The influence of television news depictions of the images of war on viewers.

Author:Pfau, Michael
Position:Report - Survey

The Bush administration has repeatedly criticized news media coverage of the war in Iraq as imbalanced because, as former White House press secretary, Scott McClellan, put it, the "horrific images of violence that we see on our TV screens" drown out all other stories about Iraq (Media Matters, 2006, p. 2). President George W. Bush assumes, just as Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did more than 30 years ago, that television news' coverage of the carnage of war erodes public support for war. The notion that media depictions of casualties undermines public support for continued military operations is known as "casualty shyness" (Dauber, 2001) or "casualty intolerance" (Burk, 1999).

There is mixed evidence as to whether news images of casualties affect public support for war and, if so, how. Retrospective studies of America's use of military force since World War II support the casualty intolerance hypothesis (Larson, 1996; Mueller, 1994). However, Gartner and Segura (1998) maintain it is not casualties per se that affect public opinion, but what they term, "marginal casualties," which place casualties in context. Studies suggest communication affects how the public responds to casualty reports (Herrmann, Tetlock, & Visser, 1999), sometimes enhancing public support for military operations (Feaver & Gelpi, 2004) and sometimes eroding it (Dauber, 2001).

This investigation compared the impact of network television news reports of combat operations in Iraq (with and without graphic combat footage) on viewers, and tested the efficacy of inoculation as an antidote to the influence of television news images of combat operations. This study is important because, despite the assumption of political and military leaders that news images of combat can sway public opinion, actual evidence about the influence of news footage of combat is scant. Domke, Spratt, and Perlmutter (2002) maintain that "systematic investigations of the ... influence of visual news images are rare" (p. 194). As a result, Perlmutter (2005) calls for systematic study of "the actual influences of visual images on foreign affairs" (p. 111).

The Influence of Network News Coverage of Combat in Iraq on Viewers

Network television's visual depictions of combat operations should influence viewers by evoking an emotional response, which causes them to care more about U.S. military operations, and affecting attitudes about continued U.S. military presence.

Visual Depictions of Combat Elicit an Emotional Response

Network television news provides viewers with a front row seat to view combat. Beyond simply telling viewers about combat, visual footage provides what Cho and colleagues (2003) call "a sense of presence" (p. 312). As a result, they argue that television news communicates more emotion than other news venues. This tendency is even more pronounced with graphic images of war, which Zelizer (2004) characterizes as "among the most powerful visuals known to humankind" (p. 115).

Television news footage is processed differently than the same content communicated by words alone. Visual content is processed using more of the right brain, which is more holistic and emotional (Barry, 1997). Paivio (1986) posits that, "affective reactions would ordinarily occur more quickly to pictures than words because the former have more direct access to affect-mediating images" (p. 79). Visual content is processed quickly and heuristically, sometimes bypassing conscious thought (Zhou, 2005). Graber (1987) argues that people process visual information "simultaneously rather than sequentially" (p. 76). Thus, visual content is absorbed quickly.

Research indicates that television news images can evoke a strong emotional response in viewers, which influences how people respond to stories. Nabi (2003) found visuals arouse emotions that affect message processing. Lang (2000) posits a limited-capacity approach to television viewing. This approach suggests that a viewer's capacity to process messages can be overloaded to the detriment of information presented in a television report. "Features of television messages guide our attention to certain parts of the message allowing us to comprehend a complex message without fully processing the myriad of detail contained within it" (Lang, 1995, p. 89). Lang, Newhagen, and Reeves (1996) combined the limited-capacity approach with the theory of emotional processing (Bradley, 1994) to examine how negative video affects information processing. Two dimensions of emotion, arousal, ranging from calm to excited, and valence, ranging from negative to positive, mediate the processing of messages (Lang et al., 1996). The use of negative video in news increases arousal, which mediates message processing in such a way as to overpower verbal content (Newhagen & Reeves, 1992). Negative news stories, with or without video, receive more attention. "This emotional impact appears as an increase in arousal, which results in an increase in memory" (Lang et al., 1996, p. 475). Graber (1987) posits that television news visuals elicit more emotions and states that visuals "make audiences care about an issue and the people involved in it" (p. 76). News executives came to realize that images serve as a conduit that connects viewers emotionally. Indeed, "the main, if not exclusive, impact of the visual image is emotional" (Strivers, 1994, p. 141).

