Date of Award

Spring 2003

Degree Type

Thesis - Restricted

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Communication

First Advisor

Soley, Lawrence

Second Advisor

Seib, Philip

Third Advisor

Thorn, William

Abstract

Media coverage is an important element in the foreign policy-making process (Bennett, 1994). Mermin wrote, "It is clear that the media are players in the construction of foreign policy debate in the United States" (1999, p. 4). Since most Americans get their information about foreign policy from the news media, 'Journalists take on one of their greatest responsibilities" (Mermin, p. 4). Foreign policy coverage is significant because news content may affect public opinion, which may constrain or free decision makers in the policy process (Bennett). Therefore, the content the media provide to the public is worthy of examination, specifically when reporting a potential war. If the media do not provide exceptional coverage about the pros and cons of going to war, healthy democratic debate regarding the decision cannot exist among citizens. The purpose of this thesis is to examine media coverage of President Bush's policy towards Iraq, which includes potential military action. The foremost consideration is just how independent the media are of administration policy when reporting a potential war. This subject has been the focus of previous studies. Dorman and Livingston (1994) wrote, "The quality of news coverage is never more important than when a society is pondering whether to wage war" (p. 63). Indicators of this quality can be found in whether the media distance themselves from the official administration position and provide independent, critical observations of the policy or whether the media act as mere conduits for the administration's policy. Evidence has suggested that the media provide coverage that is supportive of government policy; numerous studies have already shown that media coverage often reflects the level of debate in government (Bennett, 1990; Entman & Page, 1994; Mermin, 1999; Robinson, 2(01). However, it can be argued that a balance of opposing viewpoints needs to be presented by the media to best inform the public. A diversity of viewpoints has been considered essential to initiate and maintain a healthy democratic debate among citizens, especially when reporting about a decision as grave as going to war (Bennett; Mermin). Media studies of the Gulf War cover similar ground. Entman and Page (1994) drew four main conclusions about the media coverage prior to start of the Gulf War: 1) Criticism and support of administration policy were both reported frequently; 2) Critical information was displayed less saliently and was often procedural rather than substantive; 3) Sources with more power over war policy were given more prominence in coverage; and 4) Few fundamental criticisms of administration policy appeared. Dorman and Livingston (1994) found that media coverage prior to the start of the Gulf War was lacking in historical context and was quick to adopt administration justifications for war. Iyengar and Simon (1994) determined that media coverage throughout the Gulf War was "heavily episodic or event-oriented" (p. 179). Each of these reports, among others, indicates that media coverage was lacking in substantial, critical analyses of administration policy and justifications. President Bush's policy towards Iraq is based on disarming Iraq through military force if deemed necessary. A military engagement with Iraq would be the first American military engagement since the United States led an attack in Afghanistan that began in October of 2001. However, that intervention was characterized as a manhunt for Osama bin Laden and the early stages of an ongoing, unconventional assault on the al-Quaeda terrorist network. Additionally, the unique circumstances presented by September 11 may have affected media coverage. The media may have offered less critical coverage of the American campaign in Afghanistan as a result of the September II terrorist attacks. In this respect, it is reasonable that media coverage may have been more supportive of American efforts in Afghanistan. Since more than a year has passed since the September 11 attacks, one would expect the media to now be operating in a "normal" manner, providing foreign policy coverage that is not influenced or colored by those extraordinary events. A military conflict with Iraq would presumably be a conflict between nation states. As such, the use of force in Iraq would be the first traditional military engagement since the 1991 Gulf War. For these reasons, coverage of the potential war with Iraq can be considered coverage that is representative of normal coverage of a potential war. This is an important point to consider since the purpose of this study is to examine how the media cover a potential large-scale military engagement under normal conditions after September II, 200 I. The American press is an independent enterprise, free from government censorship, especially during peacetime. Therefore, the media should have every opportunity to examine all sides of an issue. Understanding the role the media assume in the post September 11 era is a critical consideration, and its importance is heightened during the preliminary stages of a military conflict.

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