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What the milkman saw:
The regional press and frame adjustment
in the shadow of war
University of Missouri
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What the milkman saw:
The regional press and frame adjustment
in the shadow of war
As President Bush sought to make his case for a war against Iraq, he and
his administration consistently framed such a conflict as part of a broader
war against terrorism. A content analysis of a major regional daily
newspaper suggests that while this alignment was broadly accepted at the
outset, press accounts became increasingly less receptive to it as the
conflict drew nearer and even less as fighting began.
What the milkman saw:
The regional press and frame adjustment in the shadow of war
The study of news frames, long a useful tool for examining the portrayal of
the Middle East in U.S. media, has already been employed to shed light on
the 2003 U.S.-Iraq war (e.g. Wicks 2003). This study seeks to add to that
body of research by examining a specific piece of official framing, the
portrayal of a war against Iraq as part of a broader war on terrorism, as
it is presented in the regional press before, during and after the formal
period of "major combat" in Iraq.
Of the array of rationales the Bush administration presented for its focus
on Iraq in 2002 and 2003, the idea of a link to terrorism was consistently
prominent. While concerns about Iraq's efforts to develop nuclear,
biological and chemical weapons were heavily emphasized, President Bush and
senior members of his administration often painted that issue itself as a
fresh danger posed by anti-American terrorists presumably allied with Iraq.
The connection to terrorism and the specter of an attack on the scale of
Sept. 11 or worse, then, was perhaps the most persistent of the
justifications. Given the widespread skepticism, even among its closest
allies, about the administration's case for military action, news accounts
that place a war against Iraq in the wider frame of a war against terrorism
could only help its cause. Through a content analysis in the regional
press, this study offers a way of measuring the degree to which press
portrayals of the Iraq-terrorism connection in the run-up to war reflect
official statements and, more broadly, an official view.
The study uses news articles, commentaries and such supplemental matter as
speech texts from one major regional newspaper, the St. Louis
Post-Dispatch, published in 2002 and the first seven months of 2003, as
archived on Lexis-Nexis. This allows for an examination of framing at a
critical time, around the 2002 State of the Union address: "an ideal
setting to examine the relationship between the president and the press"
(Wanta, Stephenson, Turk and McCombs, 1989) in any circumstance, but
especially pertinent here because of Bush's use of that speech to link
Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil." The study concludes in
summer 2003 to help avoid any confounding influence from the persistent
nonstate violence that continues through this writing. It hopes to shed
light on one aspect of how, as Evensen put it, "the taken for granted in
foreign policy gets taken for granted" (1992, p. 3) – and, more
particularly, how it becomes taken for granted in coverage of foreign policy.
Framing: Through a glass, sharply
The idea that the essence of framing is sizing – "magnifying or shrinking
elements of the depicted reality to make them more or less salient" (Entman
1991, p. 9) – makes it a particularly useful tool for examining official
justifications for the 2003 war: the renewed specter of a chemical attack,
links to militant and extremist organizations, the benefits to Iraq and the
world of removing a particularly odious ruler. Framing analysis in media
studies can trace a root back to Lippmann's explanation (1922) of
organizing the world outside into "the pictures in our heads." It is
sometimes described as a supplement to agenda-setting theory. If the core
tenet of agenda-setting is Bernard Cohen's oft-repeated distinction between
telling audiences what to think and telling them what to think about,
framing concentrates on Cohen's next sentence: "[I]t follows from this that
the world looks different to different people, depending not only on their
personal interests but also on the map that is drawn for them by the
writers, editors and publishers of the papers they read" (1963, p. 13).
Cohen's distinction is a fine one – so fine that Entman, for example,
considers it fundamentally misleading: "If the media (or anyone) can affect
what people think about – the information they process – the media can
affect their attitudes" (1989, p. 349). Much writing on media frames, then,
looks at ways of bridging that theoretical gap. Kuypers (1997, p. 42)
places framing on a continuum with agenda-setting and agenda extension:
"Framing thus involves the relationship between qualitative aspects of news
coverage – contextual cues – and how the public interprets the news."
Iyengar and Simon (1993, p. 366) describe a similar relationship between
the characteristics of news and public understanding of it in an earlier
study of the 1990-1991 Gulf conflict. Pan and Kosicki (1993, p. 70) suggest
that framing adds theoretical heft to agenda-setting's "empirical
generalities" in that it "expands beyond what people talk or think about by
examining how they think and talk" – the map, in other words, that Cohen
suggests is drawn so differently according to different contexts.
