The Influence of the Media on Public Opinion



“Why of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war: neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

~ Herman Goering, Germany 1930s.

Literature Review

Given the increased role of US interventionism since the end of the Second World War, many scholars have been trying to explain the contradiction between the theory of democratic peace and the usual direct or passive public support of the government’s tendency to manage international conflicts through warfare. The theory of democratic peace suggests that the government of a democracy is more likely to oppose war than the governments of less democratic countries. That’s primarily because public opinion matters to policymakers who can only be elected or reelected by the citizens (who usually oppose war) of a democratic country (Chan & Safran, 2006). Many scholars point to the role of the media in bridging the gap between public opinion and policymaking. In other words, they postulate that the media may be the missing variable in the democratic peace theory. The purpose of this paper is to look closely into this hypothesis, namely the influence of the media on US public opinion with regards to warfare, and see how realistic it is in explaining the democratic peace theory paradox.

There is wide belief that the citizens of a democracy are an obstacle to governments waging war in other countries. Chan and Safran postulate that there might be a significant difference between democratic types of governance, and that this might explain the effect of public opinion. They contend that the US and UK, the two most democratic societies in the world, should have been the least inclined to wage a war on Iraq in 2003, despite a considerable public opposition (near 40% in the US and 50% in UK), while the opposition to war was even greater in less democratic countries throughout Europe (Chan & Safran, 2006).

In a pluralist/majority system (such as the US), where elected officials focus on the median voter, they should be more concerned about public opinion than in a parliament representation (PR) system (such as European countries). Compared to the pluralist/majority system, in a PR system the party’s position does not waver based on public opinion and remains more stable because parties get elected based on narrower sectors of society, and hence narrower issues. Yet statistically speaking, countries with PR systems of governance have been historically less prone to go to war relative to pluralist/majority countries (Chan & Safran, 2006).

Chan and Safran compare the US and UK on one hand, to Spain and Italy on the other (2006). Unlike Germany and France, Spain and Italy agreed to join the Anglo-American so-called coalition of the willing in the war on Iraq. But unlike the UK and the US, the Spanish and Italian elected officials paid the price for going against the massive popular opposition to the war. Both Spanish and Italian leaders lost in the general elections to opposing parties who promised to withdraw their troops from Iraq if elected into power. In the UK, despite the fact that it uses the PR system, Tony Blair was reelected because the British major opposition party, the Conservative party, also supported the war, and in the fear of allowing the least favorable party to win the elections by splitting the vote between Labor and Liberal Democratic party, the majority of Brits reelected Blair and the Labor party into power. Chan and Safran explain this phenomenon by claiming that PR systems, unlike conventional wisdom, are in fact more responsive to voters’ preferences than pluralist/majority systems because coalition cabinets end up reflecting the views of the average citizen, whereas a one party majority reflects the views of the right or the left of the political spectrum. In other words, it is false that in a two-party system the median voter’s satisfaction is sought. The more secure a political party is from opposition, due to the design of the electoral system, the more likely it is to be in favor of war (Chan and Safran, 2006).

When it comes to foreign policy, there is no doubt that public opinion matters, especially when it comes to war. That’s why rallying the people behind their leaders has been crucial for the success of any war. Klaveras synthesizes the works of many scholars to identify the five principal factors in drawing the public to support the war effort: (1) national interests must be vital, (2) the reason of going to war must be for humanitarian effort or coercing a threatening adversary, (3) the war effort should be multilateral in nature, (4) leadership consensus, and (5) the war benefits must be higher than its costs.

The most significant factor is leadership consensus, which depends heavily on the information flow through the media. The president has a monopoly on information and thus able to present his case for war without significant criticism from the masses (Klaveris, 2002). Looking back at major conflicts since the cold war, we find that whenever the media made room for criticism, the public support for the president waned, and whenever criticism was absent, the public support increased dramatically (Klaveris, 2002). But criticism through the mainstream media could only come from other elite leaders. Whenever there was a consensus among the leaders on war, criticism was absent from the media and hence the public supported the war (Klaveris, 2002).

Another significant factor to public opinion was the costs and benefits of military intervention. To Americans, the highest and most important cost has always been the number of war casualties; American casualties (Klaveris, 2002). Klaveris quotes Mueller’s statistical finding that “‘every time American casualties increased by a factor of 10, support for war dropped 15 percentage points’”, but that “a substantial loss of American lives may have been tolerable if the enemy was the bombers of Pearl Harbor or international communism… Not possible to generate much support for the notion that American lives should be put at risk in order to encourage democracy (Mueller, 1996).”

