Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Alison Anderson (2003) 'Communication, Conflict and Risk in the 21st Century: Critical Issues for Sociology'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 4, <>

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Received: 11/8/2003      Accepted: 7/10/2003      Published: 30/11/2003


The recent war in Iraq has generated much discussion about the role of the news media in representing war. This piece calls for greater sociological intervention into this debate. In particular, it cautions against exaggerating the ideological effects of media propaganda on public attitudes to war. The decision to go to war generated unusually high levels of public opposition. In times of war it is commonplace for policymakers and military personnel to attack the media for bias and credit them with a determining influence on public opinion. However, this piece suggests that there is a need for greater critical engagement with developments in audience research. Also, current debates also exhibit considerable confusion over concepts of 'objectivity', 'impartiality' and 'bias'. Recent sociological work reveals both the complexities arising from the ambiguity of concepts of 'objectivity' and 'bias', and the need for a more fine-grained approach towards media effects.

Bias; Embedded Journalists; Impartiality; Journalism Of Attachment; Media Effects; News Media; Objectivity


Perhaps the image of Gulf War II that sticks in most people's minds is that of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein. This became a symbol of the defeat of Saddam's regime and received substantial news media coverage around the globe. It was no accident that this statue was in camera range of the Palestine Hotel, where most international journalists and photographers were staying. The public gains their knowledge of war and international conflict largely through the news media. Max Weber argued that journalists have a particular professional responsibility to report news in an 'objective' fashion. But how accurate a picture is provided? What responsibility do the news media have? Are citizens provided with the breadth, depth and reliability of information necessary to make informed judgements? And to what extent is the public aware of the partial, distorted nature of war reporting? What impact does coverage have upon levels of public knowledge and support for war? The events of September 11th and the subsequent war in Iraq have put these questions into sharp focus.

The lack of widespread support for the war in Iraq meant that the battle to win the hearts and minds of publics was even more important than in the first Gulf War in 1991. In Europe there was an unusually high level of opposition [1]. Indeed, the usual pro-war consensus among UK national dailies was not evident in the lead up to this war, with The Guardian, The Independent and The Daily Mirror all questioning calls for immediate military action. This rapid response piece seeks to explore the ways in which sociological analysis challenges popular understanding of the public relations war and news media constructions of the conflict in Iraq.

I begin by suggesting that there are three aspects, in particular, that distinguish the reporting of the Gulf War II from the first Gulf War in 1991. These raise important sociological questions about broader shifts in the relationship between the media, state and society. The first key difference concerns the access that 'embedded' journalists gained to the front line in the second Gulf War. During Gulf War II the military pool system was taken a step further when relatively large numbers of journalists and photographers (figures range from 700 to almost 1000) were 'embedded' with the military and gained access to the frontline. [1] The pool system, used in the Falklands war and in the first Gulf war, kept journalists away from the front line. Under this earlier system a limited number of carefully vetted journalists and photographers were allowed access to the military and supplied all media organisations with their copy. This enabled the military to control reporters' movements and hence what they were able to see, proving to be an effective form of news control.

Frequently justified by media practitioners on the grounds of safety, embedded journalists live among the military, wearing the same uniform, and relying upon them for their basic needs including transport and equipment (Byrne, 2003b).[2] Whilst the practice of 'embedding' gives the appearance of journalists gaining closer and more open access to what is going on, in reality it allows the military to exert even greater controls over what they can witness and communicate. The guidelines for 'embedded 'reporters issued by the Pentagon in the lead up to Gulf War II included the following restriction: "no information on ongoing engagements will be released unless authorized by an on-scene commander." Under this system, where reporters are dependent upon the military for their safety and security, there seems little need for overt censorship since the close camaraderie that inevitably develops between soldiers and reporters encourages self-censorship.

BBC TV Correspondent, Ben Brown, recently recounted how he elatedly kissed the gunner from the Irish Guards during an incident where they narrowly escaped Iraqi fire:
"It was a natural reaction I suppose, but later I was rather disgusted with my delight. Reporters are supposed to be observers of the battlefield, not participants. I wondered if, by being so close to the British troops, I had somehow crossed an invisible line." (Beck & Downing, 2003: 31-32)

The practice of 'embedding' journalists raises the issue of how far the close relationship and camaraderie between the military and journalists affects the degree to which reporters can report independently. But it is also important to remember that news editors/producers back home also play an important role in war reporting, and much reporting relies upon news agencies and freelancers rather than journalists on the front line. Also, war reporting tends to be heavily reliant upon official sources of information from the government and the military (Carruthers, 2000). There are a number of constraints (both ideological and organisational) that prevent war being reported in a completely independent way. Not only is coverage affected by the individual values of media practitioners, limits of time and space, the sub-culture of war journalism, and reporters' assumptions about what makes a good news story, but a whole range of external factors prevent completely detached reporting. These include the pressures from advertising, markets, source interactions, and the perceived demands of the audience.

