Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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8.1.1 The media and US perceptions of the reasons for going to war in Iraq

Kull et al.’s article ‘Misperceptions, the Media and the Iraq War’ is a study of US television news audiences. It examines how certain misconceptions influential in shaping people’s support for the war in Iraq continued to circulate during 2003, in spite of evidence that should have undermined them becoming publicly available. The researchers also examined the influence of misperceptions on people’s support for the war, their distribution across different television audiences, and their prevalence in relation to certain political attitudes. They then perform an overall analysis to find out which were the most important factors in shaping support for the war.

The study raises some serious concerns about the relationship between the political executive, the media, and the public – at least in the US context. It suggests that, while the President cannot lead people to adopt positions that contradict their own values, he can ‘lead members of the public to assume false beliefs in support of his position’ (p597). This is undertaken in conjunction with a media willing to disseminate his statements in a supportive manner, Furthermore, it suggests that ‘the media cannot necessarily be counted on to play [the] critical role of doggedly challenging the administration’ (ibid.).

Activity 28 Misperceptions, the media and the Iraq war

Please read the article [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] now. It is quite long and technical, so we advise that you read it in the sections outlined below (which will reduce the reading), and note your answers to the questions as you progress. When you have finished, reveal the discussion and check your answers against those provided.

p569–571 (‘The Iraq war ... media reporting’)

1. What puzzling polling evidence is addressed by the study?

2. What hypothesis did the researchers come up with to explain this puzzle, and how did they seek to test it?

p575 (Fig. 1), p576 ('Misperceptions and Support for the War' short introduction only – ‘The misperceptions ... higher support’), and p577–580 (Figs 2-5 only)

3. How widely shared were the three misperceptions identified amongst the American population, and how closely were misperceptions related to support for the war in Iraq?

p581–583 ('Misperceptions as a Function of Source of News’ and 'Combined Analysis'); p585 (section titled 'The Effect of Variations in Audiences' only), and p586 ('Misperceptions as a Function of Level of Attention to News' paragraphs 1 and 2 only)

4. How important was variation in primary source of news in shaping the level of misperception, and can the level of misperceptions be explained in terms of audience characteristics rather than source of news?

5. What relationship did the researchers find between level of attention to news and level of misperceptions?

p588–591 ('Relative Strength of Various Factors Related to Level of Misperception' to 'Analysis')

Note on technical terms: 'Regression Analysis'. This is a statistical method used to identify the most important factors in shaping a distribution (in this case, responses to a questionnaire). Repeated analyses are undertaken in which the least significant factor is eliminated after each analysis, until eventually only one factor remains. This enables the relative importance of different factors to be determined.

6. What other factors shaped misperceptions, and what was their relative level of importance?

p591–6 ('Analysis')

7. Why did so many Americans continue to have misperceptions concerning WMD, pre-war Iraqi links with al-Quaeda and world opinion, even after no evidence emerged to support the first two and contrary evidence concerning the third became available in the public domain?

p596–598 ('Conclusion')

8. What concerns for the democratic process do the authors express, and how justified do you think these concerns are?


  1. The study sought to explain polling evidence that suggested that a majority of Americans did not support the US invasion of Iraq without prior UN Security Council backing. However, once the President decided to go to war a majority supported his decision. They continued to do so even when evidence to support the administrations reasons for going to war (that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and the regime had links to al-Quaeda) failed to come to light. They also continued to believe that world opinion supported the invasion, even when opinion polls suggested that it did not.
  2. The researchers formed the hypothesis that in order to close the gap between their general beliefs about valid reasons to go to war and the post-invasion evidence, the American public 'in some way [came] to have false beliefs or misperceptions that would make going to war seem more legitimate' (p570). They sought to test this hypothesis using a series of public opinion polls between January and September 2003 that examined the relationships between misperceptions, support for the war, and the role of the media used to obtain information about the war.
  3. A majority (60%) shared one of the three misperceptions; 20% had two misperceptions and 8% had all three. The misperceptions were highly related to support for the war. Having a misperception correlated with increased support for the war in each case (Figs 2–4), and each additional misperception further increased the likelihood of support for the war, such that 86% of those with three misperceptions supported the war, compared with 23% of those who had no misperceptions.
  4. There was considerable variation in level of misperception depending on primary news source. Fox News and CBS viewers had strikingly high levels of misperception (80% and 71% respectively had one or more misperception), whereas those who used print media or public TV networks as their primary source of news had lower than average (i.e. 60% see 3 above) levels of misperception (47% and 23% respectively). The primary source of news was still a significant factor even when other factors (such as education, political affiliation, household income etc.) were taken into account.
  5. The effect of level of attention varied according to news source. For Fox News, increased levels of attention actually correlated with increased misperceptions. Overall, there was no significant relationship between level of attention and news source, ruling out the hypothesis that misperceptions were simply the result of inattention. Only for print media did level of attention positively correlate with decreased misperceptions, perhaps suggesting that we absorb information from television and reading in different ways.
  6. Intention to vote for President Bush was the most significant predictor of misperceptions, followed by primary news source, with Fox viewing most closely related to high levels of misperception, and public network viewing to low levels. Intention to vote for a Democratic candidate in the presidential election was the third most significant predictor (in the direction of low levels of misperception. Fourth was education, with high levels associated with lower levels of misperception), and age was weakly associated, with older people being slightly less prone to misperceptions. Other factors, including gender, income and level of attention (overall – but see 5 above) were not significant predictors.
  7. The researchers considered two 'exogenous' factors, i.e. factors to do with the external environment rather than the way that people process information ('endogenous’ factors). The two external factors were misleading statements by the Bush administration, and variations in media reporting (some of which was also misleading). Statements from Bush and senior figures in his administration are quoted to support the contention that the Bush administration made misleading statements during this period to support their pre-war assertions. Several forms of evidence are used to argue that media reporting was responsible for misperceptions, including:
    1. statements from Fox and CBS employees admitting, indeed proclaiming, their support for the government (p593)
    2. the greater prominence given to pro-war than to anti-war voices in coverage on the major networks (p593)
    3. the general media dynamic that an absence of finding does not make good news, so the failure to find evidence to support the government’s reasons for going to war gets less strong coverage than other news stories(p594).
    However, the researchers also argue that a further, psychological, explanation is needed to explain the persistence of misperceptions (p594–6). This is that Americans were receptive to the Bush administration's misleading statements because they wanted to believe them; if they were true they would align American foreign policy with their deeper beliefs about good reasons for going to war, and about America's role in the world.
  8. The researchers suggest that the findings are of concern for the democratic process for two main reasons. First, they suggest that a US president can lead a significant proportion of the population into holding false beliefs to justify the administration's policies, if these false beliefs enable the public to square these policies with their 'deeper value orientations' (p597). Second, they suggest that significant sections of the media cannot be relied on to act as a critical watchdog on government policies.

    The latter is a concern for democratic process to the extent that democracy depends on public access to accurate information, and on the media to act as an effective check on governments and other interested groups. How justified their concerns are is a matter of opinion. But in part your opinion may depend on your understanding of priorities within a democracy.

    For example, you could take the view that in times of national crisis citizens' first loyalty is to their country and therefore it is natural for criticism of the government to be muted for a time in the aftermath of a crisis like 9/11. You might then not be too worried about this evidence of persistent misperception. After all, levels of misperception dropped during the survey period, and clearly there were many dissenting views freely circulating in the American public sphere. On the other hand, if you take the view that public deliberation – opportunities for free and open public debate – are at the heart of democracy, you might be considerably more concerned. The latter view is called a deliberative understanding of democracy, which places public argument at its centre.

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