Interestingly enough, this cost-benefit analysis among the masses has been highly influenced with their access to information. It is not a secret that the American media shapes the views of the public regarding war (Martin, 2006). Studies have shown that the media doesn’t only report the issues but also frames these issues and interprets them in a way that serves the agenda of the elite. In addition, they have shown that there is a direct relationship between the way the media framed the issues and how people talked about those issues (Martin, 2006). Martin correctly postulates that whenever the media was constrained by military media pooling, the public supported the war. And whenever the media was not restricted by military media pooling, the public was less supportive of the war. After extensive research over the 1980s and 1990s, Martin found his theory to be correct in every instance. The media was excluded or heavily controlled in Grenada, Libya, Panama, and Iraq (1991), and unsurprisingly the public supported the war effort. On the other hand, the media was more independent and free in Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti, and the public was mostly against those interventions, especially since the media clearly stated that the objective was humanitarian and had nothing to do with American direct national interests (Martin, 2006). At the same token, US government didn’t make its desire a secret to exclude free media from their military campaigns. Journalists have constantly been complaining about limited access, and the government constantly claimed that media exclusion was done for security reasons, something that the American public has been able to digest for a long time (Martin, 2006). But even when it was impossible to control the media, Reagan decided to eliminate media pooling, while George H. Bush allowed it again starting with Panama in 1989.

In his study, Klaveris as well found that the American public has been more prone to support the war effort when American interests and security were at stake. But in reality, the American public has consistently supported the wars they knew the least about (Martin, 2006). The government rallied the people on the agenda of security, and whenever there was leadership consensus, i.e. absence of criticism (Klaveris, 2002), and lack of media freedom of movement, the public supported the war. Nevertheless, there are others who claim that it is the media that controls the policymaking agenda (Strobel, 2001).

The media has been accused of deconstructing policies, overriding the influence of the law on public opinion, starting conflicts and ending them, generating pressure for military intervention, causing “viewer fatigue” to dull public pressure on policymakers, and even overriding policies (Strobel, 2001). But after careful analysis of the most major military interventions of the 1990s, Strobel found the evidence to be on the contrary: It was government policy that influenced the media’s agenda, through which it framed public opinion. The media is nothing more than a tool for the government to mold public opinion in the US as well as other parts of the world.

In Somalia, American news coverage (especially CNN) was not the cause of US military intervention, but was a necessary tool to rally public support behind the US decision to intervene in Somalia, and also to end its intervention (Strobel, 2001). And in Bosnia, although the crisis had already went on for two years (1992 ~ 1994), and although mortar bombs have been falling on Bosnian market places throughout that period, the media decided to publicly show one of those mortar incidents for the first time in 1994, the same time that the US had conferred with NATO allies for a military plan. Ironically after the cessation of the military strike, another image of a mortar explosion in the same market place was broadcast, but it had no effect on policymakers (Strobel, 2001).

The media images of Rwandan thousands of corpses did not cause the US to intervene in Rwanda either. The media also allowed plenty of criticism to appear against Clinton’s plan to intervene militarily in Haiti, but that still did not dissuade him. Moreover, the images of brutal massacres in East Timor in 1999 did not warrant any US military intervention. The problems appearing on the media did not guarantee intervention, but the absence of crises from the media guaranteed non-intervention especially where US national interests and security were not involved (Strobel, 2001). And just like Klaveris and Martin, Strobel found that the biggest factor dissuading US public opinion from war was the sight of American casualties. As the current war on Iraq, the number of non-American casualties is insignificant information for US public opinion.

Moreover, the media’s influence on public opinion is considered one of the key elements of America’s soft power. Soft power is defined as the “ability to achieve desired outcomes through attraction rather than coercion, because others want what you want”, conversely hard power is defined as the “ability to get others to do what they otherwise would not do through the threat of punishment or promise of reward [carrots and sticks]” (Nye, 2001). The rapid technological advances increased the power of the media and lowered their costs, hence making its utility accessible to many. One of the problems of too much media is that the public pays less attention (Nye, 2001). Strobel found this to be true from surveys showing that fewer Americans follow the news (Strobel, 2001). Soft power is important in that it gives the credible sources the ability to frame the issues as they see fit. And when policymakers follow through their ideas, it reinforces their credibility, which reinforces their soft power (Nye, 2001).