Studies of a second level of agenda-setting, as they "merge traditional
agenda-setting with framing research" (Wanta, Golan and Lee, 2004, p. 8),
follow a similar path in finding that media coverage can affect not only
the perceived importance of objects but that of attributes of those objects
as well. Their study in particular, underscoring the importance of media
representations in audiences' understanding of distant issues, also expands
the second level of agenda-setting to include attributes of nations as well
as of individual newsmakers. But the original agenda-setting approach has
also been frequently used (Lewis and Rose 2002, Edwards and Wood 1999,
Miller and Wanta 1996) to examine the balance of influence between
government and media on public opinion.
Because framing is a "complex and elusive" concept (Norris, 1995, p. 357),
researchers have sought to pin down specific meanings for it – to ensure
that an approach used so flexibly is at the same time sturdy enough to
perform what is asked of it. In Norris's schema, journalists use news
frames "to simplify, prioritize and structure the narrative flow of events"
(p. 357), and these frames "bundle key concepts, stock phrases and
stereotyped images to reinforce certain common ways of interpreting
developments" (p. 358). The approach has been used to study patterns of
coverage generated by the media themselves (Wicks 2003) as well as the
struggle for control of frames and narratives between governments and
insurgents (Swart 1995), governments and non-party opposition movements
(Coles 1998), and factions of social movements (Benford 1993).
Extended to the frames appearing in the news media, such competition,
Wolfsfeld (1997, p. 3) suggests, is "part of a larger and more significant
contest among political antagonists for political control." If one party
can dictate the frame – the issues, the context, the tools for discussion,
the likely remedies – through which central events are presented, the
advantage is obvious.
Officialdom appears to start with such an advantage. News may consist
primarily of "what someone says," as Bell (1991, p. 191) notes in
summarizing an array of research into news production, but it is not
necessarily what anyone says: "News is what an authoritative source tells a
journalist." Noakes (2000, para. 5) suggests that this aspect of the
contest has been generally neglected in framing studies: "With few
exceptions ... analysts continue to ignore or gloss over the mobilization
of official frames by state agencies." Agenda-setting, though, has been
used to examine both the scale of influence from the official side and the
ability of news reports to influence the White House agenda; Wanta,
Stephenson, Turk and McCombs (1989) found a complex and
difficult-to-predict array of strengths and pressures. However great the
influence of a nationally televised address might be, Miller and Wanta
indicate, political leaders cannot count on its influence alone but "must
rely upon the news media for continued coverage of their issue priorities"
(1996, para. 6).
Officials who would be opinion leaders have an ally in the very convenience
framing provides for the media. Norris, Kern and Just list a half-dozen
incidents in a half-dozen unrelated conflicts by way of suggesting that
"without knowing much, if anything, about the particular people, groups,
issues or even places involved, the terrorist and anti-terrorist frame
allows us to quickly sort out, interpret, categorize, and evaluate these
conflicts" (2003, p. 11). The eagerness of such nations as the Philippines
to align their own internal conflicts with the U.S. war on terrorism points
to the advantages overseas of such quick sorting and aligning. At home, it
is the natural ally of the president; if he "needs the cumulative effect of
the daily repetition of news media coverage to advance the agenda of issues
that he deems important" (Miller and Wanta, 1996, para. 50), he gains the
greatest benefit if that coverage echoes not only his themes but the
attributes he imparts to them. President Bush held that advantage at the
outset; while his position was not universally acknowledged, it went to a
large degree unchallenged. This study's purpose is to see how that changed
and what might have influenced it.
Methods: Why the regional press?
It is commonplace for studies of U.S. newspaper coverage to start and end
with the "prestige papers," particularly the New York Times. But for all
their value and influence, the prestige papers are not the ones that frame
the Middle East for "the milkman in Omaha" (Cohen, 1963, p. 110) and his
friends and family. Indeed, recent research has looked to the regional
press to examine its agenda-setting function (Golan and Wanta 2001) and its
effectiveness in international coverage (Horvit 2003). The large regional
news organizations, further, take on added significance in the context of
the times; concerned that "the American people 'aren't getting the truth'
about Iraq," President Bush "has taken his pitch to regional media outlets
that are thought to be more compliant than the national newspapers and
television networks" (Cohen 2003). True or not, and this research suggests
the latter, such damnation with faint praise underscores the relevance of
examining frame movement outside the shadow of the prestige press.
This study uses one major regional newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,
chosen as the beginning of a purposive sample from among roughly 50
newspapers in that category. Major regional papers were defined as those
with circulations between about 200,000 and 400,000 copies daily, based in
a state capital or commercial center, and either dominating the newspaper
market in a state or holding a large share of it along with part of a
neighboring state. Such papers typically generate their own Washington, and
often national, coverage, or at least share in supporting and directing it
with other members of a chain. While they occasionally send reporters
overseas, they rarely maintain international bureaus, though the chains
that they belong to might subsidize a collective international presence.
