the reports above.

However, whilst the media certainly influences public opinion, the media also develops its own opinion of events. Caruthers (2000) suggests that this agenda setting (i.e. the formation of a media opinion) is done by the media’s usage of primary sources, the opinions of field journalists and is driven by the media’s need to relate to its primary customers, the public. So the formation of media opinion, then, influences the way the media depict significant events, which in turn influences the opinion of the public.

Allen and Zelizer (2004) point out that the “very nature of war confuses the journalist” suggesting that under the intense pressures of a wartime environment the role of the journalist as an impartial observer is “thrown out the window in a hurry” (Allen and Zelizer, 2004) as the journalists’ own feelings of patriotism and right-and-wrong come to the fore, inevitably affecting the copy they send to their agencies “back home”. It is this aspect of war journalism that clouds the traditional role of the media as an impartial organisation devoted to reporting the “truth” of the matter.

Two classic examples of how the depiction of war in the media influences media opinion are the 1965-75 Vietnam War and the 2003-ongoing Iraq War. Both conflicts are similar in that each contained an event that significantly affected the way that the media depicted the conflict. These are the 1968 Mai Lai Massacre, in which American troops massacred 400 women, children and elderly Vietnamese civilians in a collection of Vietnamese hamlets known as Mai Lai; and the 2004-05 Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, in which Iraqi prisoners were abused by their American captors. Both these events had significant impacts on the American home front, turning US media and public opinion against the war, undermining American justification for prosecuting the conflict.

There are several parallels between the depiction of Mai Lai and Abu Ghraib in the press. For example, at the beginning of the Vietnam War, the press was critical of US strategy and tactics used in Vietnam, but broadly agreed with US government policy (Hammond, 1989), with mainstream media only turning against the government after the story was published  in popular magazines such as TIME in November 1969; others suggest that the American media was supportive of the US military and government throughout the war, turning only at the very end, with Mai Lai being published 20 months after the fact in a media attempt to remain faithful to the government (Griffin, 2010). Nevertheless, the depiction of the story of Mai Lai in the press undoubtedly hastened the American withdrawal from the war.

Like Vietnam, the press originally depicted Iraq in a positive light, patriotic fervour buttressing the government’s official policy on the war. However, this agenda quickly changed to one of shock and disbelief when the images of Abu Ghraib were broadcast on CBS’s 60 minutes II on April 28, 2004. Such photos were quickly republished around the world, sparking outrage at what was seen as a gross violation of human rights, prompting articles that attacked both the US military and government over the war. Such a response suggested a major change in media opinion, which began to appear in mainstream media sources such as the New York Times.

However, whilst the Mai Lai massacre was only gradually reported by the media, the Abu Ghraib story resulted in a nigh-instant opinion change due to the shocking nature of the images, but also because the images were first broadcasted by a credible source (Mai Lai was originally broken by a freelance journalist) and were valid in the eyes of the media where Mai Lai was originally thought to be a hoax, resulting in a very quick opinion change to an antiwar stance

Thus it is clear that the media develops an agenda about an event well before it is published. The opinion of the media is influenced by the events it depicts, and, in turn, this agenda is fostered onto the public, who read the news and begin to think about the event in question. Thus, it is wise to be aware of the media’s agenda on a story before accepting it as truth, as seen by the recent stories about Aussie troops withdrawing from Afghanistan- it almost sounds too good to be true.

Further Reading:

Primary Sources:

  1. Time Magazine, “The Massacre at Mai Lai”, November 28, 1969
  2. Hersh, S.M., “Annals of National Security: Torture at Abu Ghraib”, The New Yorker,  May 10, 2004
  3. Whitney, C.R.,  “Tunnel vision: Watching Iraq and seeing Vietnam”, New York Times (November 3, 2003)

Secondary Sources

  1. Allen, S. and Zelizer, B., (eds) Reporting War: Journalism in Wartime, Abington, Routlege, 2004
  2. Caruthers, S.L., The Media at War, New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000
  3. Griffin, M.,  “Media, images and war”, Media, War and conflict 3:1 (2012) pp7-41
  4. Habermas, J., “The public sphere: An encyclopaedia  article (1964), New German Critique 3 (1974) pp49-55
  5. Hammond, W.M. “The press in Vietnam as an agent of defeat” Reviews in American History 17:2 (1989) p310
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3 comments on “War in the media: Differences and similarities between Iraq and Vietnam in American newspapers Looking at two human rights violations and how they influenced media opinion

  1. Great direction you’ve taken with this blog! Its always controversial debating the role of media- we rely on it so much, but at the same time it can be so corrupt! I suppose that’s one thing a history degree has taught me… Be critical of everything to see, read or hear, because especially with the media, there is always an underlying agenda.
    I think it was great how you compared two different human rights breaches in two very different eras. I suppose as ‘first world’ civilians, we are always fed the common narrative that there is always a ‘bad guy’ group or nation causing havoc and violence on innocent people. This causes us to be so incredibly shocked when these same violent agendas are seen from both sides. I think there’s a lot shielded from public eye… the cruel reality of human existence.

    Great work- thanks for the read and good luck!

  2. kimadby says:

    Being a Media and Communications Major as well as Modern History I found this study really interesting and the comparison of case studies from different eras really well done and thought out. Did you find at all whether changing technologies and technological advance was also a contributing factor in the rate that each story spread in the media?

  3. ratsoftobruk says:

    I like the dynamic you’ve been illustrating on how small groups of people set the agenda for the wider media as a whole, and then on again to the populace they report to. It really undercuts the culturally accepted axiom that public opinion is an organic phenomenon that rises directly out of the people without tampering or influence.
    I’d like to ask about instances where the reverse is true. Did you come across instances where public opinion (or at least the advertising revenue that goes with it) shaped the stories that journalists searched for during times of war? It would be the same progression except working in reverse.

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