Nye talks extensively about the importance of America’s soft power, not only the media, but also its values, education, cultural exports, and respecting agreements. The idea is that if the US maintains its soft power domestically and globally, the global public will be more supportive of US intervention (Nye, 2001). He also claims that the country that has a “dominant” culture and ideas closer to global norms such as capitalism and pluralism, will naturally possess more soft power (Nye, 2001). Frensley and Michaud find counter evidence to this so-called conventional wisdom.

In their analysis, Frensley and Michaud consider two strategies that the media can take to affect the opinion of the foreign public: tabula rasa vs. value resonance. The former strategy assumes that the targeted audience has no prior knowledge of American values, and the latter assumes that the targeted audience relates its own established values to the American ones (Frensley & Michaud, 2006). They postulate that US policy seems to presume that all democracies are the same, hence US values would resonate in the public opinion of all democracies in the same way, whereas in authoritarian countries they would appear to be alien and incomprehensible (Frensley & Michaud, 2006). After studying George W. Bush’s post-9/11 speeches and their affect on Canadian public, they found that credible (prestige) Canadian press reflected negatively on Bush’s policies.

This would explain Chan and Safran’s inability to comprehend why Canada did not join the US in its war on Iraq, although Canada shares close cultural and economic ties to the US (Chan & Safran, 2006), even more similar to the US than any other country on earth (Frensley & Michaud, 2006). It has little to do with Canada’s governance and electoral structure, and more to do with Canadian public opinion. Not only in Canada, but all over the world, the media frames the issues differently based on different elite groups and their interests (Frensley & Michaud, 2006). They claim, as well as others, that the media suffers from agenda-setting habits, or “selective media frame conveyance.” It’s not that American values were alien to Canadians, or any other group of people around the world who were heavily opposed to the Bush administration’s plans, but it was that the American administration, and the media it uses to deliver its case, used a tabula rasa approach when discussing American values and American interests (Frensley & Michaud, 2006), almost talking down to the world in a childish tone, as though they have never heard of values like freedom or democracy.

While Nye believed that the cause for the recession in US soft power was its lack of media outlets throughout the world due to budget cuts, the problem is not in quantity and budgets but in the content and quality of those media outlets as Frensley and Michaud correctly pointed out. The US has been unable to penetrate international prestige press due to excessive propaganda and slant and the lack of credibility of US foreign policies (Frensley & Michaud, 2006). Nye concurs with the importance of credibility, but doesn’t seem to emphasize that as the problem. Frensley and Michaud, on the other hand, found through empirical analysis that policies that resonate with international values are the more successful approach in rallying world opinion behind American foreign policies.

Analysis: Iraq

The initial public support for the war against Iraq in the US could not have been possible without the role of the media. The voices of dissenting elites have been marginalized and the US congress, both Republican and Democrat, were overwhelmingly supportive of the war on Iraq, contrary to what some Democrats believe. Despite the considerable public rejection (40% according to Chan & Safran, 2006), the congress (77% of the Senate and 68% of the Representatives) overwhelmingly voted in favor of war by passing public law 107-243 on October 16, 2002, giving the president the authority to use military force against Iraq1. Indeed, the opinion of the median voter did not seem to matter in the American pluralist/majority system as Chan and Safran concluded in their analysis (2006). Yet compared to the rest of the world, the US public had the largest majority that was in favor of war against Iraq. Today, according to Gallup polls, more than 56 percent of Americans believe that the war against Iraq was a mistake, and more than 60 percent are in favor of a withdrawal by the end of next year2.

This drastic change of opinion can’t be a coincidence. Similar to what Strobel, Martin, and Klaveris found, one of the major factors in this drastic change of public opinion is the rising number of American casualties. We are getting near 3200 American deaths (as of April of 2007) and counting, not to mention the tens of thousands of injured. The media did its job in updating the public with the number of American casualties, although restricted by the government from showing gruesome images of those casualties or even their coffins. Moreover, there is little (if any) footage of the injured servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq. Despite these restrictions, enough has been able to seep through alternative media to raise public opposition to war in Iraq.

A second factor explaining the majority of the American public switching from support to opposition was the access to global media. While the American media pools have been embedded with the US coalition military in their coverage on the war, the internet has been flooded with international “prestige” media revealing credible, uncensored, independent reports and news articles. Major influential media outlets such as Britain’s BBC and The Independent, Italy’s Il Manifesto, and Qatar’s Aljazeera English have broken news stories that the American public had access to over the net and satellite dishes. The US media found itself lagging behind. For example, what has become known in the US as the “Abu Ghraib Scandal,” was already known worldwide before Seymour Hersch broke that story in the New York Times, and the rest of the mainstream media followed suit.