This investigation posits that television news visuals of combat operations in Iraq affect viewers emotionally and, perhaps because of this, cause them to care more about the issue of continued U.S. military presence in Iraq.

[H.sub.1]: Compared with network television news stories about combat operations in Iraq described by news anchors, news stories also featuring footage of combat operations elicit greater affective responses in viewers.

[H.sub.2]: Compared with network television news stories about combat operations in Iraq described by news anchors, news stories also featuring footage of combat operations enhance issue involvement levels in viewers.

Visual Depictions of Combat Influence Attitudes

Aside from the impacts noted above, this investigation posits that news stories featuring footage of combat operations also influence viewer attitudes about the continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq. Three reasons are offered to support this position.

First, because of their emotional tone, images of combat capture viewers' attention. The capacity of visuals to command attention has been well documented for the print media, where photographs function as a "point of entry" to text (Mendelsohn & Thorson, 2004, p. 474; see also Barnhurst, 1994; Garcia & Stark, 1991; Moses, 2001 ; Stone, 1987). Lang's research about the broadcast media suggests that the presence of visuals, especially negative images, grabs attention (Lang, Dhillon, & Dong, 1995; Lang et al., 1996). This occurs because of the capacity of powerful images "to engage the automatic attention system" (Lang, 2000, p. 61).

Second, images should also be remembered better than narrative, assuming consistency between the audio and visual content (Drew & Grimes, 1987; Findahl, 1981; Grimes, 1992; Kepplinger, 1991; Nabi, 2003; Reese, 1984). As Kepplinger (1991) concludes: "As a rule, news films are better remembered than news items that are only spoken about," although he concedes that "the influence of visualization on retention is not very great" (p. 183). Research indicates that, once information is encoded and stored, visual information overtakes verbal representations in subsequent retrieval, resulting in greater recall of visual content (Brosius, 1993; David, 1998; Edwardson, Kent, Engstrom, & Hofmann, 1992; Graber, 1990; Gunter, 1987; Lang et al., 1996; Newhagen, 1998; Reese, 1984; Son, Reese & Davie, 1987).

Lang and colleagues (1995) explain that arousal impacts message retention. When they controlled for valence, positive messages were retained better. Arousal with negative messages interfered with processing and, in a natural setting, "If a stimulus is negative but not arousing there is no 'drive' to avoid, but if it is negative and arousing then one automatically begins to disengage" (p. 325). Fox (2004) examined audio and video redundancy and memory. Findings suggest subtle differences. Viewers in the redundant condition did not significantly remember more than those in the dissonant condition, but memory strength differed. Fox concluded:

... for unfamiliar stories using typical visuals, there is no difference in memory performance regardless of whether the audio and video messages are redundant or dissonant ... these results provide additional evidence of the memory-enhancing effects of redundant visuals and the debilitating effects of dissonant visuals on memory. (p. 535) Fox and colleagues (2005) also provide an alternate explanation of audio and visual processing. When audio and video are redundant, they are processed together; when they are dissonant, then dual processing is employed. "When audio and visual messages are dissonant viewers may overload their limited available cognitive resources while processing the messages; when this happens, it is audio processing, not video, that suffers" (p. 105). The dissonant video will be remembered, not the audio.

Finally, images also are credible and, therefore, are believable. People place greater trust in what they see than what they read or hear (Graber, 1987; McLuhan & Fiore, 1967). They understand that words are authored and, because people disagree, are subject to criticism. By contrast, they perceive visuals as true representations (despite the evidence that visual content can be manipulated) and are more likely to take them at face value (Kepplinger, 1991). Graber (1987) maintains that television news elicits more emotion, which increases involvement by making the "audience care more about an issue and the people involved" (p. 76). Kepplinger (1991) claims: "Visual depictions have...

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