The causes and consequences of public support, or the lack thereof, for the overseas application of military force is a subject of longstanding scholarly debate. The most widely accepted explanations emphasize rational public responses to events as they unfold. Such “event-based” explanations hold that a president’s ability to sustain public support for a U.S. military engagement depends primarily on its degree of success, the number of or trend in U.S. casualties, or the U.S. goals in a given conflict. Yet, recent research into the framing of foreign policy has shown that public perceptions concerning, success or failure, the implications of casualties, and the offensive or defensive nature of U.S. military engagements are often endogenous to the domestic political circumstances surrounding them, including the efforts of political and media elites to frame events to their own advantage.
In this study, we develop and test a series of hypotheses concerning media coverage of, and public opinion regarding, the war in Iraq. In the former case, in prior research (Baum and Groeling 2004, 2005) we report evidence that journalists’ preferences lead traditional news programs to disproportionately feature instances of members of the presidential party criticizing their fellow partisan president and, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent, of the opposition party praising him. Moreover, because they represent costly speech, presidential party attacks are highly credible to consumers, as is opposition party praise. In contrast, in more ideologically narrow “new media” outlets, we anticipate that the balance will likely differ substantially.
We test our hypotheses concerning media coverage through a comprehensive content analysis of all coverage of the war from September 2004 through February 2007 appearing on the CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News and FOX’s Special Report with Brit Hume. We test our public opinion hypotheses using that same dataset, as well as an expert survey on conditions in Iraq and national opinion toward the Iraq War broken down by party. We find significant differences in both the composition and impact of partisan messages on public opinion across outlets.