Another example of media control (censorship) in the US is the issue of the mercenary army hired by American and British companies, which, for the most part, did not make the major headlines in US media. There has been ample evidence of the existence of a huge army of mercenaries working for the US-led coalition in Iraq, topped with a recent UN report (March 21, 2007) from the Human Rights Council3 acknowledging this fact. This UN report claims that at least 30 percent of the total number of coalition combatants are mercenaries, or as they are called in the US: security officers (by contract). The report accuses these security companies of inflaming, and participating in, the violence in Iraq to make more business and earn more profits. Several American reports, such as Ted Koppel’s “Our Children’s Children’s War” program on the Discovery Channel, have leaked this story of the unaccountable non-military mercenary army that is causing havoc and chaos in Iraq. Albeit the mainstream media do not emphasize such crucial information that could affect US public opinion, many people with internet or cable access have been able to get the story anyway.

And similar to Strobel findings in his analytical research of the media’s effect on policymakers with regards to the Bosnian and Somali cases, the media today seems to also have little (or no) effect on the Bush administration’s war plans in Iraq. If anything, the Bush administration has been very critical of the media and showed its contempt whenever the media leaked a news story that was critical of the government’s efforts in Iraq. Nevertheless, the recent relative openness of the mainstream media was key to the victory of the only opposition (the Democrats) in the 2006 elections, and will probably allow the Democrats to also win the presidential elections in 2008. Unfortunately, and as Chan and Safran explained, the electoral system in the United States protects the incumbent officials from the sways of public opinion, because public opinion has no effect on those elected officials between elections.

Finally, according to a January, 2007 Gallup poll, the number one reason (36 percent) why Americans opposed the war against Iraq today was “No reason to be there; unnecessary; unjustified.” The second reason (24 percent) was “False pretenses that got us involved; misled by our leadership; not informed.” The number of war casualties came as the third reason, 22 percent4. The first two reasons reveal that Americans were affected by the relative shift in the media’s bias.

US vs. Iraqi Public Opinions

Perhaps one of the most important, and most underreported, phenomena was the Iraqis’ public opinion since the beginning of the US-led war against Iraq. While Bush was reiterating in his speeches the objective of the war on Iraq – spreading democracy, freedom, and stability in Iraq – the Iraqis have been opposed to any military intervention from the very beginning. It wasn’t only the millions of world citizens voicing their opposition to the war before it even started, but also the millions of Iraqi citizens. Gallup International polls found in November, 2003 (eight months into the war) that 94 percent of Iraqis believed that Baghdad became a more dangerous place than before the invasion, an undeniable fact, while the image presented in the US did not give that impression at that time. The poll also found that 43 percent of Iraqis believed that the US and UK invaded to “rob Iraq’s oil,” while 37 percent believed it was to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and only 5 percent thought that the US invaded Iraq to “assist the Iraqi people”5 in any meaningful way, let alone spreading democracy in the region.

In addition, only 4 percent of Iraqis believed that the invasion had anything to do with weapons of mass destruction – Bush’s primary reason to invade Iraq which was initially supported by 72 percent of the US population6. One USA Today, CNN, and Gallup poll found in April of 2004 that the majority of Iraqis saw that the presence of the US military caused more harm than good and wanted an immediate US withdrawal from their country even if it led to chaos7, as the Bush administration always predicts. This view became even more common among Iraqis by 2006, and a switch from 71% disapproval of attacking US troops in 2003 to 61% approval of attacking US troops in 20068. Also according to the poll, the majority of Iraqis are glad that Saddam is gone, but that doesn’t mean that they support the current elected Iraqi parliament. Unknown to most of the American public, the campaign slogan that the majority of the Iraqi elected parliament members ran on was that if elected, they would seek an immediate cessation to the presence of US forces and military bases. But after getting elected, world media has shown that this majority of the Iraqi parliament members have been opposed to US withdrawal any time soon, contradicting their campaign slogan. They want the US forces to stay indefinitely, raising the level of dissent among Iraqis, as the polls have shown9.