Sociologically, this raises many important questions. Was this approach more open than in the past and did it (along with better technology - smaller more powerful digital cameras connected to portable satellite dishes) result in a more complete picture of what was happening? Or did it just create the illusion of openness? As we shall see, the evidence suggests that, far from allowing reporters to cover events from front line at first hand, embedding tends to lead to an overly close relationship between journalists and the military. US public opinion poll findings suggest that, at least at the beginning of Gulf War II, this practice was viewed in favourable terms (Pew Center 2003b)

A second factor that distinguishes the two Gulf Wars is the availability of increasingly sophisticated technology. The technology of uplink satellites enabled reporters to be more mobile in the second Gulf War and encouraged them to take greater and greater risks. While non-embedded reporters faced fewer restrictions, many decided to flee Iraq and safety was a major issue for those that decided to remain. Some ended up in Iraqi jails and the International Federation of Journalists claimed that the US military targeted non- embedded reporters. Some news organizations decided to withdraw their reporters because of safety concerns. Many 'Western' journalists were killed during the Iraq war. One of the worst incidents occurred on April 8th 2003, when a Reuters television cameraman and a Spanish cameraman lost their lives after a US tank fired a shell at the Baghdad hotel where most non-embedded international journalists were based. A further three people were injured. The tank commander later told a French magazine that he was unaware the hotel was full of reporters and the tank was responding to fire from the hotel. Footage taken by a French cameraman who filmed the attack suggests otherwise.

On the same day a reporter was killed in the bombing of the Baghdad office of Al-Jazeera. This fuelled accusations that the US military were deliberately targeting journalists who were critical of the White House. Indeed, before the war broke the BBC reporter, Kate Adie, who covered the first Gulf War, claimed:
...what actually appalls me is the difference between twelve years ago and now. I've seen a complete erosion of any kind of acknowledgment that reporters should be able to report as they witness... The Americans... and I've been talking to the Pentagon... take the attitude which is entirely hostile to the free spread of information...I was told by a senior officer in the Pentagon, that if uplinks --that is the television signals out of... Baghdad, for example-- were detected by any planes ...electronic media... mediums of the military above Baghdad... they'd be fired down on. Even if they were journalists ...Who cares! (Dunne, 2003) [3]

The third key factor that distinguishes coverage of the recent war in Iraq from the first Gulf War is the growing demands brought about by the competitive 24/7 news culture. During Gulf War II we saw more live pictures from the front line than in any previous war (Knightley, 2003). However, the immediacy of 'real time' coverage places pressure on reporters and encourages more speculative coverage. War tends to generate a fog of false information that arises from fear and is often treated as 'truth'. In the case of Gulf War II accounts from the battlefield produced raw and undigested news that often proved very difficult to make sense of. A number of unsubstantiated claims were reported during the Iraq conflict, such as the surrender of 8,000 Iraqi soldiers, Saddam's torture morgue, and the uprising in Basra. Sometimes these inaccurate claims were corrected days later or in some cases they did not even make the news. In the 24/7 news culture, policy-makers are under greater pressure to respond speedily to signal that something is being done, rather than engage in lengthy diplomatic discussions (Carruthers, 2000).

What sociological questions do these developments raise? One approach is to see the media as the prime battleground where contemporary wars are fought. Thus Baudrillard (1995) claimed that the 1991 Gulf War 'did not happen'; it became a huge media simulation where reporters were, in effect, not allowed to report the war. In a similar vein, Richard Keeble (2003) claims: "This has been the most fictional and unreal of all conflicts." Wars fought in faraway lands have always seemed distant but modern war reporting, resembling a video game format, makes it seem all the more unreal - a virtual conflict involving minimal bloodshed. Yet there is little evidence to suggest, as some have posited, that the conduct of war has been transformed to the extent that it is merely media spectacle, and military and media networks have become almost completely blurred.