These are newspapers, then, that can play a significant role in putting
forth an agenda but rely for international coverage on news provided from
agencies and other outside sources.
The Post-Dispatch archive in the Lexis-Nexis database, which includes
wire-service reports as well as staff-generated articles, was searched for
items mentioning "Iraq" and "war on terrorism" or "war on terror" and
published between Dec. 1, 2001, and July 31, 2003. News articles, features,
editorials, analyses, speech texts, commentaries, and question-and-answer
items were included, but letters to the editor and "sound off" features,
perhaps the closest to unmediated popular opinion, were not. Because this
method can include material from the business, sports and local news
sections in addition to more traditional news and opinion sections, it
covers a wider spectrum of what the milkmen of St. Louis might see. Such
items can reflect preferred frames even when not reporting official views.
Based on the degree to which they placed Iraq in a news frame with the war
on terrorism, items were sorted into five categories:
1) Clearly accepting the frame: An item that declares or suggests without
attribution that Iraq is part of a war on terrorism, as in "defended a
White House request for $87 billion to rebuild Iraq and for war on terror
efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan." Items about Iraq that did not
specifically mention terrorism but were packaged under such labels as "War
on Terror" are placed in this category unless they mentioned Iraq in only a
2) Leaning toward acceptance of the frame: Items in which a connection
between Iraq and a wider war on terrorism is attributed to an official or
nonofficial source, as a direct or indirect quote. Items that offer
multiple frames are placed in this category if the acceptance frame is
stronger: for example, an item in which one paragraph indicates a neutral
stance and another a clear acceptance.
3) Neutral: Items that indicate no clear stance or offer multiple frames
evenly balanced between acceptance and rejection.
4) Leaning toward rejection of the frame: An item in which a distinction
between Iraq and a wider war on terrorism is made, with attribution. For
example: "In their remarks to Democratic audiences this year, they have
criticized the president for … paying too much attention to Iraq and not
enough to North Korea and the war on terrorism." Items offering multiple
frames are placed in this category if rejection is stronger. Items in which
the writer suggests that efforts to frame Iraq and terrorism together are
unsuccessful are also placed here.
5) Rejecting the frame: Any item that maintains a distinction between the
war on Iraq and the war on terrorism without attribution: "The Pentagon has
not said how many of the 223,000 backup troops on active duty were
mobilized specifically for the Iraq war and how many for the global war on
Five items from August 2003 were also coded to provide a "next 10" set for
the latest dates in the study. The sample thus allowed for observation as
the "axis of evil" was proclaimed, as debate intensified in Washington and
at the U.N, on the eve of war, through its progress and as the postwar
debate over the administration's justification for the conflict continued.
These data were used to determine an average acceptance level for each
month studied and for the next 10 items appearing after each of a series of
news events and public pronouncements.
Because comparatively few items are involved (n=239), a census was
possible. All items were coded by one researcher. To check the reliability
of the acceptance-rejection scale, 26 items, or nearly 11 percent, were
also scored by a second coder. Reliability using Cohen's kappa, which takes
into account the possibility of agreement by chance, was 0.79, considered
an "excellent" result (Robson 223).
Events and data, month by month
Figure 1 below shows the average acceptance or rejection of the frame, with
0 indicating neutral, for each month of the study. For each event listed,
Figure 2 shows the average acceptance/rejection frame for the month in
which it occurred and the average for the next 10 items appearing after it.
Descriptions and analyses of the events are taken from reports in the
Jan. 29, 2002: The State of the Union speech in which Bush placed Iraq,
Iran and North Korea on an "axis of evil." He "detailed an alarming scope
of potential terrorism and threatened a response against Iraq and other
countries that support terrorism."
May 21, 2002: Three senior figures address issues of Iraq and terrorism.
Before leaving for a European visit and NATO-Russia summit, Bush "told
Europeans ... Iraq was a menace to them." Secretary of State Colin Powell
warned that "terrorists are trying every way they can" to get nuclear,
chemical or biological weapons. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: "We
have to recognize that terrorist networks have relationships with terrorist
states that have weapons of mass destruction and that they inevitably are
going to get their hands on them."
Aug. 27, 2002: U.S. warplanes carry out their sixth and seventh raids on
Iraqi air-defense targets in a little over a week, out of a total 32 so far
for the year.