As for the US efforts in influencing Iraqi public opinion, Nye explained the failure in this endeavor mostly due to the decline in US soft power. Although the US funded infamous Iraqi TV stations such as “Al-Hurra” and pan-Arab radio stations such as “Sawa,” it has been unsuccessful in winning the hearts and minds of Arabs in general, and Iraqis in particular (Nye, 2006). While Nye attributes this failure to cuts in information budgets and not spreading its dominant cultural values, I contend that it was Frensley and Michaud who provided a much more realistic explanation to the decline in America’s soft power (2006). Iraqis and Arabs in general need neither Arab nor non-Arab propaganda to see the US favorably or unfavorably. Not even a thousand stations like Al-Hurra or Sawa will rebuild America’s soft power. Rather, it is the US withdrawal from Iraq, and preferably from the entire Middle East, and the end of its unconditional support for Israel that will restore America’s soft power. It is the US presence in Middle Eastern countries, and other countries around the world, that’s causing “anti-Americanism.” In the global scene, the US is often seen as a selfish actor seeking its own interests even if it required interfering into other countries’ economic and political affairs. This sentiment is manifested in worldwide demonstrations and even riots (most of which is underreported in US media), usually near US embassies or the 725 US military bases all over the world.

The US government planners and experts seem to communicate with the world through a tabula rasa (or a clean slate) approach, almost wanting to teach the world about its not-so-unique values of democracy and freedom. As Frensley and Michaud had found, this approach does not even resonate with America’s closest cultural and economic ally to the north. The entire world understands exactly what democracy, freedom, and modernity are all about, and sincerely desire these values, because those values are not culturally bound. But simultaneously, the world understands that the US is not interested and has not demonstrated its willingness or desire to promote these universal values throughout the world. The international community often sees the US as the aggressor, the supporter of repressive totalitarian regimes, and the major supplier of weapons to violent groups (such as Al-Qaeda in the 1980s) and governments (such as Saudi Arabia and Israel who use their US-imported weapons to suppress the locals). In other words, the US can restore its soft power by refraining from violating the very values it unnecessarily preaches to people. America’s cultural exports and respect for agreements, as Nye pointed out, are sufficient to gain the world’s respect and support for the US.


The media has a prominent role in affecting public opinion, and a very small role in affecting policymaking. The media is a necessary tool to frame public opinion on issues of war, and its absence or restriction leads to a public that is in favor of war, even in a democracy. Whenever the media had access and was able to show the human face of war, the American public’s support for war declined significantly. Although the literature put much emphasis on the effect of American casualties on public opinion, polls have shown that, in the case of Iraq, the most important factor for Americans who oppose the war was their realization that the war was not necessary and unjust.

It is worrisome that the US media fails to allow the Iraqis to represent themselves, and instead chooses to represent the Iraqis on their behalf. Issues such as the Iraqi public opinion or Iraqi casualties and suffering seem to be severely underreported in the US, thus giving the American public an incomplete picture of the reality of the war in Iraq. Instead, the American media almost on a constant basis presents Western experts to discuss what Iraqis want, feel, or think. Most of the time (especially at the early stages of the war), the only authentic Iraqi voices that come through are those of the (pro-US) Iraqi government. If Iraqi public opinion (as shown in the polls in this paper) has been expressed from the early stages of this war, the American public might have reacted in disfavor of the Bush administration’s plans much earlier.

Media pooling and the de facto embeddedness of reporters with coalition forces reduces the prestige and credibility of the US media. While the US claims that media pooling and restrictions are for security reasons, other non-US reporters, such as Robert Fisk (UK – The Independent), Ahmed Mansour (Egypt – Aljazeera), and Giuliana Sgrena (Italy – Il Manifesto), who choose riskier work tend to provide a clearer picture of the situation in Iraq, rather than from the binoculars of the US-led coalition forces. Understanding the role of the media and its effect on public opinion is the key to unlocking the paradox in the democratic peace theory. Kant and others are right when they say that in democratic and free societies people are less likely to support wars (Chan & Safran, 2006). But I would add that this theory holds only when the public has access to credible and unbiased media. In the absence of credible media, the public is misinformed, as Martin has shown (2006), and hence becomes supportive of war which their government usually claims to be necessary.

End Notes

1 – Public law 107-243, 116 Stat. 1497-1502, http://www.c-span.org/resources/pdf/hjres114.pdf 
2 – Gallup Poll: http://www.galluppoll.com/content/?ci=1633&pg=1 
3 – UN: Human Rights Council: http://www.unog.ch/80256EDD006B9C2E/(httpNewsByYear_en)/139B02DBF40C30ACC12572A5004BEA3F?OpenDocument 
4 – Gallup International Poll: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A27979-2003Nov11 
5 – Ibid. 
6 – Ibid. 
7 – USA Today, CNN, Gallup: http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2004-04-28-poll-cover_x.htm 
8 – WorldPublicOpinion.org: http://www.worldpublicopinion.org/pipa/articles/brmiddleeastnafricara/250.php?nid=&id=&pnt=250&lb=brme 
9 – Ibid.

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