The growing spread of new media technologies means that it is increasingly hard for governments to control information. Pictures of dead US soldiers killed in Gulf war II, taken by Al Jazeera, were posted on the Internet a matter of hours after US television networks refused to show them (Taylor, 2003). The Internet clearly provides a vehicle for groups such as Al-Qaeda to disseminate their messages uncensored by government and undiluted by the mainstream media (Anderson, 2003). It is harder to silence critical voices in new media culture, although various attempts have been made to close down or hack into sites. Indeed, in November 2001 the Kabul office of the Arab satellite TV station, Al-Jazeera, was bombed as it became defined as a 'military' target. Al-Jazeera proved to be a serious challenge to the monopoly of western news networks during the war in Iraq, giving considerable airtime to opposing perspectives. Indeed, it became the main source of information for Arab viewers (Miladi, 2003). However, it is important to recognize the limits to the 'globalisation' of the media, since many people in developing countries do not have access to the Internet or satellite television (Carruthers, 2000).

A key question concerns whether the news media representation of the recent war in Iraq enabled publics to make sense of the social, economic and political changes underlying this conflict. We expect the news media to present us with the truth of war and yet, for a whole variety of reasons, journalists are rarely able to convey the full picture whilst the conflict is raging. It is often said that in war, truth is the first casualty. The concept of objectivity is deeply embedded within journalists' culture and enshrined in professional codes requiring news stories to be factually accurate reflections of 'reality'. Like the notion of objectivity, impartiality is often viewed as a key feature of the press in a liberal- democratic state where it is contended a range of competing interests can make their voices heard. Impartiality may be defined in different ways but it usually refers to the representation of different views and interests without taking sides. Thus impartiality is closely connected with balance and neutrality.

The ideal of impartiality applies particularly to TV news reporting, with the BBC often being seen as the lynchpin of fairness and neutrality. By contrast, the 'adversarial' model assumes that journalists are in a position to detach themselves from ideological/organizational constraints, and willing to challenge powerful state and military justifications for war. From a sociological perspective, interesting questions are raised concerning whether the ideals of objectivity and impartiality in war reporting are possible or even desirable (Lichtenberg, 2000). The concept of 'bias' itself implies deviation from an objective norm. The accusation that the news is biased presupposes that a more detached account of events is possible.

Numerous studies into war reporting sharply challenge the myth of the news media's role as fourth estate (for example, Knightley, 1989; Taylor, 1992; Carruthers, 2000). Editorial guidelines that were issued in the run up to the Iraq war instructed BBC journalists to reflect anti-war opinion in its reporting (Byrne, 2003a). In February 2003 a leaked confidential memo to senior BBC management issued by Richard Sambrook, Director of News at the BBC, suggested that the corporation was seeking to marginalise anti-war voices (Miller, 2003). The BBC was attacked for its coverage by both pro-war and anti-war camps (Amiel, 2003; Bamber & Hastings, 2003; Deans, 2003). The sheer weight of public opposition against the war meant that the BBC had a difficult job in trying to maintain a semblance of balance.

The corporation was plunged into the biggest crisis in its postwar history as it reported allegations that intelligence reports on Iraq were 'sexed up'. Shortly before the suicide of a weapons expert, Dr Michael Kelly, thought to be the principal source of the story, the BBC defended itself against government charges of bias in its war coverage in an annual report to Parliament in July 2003. The corporation's director general, Greg Dyke, stated: "News, broadcast impartially and independently, is at the heart of our public service remit...We have stuck to these principles, often in the face of intense political and commercial pressure, through a violent and uncertain period."(Hoge, 2003). Earlier on in the year Greg Dyke attacked US news networks for their pro-American, jingoistic coverage of the Iraq war.