Sept. 2, 2002: Iraq says it is ready to discuss the return of weapons
inspectors; the White House dismisses the idea.
Sept. 12, 2002: In a U.N. speech, Bush sets four conditions for Iraq,
including disclosure and destruction of weapons programs and an end to
support for terrorism.
Sept. 17, 2002: Iraq offers to let U.N. weapons inspectors return
Oct. 7, 2002: In a speech televised in prime time, Bush says "the threat
from Iraq stands alone – because it gathers the most serious dangers of our
age in one place. … Iraq could decide on any given day to provide a
biological or chemical weapon to a terrorist group or individual
terrorists. Alliances with terrorists could allow the Iraqi regime to
attack America without leaving any fingerprints."
Oct. 10, 2002: Congress approves a resolution authorizing military action
Nov. 5, 2002: Midterm elections strengthen Republican majorities in
Congress. "The best way to define the Bush mandate is to look at what the
president said in his indefatigable stumping through the hustings. He
stressed fighting terrorism, disarming Iraq, establishing a homeland
security department without worker protections, making the tax cut
permanent and confirming his conservative judicial nominees."
Nov. 8, 2002: U.N. Security Council unanimously approves a new mandate for
Iraq to rid itself of its nonconventional weapons.
Nov. 14, 2002: Iraq agrees to U.N. resolution on weapons inspections.
Dec. 7, 2002: Iraq releases its declaration on nuclear, biological and
chemical weapons programs.
Dec. 20, 2002: Bush says Iraq's declaration is a "long way" from meeting
Jan. 28, 2003: State of the Union address: "The president said the Iraqi
leader seeks to 'dominate, intimidate or attack' with weapons of mass
destruction and speculated in grave terms about what could happen if
terrorists equipped by the Iraqi leader with chemical or biological weapons
attacked the United States. 'Imagine those 19 hijackers with other weapons
and other plans, this time armed by Saddam,' Bush said."
Feb. 5, 2003: Powell addresses U.N., emphasizing allegations about Iraq's
March 17, 2003: Bush gives Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave the country. He
also cautions Americans about the threat of retaliatory strikes by terrorists.
March 20, 2003: War begins with air raids on Baghdad.
April 1, 2003: Rescue of the American POW Jessica Lynch.
April 9, 2003: Toppling of Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad.
April 14, 2003: Capture of Tikrit, seen effectively as an end to the war
May 1, 2003: Bush declares "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended"
after flight to returning aircraft carrier. "'The liberation of Iraq is a
crucial advance in the campaign against terror,' the president said. 'We
have removed an ally of al-Qaida and cut off a source of terrorist funding.
And this much is certain: No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass
destruction from the Iraqi regime because that regime is no more.'"
June 9, 2003: Bush talks again about Iraq's nonconventional weapons: "Iraq
had a weapons program. Intelligence throughout the decade (of the 1990s)
showed they had a weapons program. I am absolutely convinced with time
we'll find out they did have a weapons program."
July 2, 2003: Bush's "bring 'em on" comment at news conference, discussing
guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops.
Bars above 0 indicate acceptance of the frame; bars beneath 0 indicate
Results and discussion
The study period begins with December 2001, to provide a baseline before
the 2002 State of the Union address, in which President Bush first referred
to Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an "axis of evil." This period, the third
month of the "war on terrorism" that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, shows a
slight leaning toward acceptance of the frame that includes Iraq in that
war: on a scale from 1, clear acceptance, to 5, clear rejection, with 3 as
neutral, qualifying items in December average 2.45 (see Figure 1) The next
two months, January and February 2002, show the greatest acceptance, or the
closest alignment of Iraq with the war on terrorism: in both cases an
average of slightly less than 2. Further, the next 10 items published after
the "axis of evil" speech yield the strongest acceptance of all at 1.5
A successful effort by the White House to control the frame – to see the
view it puts forth mirrored in news coverage – should show that number
remaining fairly steady. Should the picture be adversely affected by news
events, official remarks can attempt to redress the change. The
month-by-month results, though, show the frame slipping in the other
direction. This generally occurs independently of levels of coverage and,
with one notable exception, independently of the administration's efforts
to make its case for war.
Still, it is notable overall how close the month-on-month averages are to
neutrality in the six months before the war. The war on terrorism, after
all, was particularly short on definition in its early stages; the later
data could indicate that the press is finding its feet after an initial
period in which "war on terrorism" meant whatever anyone, particularly
anyone official, wanted it to mean.
