Fall 2010 | Online Exclusives

Trust and Perception: Powerful Factors in Assessing News About War

How the public responded to news reporting about the surge in Iraq was more about what the audience brought with them than what they took away.

By Matthew A. Baum
How Americans absorb news—in this case, news about a war involving Americans—turns out to have a lot to do with what they believe before they hear it. And it matters a lot who is conveying it to them.

That is the conclusion that Tim J. Groeling and I drew from a series of news exposure experiments; surveys of journalists, bloggers and citizens; and news content analyses for our book, “War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views of War.” Our findings show how and why political affiliation shapes perceptions about the success or failure of the war strategy in Iraq. What we found was that Democrats and independents perceived that U.S. prospects for victory in Iraq had declined from the prior year and that there had been no change in U.S. casualty rates, despite six months of declining casualties. Republicans were far more optimistic.

Reasons for this disconnection reside at the intersection of politics and journalism and relate directly to people’s level of trust and their perceptions.

The Iraq Surge

In January 2007, President George W. Bush announced a plan for what became the 30,000 U.S. troop surge in Iraq in an effort to reverse the nation’s seemingly inexorable slide into full-scale civil war. The announcement was greeted with widespread skepticism. Developments over the next few months appeared to bolster these critics as U.S. fatalities in Iraq continued to climb, peaking in May 2007 at more than 120. Rising public and Congressional rancor came to a head in September when the plan’s author, General David Petraeus, appeared before Congress. Democrats and even some Republicans greeted him with skepticism, and the liberal advocacy group Moveon.org placed a full-page ad in The New York Times asking “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?”

Yet by then circumstances had already begun to change in Iraq. In September 2007, U.S. fatalities were roughly half the May peak, and they continued to fall, from 63 in September to 37 in October to 25 in December. Iraqi civilian and military casualties followed a similar trend. Far from turning the domestic political tide, however, the steady decline in violence had almost no effect on news reporting, public opinion, or Congress.

For instance, on the eve of General Petraeus’s Congressional testimony, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin declared, “The reality is … the Bush surge is not working,” while, during the Petraeus hearing, then-Senator Barack Obama, who as president would later hire him to direct the war in Afghanistan, characterized the war as “a disastrous foreign policy mistake.” As late as February 2008, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared the surge “a failure” and added, “... the purpose of the surge was to create a secure time for the government of Iraq to make the political change to bring reconciliation to Iraq. They have not done that.”

Public opinion followed suit. According to The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, between February and September 2007 overwhelming negativity regarding the outcome in Iraq continued unabated among Democrats and independents. Meanwhile, a majority of Republicans said it was going well.

What accounted for this disproportionate skepticism in the face of mounting evidence that the tide had turned in Iraq? The most obvious answer is that after discovering belatedly that prior Bush administration pronouncements regarding Iraq—stretching all the way back to the justifications for the war itself—were at best dubious, Americans were hesitant to accept further claims by the administration of turning points in the conflict. Yet the fact that Republicans accurately recognized the changes in “events on the ground” long before Democrats and independents suggest that this explanation is not sufficient.

Credibility and Framing

The keys to understanding these patterns lie in two factors: credibility and framing. Credibility, in this case, refers to the persuasiveness of different types of information emanating from different speakers and news outlets, each with varying partisan reputations. Our experiments show that Democrats were more skeptical than Republicans and independents of “good news” about Iraq announced by the Fox News Channel, which they perceived as biased toward Republicans, but more accepting of the same stories presented by network evening newscasts or CNN, which they perceived as more balanced. Conversely, Republicans were more skeptical of “bad news” stories about Iraq presented by the latter outlets which they perceived as biased toward Democrats but were more accepting of the same news on Fox.

When we analyzed the content of news coverage of the war, we confirmed that early in the surge Fox did offer substantially less critical coverage of Iraq than CNN or the broadcast networks, whose journalists were unconvinced by claims of a turnaround in Iraq. Encapsulating this view, CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr commented in October 2007: “We’ve had five years of the Pentagon telling us there is progress, there is progress. Forgive me for being skeptical, I need to see a little bit more than one month before I get too excited about all of this.”

This meant that Republicans were relying on relatively more positive Iraq news on Fox while discounting more negative Iraq news on other outlets. Conversely, Democrats were able to ignore or discount the relatively more pro-war news on reputedly conservative outlets like Fox while accepting as reliable the relatively more critical Iraq news on outlets they perceived as more balanced.

These patterns help account for Republicans upgrading their outlook on Iraq following the surge more rapidly than Democrats or independents.

Eventually even skeptical journalists like Starr recognized and acknowledged the post-surge improvement in Iraq and began adjusting their reporting accordingly. This produced a new stream of relatively more positive coverage of Iraq that Democrats and independents considered far more credible—and hence persuasive—than the earlier pro-war streams emanating from outlets they perceived as pro-Republican.

The second key factor is framing. In the early stages of any conflict, the president and his representatives enjoy a substantial advantage as sources. With few independent authoritative sources, reporters usually depend on government officials for their information. This gives the president great latitude in framing the conflict and helps account for the “rally-round-the-flag” phenomenon. However, to paraphrase a blogger interviewed in “War Stories,” sooner or later reality asserts itself. Over time journalists develop alternative information streams and assess the reliability of the administration’s previous assertions, such as its claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Once this happens, the administration has less latitude in framing the narrative.

Rhetoric vs. Reality

“Elasticity of reality” is the phrase we use to describe the relative size of the gap between the rhetoric and reality that journalists and the public will accept at any one time. It’s always the case that various factions try to frame reality to their own advantage. Sometimes rhetoric and reality tightly cohere, as when events are going well from the administration’s perspective; at other times, not. Yet as the gap between reality and rhetoric expands, the risk increases that journalists and the public will notice and grow skeptical of future rhetoric, even when it better fits reality. As journalists and citizens acquire more and more diverse information over time, the elasticity of reality shrinks.

At the onset of the Iraq surge, this elasticity had collapsed almost entirely; reality appeared bleak and so did most rhetoric emanating from officials in Washington. This made it extremely hard for President Bush to alter what had become the prevailing narrative of Iraq—a fiasco. The only segment of the public inclined to accept such reframing of Iraq from failure to possible success were Republican partisans, who were still predisposed to trust the president.

Eventually, as the trend toward stabilization and reduced casualties persisted, even Democrats began to reassess. Pew Center data showed a marked uptick in optimism among Democrats by February 2008, a trend that was not apparent in our own survey just two months earlier. That this uptick did not emerge until nearly nine months after U.S. casualties began a steady decline is testament to the difficulty of recasting an event once rhetoric and reality have converged, even given a subsequent stark change in that reality. It also reveals the importance of citizens’ assessments of the credibility of partisan elites, the messages they seek to convey, and the news outlets conveying their messages in determining whether they will rally behind the president. This decision depends on a complex interaction between the perceived motivation of the speaker and the news outlet broadcasting the rhetoric, along with the content of that rhetoric and the perceived interests of the recipients.

In the fall of 2007, President Bush was trapped in an information environment in which his message of a positive turnaround in Iraq was persuasive only to his core Republican constituents. To others, this message was self-serving cheap talk emanating from a discredited commander in chief. The parallel rejection of positive messages by most mainstream journalists reinforced that perception. With such messages relegated to media outlets that were themselves perceived as biased, the rhetoric—and the reality, filtered through perception—was unpersuasive.

Matthew A. Baum is the Marvin Kalb Professor of Global Communications and professor of public policy at Harvard University. He is coauthor of “War Stories: The Causes and Consequences of Public Views of War,” published by Princeton University Press this year.

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