Murdoch was strongly supportive of the war and backed the position taken by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair (Greenslade, 2003). Whilst some coverage of the war in the Murdoch UK press sharply diverged from his own views, most editorials tended to support his pro-war stance. The Murdoch press, notably The Sun and The Times, launched a bitter attack on the BBC. On 13th August 2003 The Sun's political editor, Trevor Kavanagh wrote a piece with the headline: "First law of the Beeb: look out for No 1." and the headline of its lead story on the Hutton Inquiry was: "Gilligan: The Big Lie". This has led to speculation that the Murdoch media were anti-BBC because they wanted the Government to take away the BBC's special position and open up the UK news market.[5]

A recent study found that, far from displaying an anti-war bias, the BBC provided the most pro-war coverage of the four main UK broadcasters - the BBC, ITN, Channel 4 and Sky (Lewis, 2003). The BBC commissioned study examined all major evening news bulletins over a three and a half week period. The BBC was found to have used government sources twice as much as ITN and Channel 4, and it relied on military sources slightly more than the other three channels. Also the corporation was the least likely to quote official Iraqi sources, and less likely than the other three channels to use independent sources of news such as the Red Cross. The BBC was the least likely channel to report on the opposition of the Iraqi population to the invasion and it placed the least emphasis on Iraqi casualties. Overall, Channel 4 emerged as the broadcaster that was most likely to offer a critical perspective and report information that could damage the government's case.

So what effect does this have on audiences? The extent to which the media influence public attitudes is the subject of much debate. The simplistic 'hypodermic model' of media effects, based upon the notion of an all-powerful media injecting messages into a passive audience, has long been subject to critical scrutiny within media sociology. The ethnographic audience studies of the 1980s and 1990s emphasized that media texts are ambiguous and open to a variety of different interpretations, in ways not necessarily intended. This itself has rightly been subject to criticism for taking the notion of the 'active' audience too far and adopting an extreme relativistic position.

In times of war it is commonplace for politicians and military personnel to credit the media as having a determining influence upon public opinion. The power of the media is usually perceived in negative terms, as undermining the war effort, and therefore the state and the military have invested considerable resources in an attempt to manage media representations (Carruthers, 2000). However, notions of 'public opinion' are manufactured and opinion polls, often carried out on behalf of newspapers, tend to reflect the interests of politicians and the media and must be viewed with caution. They are heavily dependent upon question wording that can sometimes skew findings in misleading ways. Television news in the UK and the USA generally makes little reference to the findings of opinion polls. Instead, it tends to make inference to 'public opinion', or represent this through a member of the public talking about their experiences or concerns rather than providing analytical forms of knowledge (Lewis & Wahl-Jorgensen, 2003).

What is clear is that, at the time of writing, there is a dearth of sophisticated analysis of audience attitudes and responses to news media coverage of Gulf War II. This is understandable, given the time lag in publishing detailed research on audience effects. Content analysis, by itself, does not tell us anything about audience reactions and interpretations. Yet there is a danger of exaggerating the ideological effect of media propaganda since in January 2003, despite overwhelmingly favourable coverage in US media, only a small majority of the public (52%) appeared prepared to back the war. [4] In the UK public support was even more against military action with 47% of the public in support of military action (Thussu & Freedman, 2003). This began to narrow in the lead up to the war and public support did significantly increased with the outbreak of the war on 20th March, as people rallied around the troops. By 24th March 2003 a public opinion poll suggested that 72% of Americans were now in favour of the war (Gallup News Service, 2003). Public opinion polls in the UK also suggest a rise in the numbers of people supporting the war when it broke out, although not as steep an increase as in the US (Worcester, 2003a).

Public opinion surveys in the UK and USA suggest that during the Iraq war most people viewed television as their main source of information (Pew Center, 2003a &; 2003c; Worcester, 2003b).

Surveys conducted by MORI suggest that in the UK television was the most trusted medium during the war in Iraq (see Worcester, 2003b). Those classified as 'working-class' were more likely to say they trusted television, whilst those classified as 'middle-class' (particularly those at the upper end) were more likely to say they placed most trust in their newspaper. The most watched channels were the BBC (86%) and ITV 1 (66%). Approximately four in ten people watched BBC 2 and/or Channel 4, and about a third tuned into BBC News 24 and/or Sky News. Very few viewers (about 2 people in 100) tuned into Al Jazeera. The most trusted terrestrial television channel was the BBC, while the most trusted digital channel was Sky News. The MORI findings suggest that there was a high level of interest in the coverage of the war in Iraq, with 85% of people claiming that they were 'very interested' or 'fairly interested'. Media consumption appeared to increase during the war, especially among those tuning into the digital channels. A total of 54% said that their media consumption had increased 'much more' or a 'little more'.