While impartiality is certainly a goal of the U.S. press, it is hardly the
only goal; "Candidates Spar about Nature of Moon" is not the appropriate
headline when one camp contends that the moon is made of green cheese and
the other that it is an airless rock. An overall trend toward increasing
rejection of the frame could point to an increasing insistence on support
for unsubstantiated claims – over and above articles that openly discuss
the lack of evidence for the administration's case. Too, not all the
decisions affecting the war's portrayal are made by reporters and writers.
The condensing and packaging functions of editing and design are
particularly subject to the errors that Bell, in his study of editing
accuracy (1984, pp. 92-93), calls "over-assertion" and "over-scope":
expanding the strength of an assertion or the breadth of the area it covers
beyond what the text at hand will support. Even if a story questioning the
possibility of links between Iraq and al-Qaida never appears in the paper,
an editor who reads it on the wire might be more cautious about placing
Iraq items in the day's "War on Terror" package.
The months yielding the greatest number of items mentioning Iraq and the
war on terrorism are February 2002, the month after Bush's second State of
the Union address (Jan. 29); September 2002, the anniversary of the 2001
attacks; and January 2003, which included the prewar State of the Union.
But except for July 2002, which produced only one qualifying item, the mean
is never again as accepting as in February 2002. And the other months that
produce the most mentions are slightly to noticeably on the other side of
neutral. Greater coverage here suggests greater skepticism.
The most distinct changes toward acceptance occur in October 2002, as
Congress debated a resolution approving the use of force against Iraq, and
February 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell took the
administration's case to a televised hearing at the U.N. Security Council.
This could suggest the importance of bipartisanship or impartiality; the
vote in Congress drew support from a number of Democrats, and Powell
carried high credibility as the senior administration official least
embroiled in politics.
Neither effect, though, appears long-lived. In both cases, the average
acceptance in the 10 subsequent items (see Figure 2) is lower than the
monthly average. The 2002 midterm election, in which Republicans
strengthened their control of Congress and security issues played a
significant role, saw the average swing past neutral toward rejection
again. And the trend toward acceptance that came with Powell's speech moved
in the other direction as the war began; the figures are never again on the
The next-10 averages generally show sharper contrasts than the
month-on-month figures but again suggest no clear advantage for the
president and his agenda. The pivotal January 2002 State of the Union
address, occurring in the month in which Iraq and terrorism were most
closely aligned in the frame, sees a follow-on increase in acceptance. But
presidential speeches of September and October 2002, when the overall
frames were slightly negative and slightly positive, both yield less
acceptance in the following 10 items. A significant exception is Iraq's
release of its declaration on nuclear-biological-chemical programs, which
was followed by an increase in acceptance of Bush's frame; this trend
occurs with several other Iraqi statements as well.
This method is not a seamless web; it is difficult to imagine a search
that would find every article from a 20-month archive that said or implied
something about a potential link between Iraq and al-Qaida terrorism. But
it does suggest what one "restless searchlight" among many is showing to
the milkmen, and their families, customers and suppliers, in one city. An
appearance of nonpartisan unity appears to be effective in producing
positive frame alignment for the administration's cause. Repeated
statements by the president do not appear to produce a positive effect,
though the introduction of an internationally respected actor can, at least
Attempts to generalize from these patterns must also take into account the
particular circumstances of this particular presidency: Bush came to office
with little reputation as a student of international affairs but shortly
found his presidency defined to a large degree by the unprecedented events
of Sept. 11. He appears to have begun the period after that cataclysm with
significant influence over the frame through which international events are
seen. But absent fresh evidence to support his contention, and with other
frames competing for attention, the "taken for granted" of his policy was
steadily less likely to be taken for granted in the pages of the Post-Dispatch.
Suggestions for future research
The perpetually vexing effort to define "terrorism" is beyond the scope of
this project, nor is it suggested that terrorists, however they are
defined, did not find support and shelter from the regime in Baghdad. But
the ease with which organizations or governments can be moved into the
ambit of a war against terrorism is of enduring interest not just to those
organizations or governments but to media organizations trying to report on
that war in an uncluttered fashion. The degree to which other regional
conflicts are placed in a wider frame of terrorism would bear useful study.
The recent war also provides a number of other avenues for exploring the
contest for control of media frames. Much as Aima (1999) examined the
process by which "Saddam" came to stand more and more frequently for "Iraq"
after the earlier U.S.-Iraq war, the degree to which the long-ruling
Baathists are cast in with Hitler and Stalin in such phrases as
"de-Baathification" merits research. Similarly, given the notable
differences in Western and Arab participation, an examination of portrayals
of "coalition" efforts in the 1991 and 2003 wars could shed light on how
successfully that frame has been moved to the forefront.
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