Swift, Judith [faculty advisor, Department of Communication Studies]
war; images; journalism; press
A number of policymakers have attributed America’s defeat in Vietnam, the first “television war,” to a collapse of public support caused by nightly news coverage of combat with associated iconic photographs and moving images. The assumptions underlying this opinion are that photographs and video footage of war have an inherent pacifistic bias, that the emotional impact of visual images can override reason, and that powerful images can drive or overturn foreign policy. This has led subsequent administrations to increase their control over the media’s coverage of war. During the Vietnam War, the press was relatively uncensored. As a response to the perceived role the press played in “losing” the Vietnam War, the press has been both highly managed and restricted by the military during the first Gulf War and the current conflict in Iraq. Generally, these restrictions have resulted in an emphasis on the technology used to conduct war at the expense of the human costs of war ranging from troop loss to collateral damage, i.e., civilian loss. In this paper, I critique the assumptions that have led the military and political establishment to feel that press management during conflict is a political necessity. I argue that the press, their audiences, and the government construct the meanings of images of war. They are not unambiguously pacifistic. Furthermore, the nature and level of debate among political elites has a much greater impact on the nature of press coverage of war than the press has on political debate. I contend that the ability of the press to present less politically managed images can benefit administrations by forcing them to refine policies, allowing them to maintain credibility.