The Internet proved to be a significant source of information for many Europeans (Hawkey, 2003). Some have noted a trend towards a growing journalism of 'attachment' in the wake of September 11th with more and more individuals expressing their thoughts and emotional responses through web-logs (Raynsford, 2003; Tumber & Prentoulis 2003). However, a recent US survey suggests that web diaries or 'blogs' were only accessed by a relatively small number of Internet users (Raine et al. 2003). Undoubtedly the Internet is proving to be an increasingly important source of news for many but it needs be placed in the broader context of media consumption overall. A survey of American online use during the Iraq war found that Internet users mostly relied upon television to get their news about the war (see Raine et al. 2003).

Sociological studies that involve in- depth qualitative analysis of public attitudes provide a more illuminating picture of the impact and influence of news media coverage of war. Some recent evidence suggests that the public is largely ignorant about the situation in the Middle East and its causes. A recent ESRC study conducted by the Glasgow University Media Group found that television news bulletins rarely explored reasons for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its origins (Philo et al. 2003). An earlier study of the reporting of Gulf War I, also suggests television news tends to leave viewers confused and lacking in basic knowledge. (Lewis et al. 1991) Television news is particularly constrained by time, space and the need for pictures. Current affairs programmes allow more opportunity to explore contextual issues, but relatively few provide vehicles for wider deliberative democratic processes. The Letters to the Editor page in newspapers plays an important role in constructing notions of 'public' opinion (Wahl-Jorgensen, K. 2001). Any notion that it represents 'public' opinion must be questioned, given the role that news editors play in decisions about positioning, timing, selection and the editing of letters.

But do the public want to know what really goes on, even if this was possible? While the public want to be informed about what is going on, some studies suggest that they prefer a sanitized version of the 'truth' (Morrison, 1992). Too much coverage of such images may also lead the audience to be desensitized. Equally, if coverage shows too little, then the public may not appreciate the seriousness of the situation (Taylor, 2003).

In times of war it is commonplace for policymakers and military personnel to attack the media for bias and credit them with a determining influence on public opinion. However, in this essay I have argued that there is a need for greater critical engagement with developments in audience research. Undoubtedly news media reporting, and non-reporting, of Gulf War II had a significant impact on levels of public knowledge and attitudes towards the war. However, there is a need to question over-simplified explanations of media effects that are used to support ideological positions. Evidence suggests that television news was the most important source of information for most people. We know from previous studies that it generally fails to provide people with the depth of coverage that is needed to understand the context and reasons for conflict in the Middle East (Lewis et al. 1991; Philo et al, 2003). Moreover, commercial market imperatives and the 24/7 news culture have brought about more pressures to present news in 'sound bites'. What we are increasingly seeing is a trend towards what CNN's Christine Amanpour has referred to as 'government-by-news cycle', whereby politicians are forced to respond extremely quickly to unfolding events without sufficient time to reflect (see McLaughlin, 2002).

Current debates also exhibit considerable confusion over concepts of 'objectivity', 'impartiality' and 'bias'. Recent events demonstrate that there is a need to question the recourse that media practitioners make to traditional notions of objectivity and impartiality. I have argued that it is impossible to produce a completely detached account of war. Has journalism changed forever in the wake of September 11th, as many of the contributors to Zelitzer and Allan (2002) maintain? In my view, many of the changes identified, such as the 24/7 news culture, journalism of attachment and the government-by-news cycle, were occurring before the twin towers attack. What has happened is that recent events have brought them into sharper focus. Over the past decade crucial shifts in the relationship between the media, state and society have occurred and sociologists are only beginning to get to grips with the implications. Recent sociological work reveals both the complexities arising from the ambiguity of concepts of 'objectivity' and 'bias', and the need for a more fine-grained approach towards media effects.


1 The UK press failed to represent the strength of public opposition to the war during the period immediately following the attacks of September 11th (see Miller, 2002).

2 The term 'embedding' first came into use during the war in Bosnia in 1991 (McLaughlin, 2002).

3 Alongside this, a large number of 'unilateral' journalists worked independently in Baghdad and Northern Iraq, Kuwait and Quatar.

4 Kate Adie also claimed that the Americans vetted the embedded journalists to ensure that they showed support for the military action.

5 News International has a 35.4% stake in the BBC's major competitor, BskyB.

6 Whilst it is important to recognise the limitations of public opinion polls in general, there are important differences in terms of how rigorously they are conducted and the degree to which they can be relied upon to provide a 'snapshot' of public attitudes. In the absence of detailed qualitative research, they can provide a broad indication of public views.


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Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003