School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers

BACK TO : The Gulf War of 1991

The Gulf War: A study of the Media, Public Opinion and Public Knowledge by J Lewis et al


This is a study about the main news story of 1990/91 -- the war in the Persian Gulf. The controversy over the occupation of Kuwait received extensive media coverage for over six months. Throughout most of the period in the build up to the war (from August 1990 to January 1991) news coverage was both lengthy and intense. During the war itself, this escalated into long periods of saturation coverage. Rarely does any event receive such media attention.

While we, and others (for instance, groups such as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) have been interested in looking at how the news media dealt with the story, this study deals with the consequences of that coverage, and the
overall contribution of television to people's beliefs and assumptions about the Gulf War. What, we wanted to know, have the public learned from the media? Have the public become well informed about events in the Middle East
and U.S. foreign policy? The answer to these questions was, we discovered, both dramatic and revealing.

The study was prompted by a number of concerns we shared about the way the news media report (or fails to report) what is going on in the world. We were also motivated by the media's own rather self-congratulatory polls, which
revealed widespread satisfaction with the news coverage of events in the Gulf. This kind of opinion research (if that isn't too lofty a term for it) actually reveals a great deal about how media organizations view themselves. If you
want to evaluate the news as an entertainment medium, you ask people whether they like what they are watching -- as the media did. If, on the other hand, you want to judge it as an informational medium, you have to ask people what
they have learned. This is what we decided to do.

This is not an idle question: it goes to the very core of a democratic system, since the quality of our democratic decisions depends upon the quality of the information on which those decisions are based. Our study therefore tells us something about the health of democracy in the United States.

There is more at stake here than the success or failure of ABC or CNN: the high level of public support for the war in the Gulf has translated directly into historically-unprecedented approval for the President and for a particu-
lar style of foreign policy. The war, as politicians know only too well, will play a significant role in political fortunes for the next few years.


Our study is based upon telephone interviews carried out, between February 2nd to February 4th, 1991, with 250 randomly selected individuals living in the Metropolitan Denver area. The findings we present here have been tested for standard measurements of statistical significance (based on the universally accepted figure of .05, which means there is only a one in 20 probability that
the relationship is based on chance), and the relationships we explore have been isolated after running controls for other explanatory variables. (All methodological details of the study are fully explained in the Technical
Appendices, below.)

Our sample is fairly representative of the U.S. population in terms of gender, class and age, although the minority populations are slightly under-represented (this latter point does not, however, affect the substance of our
findings). It is also in line with other surveys on key issues, like levels of support for the war. Unless Denver has some quite extraordinary characteristics that we don't know about (and our other findings suggest the opposite) it is, statistically speaking, unlikely that we would get very
different results in a national survey.

We have been questioned by a number of journalists about the size of our sample, which is smaller than the numbers (of 500 plus) we have become used to in published polls about political or social issues. This is because most
polls concern issues of marketing or electoral races where the margin of error is critical (i.e. it matters if you have a margin of error of more than, say, three percentage points). Our survey is rather different, since the substance of the findings are so strongly weighted in certain directions. We are looking at the general pattern and nature of knowledge and opinion. We are not trying to predict the outcome of an election. The relationships we
report are reliable and generalizable.

Our questionnaire was designed to be as simple and straightforward as possible. Most of our questions were open-ended, in order to avoid pushing people into categories of response that they may not, on their own, have thought of. The factual questions we posed are, like most facts, not politically neutral. We did not intend that they should be. Some, like the State Department's failure to warn Iraq of the consequences of attacking Kuwait, reflect badly upon the Administration's war policy. Others, like knowledge of Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons, could be seen to justify the need for war. In this regard, we were interested in discovering whether the overwhelming public support for the war was based upon an acceptance of President Bush's moral rationale for the liberation of Kuwait (the defense of freedom, democracy and international boundaries and law) or whether the support was contingent and conditional (based upon considered and rational thought about the specifics of the Middle East, past and current
American policy towards the region, and American strategic interests).


Our survey, like most others taken during the period, showed strong public support (84% of our respondents) for President Bush's decision to use military force against Iraq. This support, as other surveys have shown, was stronger amongst men, white people and the young -- although not, as some have tried to suggest, amongst people with immediate family serving in the Gulf. Most people
(over two-thirds) described their opinion on this subject as strongly held, and a majority of our sample (58%) were prepared to pay higher taxes to pay for the war. We might expect, or at least hope, that such firm views on a
politically contentious issue would be based on a knowledge of the pertinent facts. In this case, we discovered, it is not.

We asked our respondents a number of questions about events in the Gulf, including the recent history of US foreign policy in the region and some basic facts about the Middle East. Despite the months of television coverage devoted to this story, most people, we found, were alarmingly ill informed.

The most striking gaps in people's knowledge involved information that might reflect badly upon the Administration's portrayal of this as a moral or just
war. The Administration's failure to discourage Iraq from attacking Kuwait, for example, is now well documented. At the very least, the Administration's subsequent aggressive posture towards Iraq reflected a shift, rather than a
consistency, of resolve. The overwhelming majority of our respondents were not only unaware of the Administration's initial attitude of appeasement, they assumed a consistency in policy that was entirely fictitious.

We asked people how the US State Department responded, in July 1990 (before the invasion), when Saddam Hussein indicated he may use force against Kuwait. Only 13% responded correctly (that the US indicated it would take no action), while 74% said the US threatened to impose sanctions, and as many as 65% said the Administration vowed to support Kuwait with the use of force. This
amounts to a quite extraordinary rewriting of history in the collective consciousness. There is no doubt that the Bush Administration is the beneficiary of this profound misunderstanding. It is, after all, much easier to strongly support the Administration's decision to go to war if you think the President has been consistent throughout, and if you believe that Saddam Hussein had been "warned."

Critics of the war policy say that it is hypocritical for the US to react so violently to one occupation in the Middle East, while ignoring -- or supporting -- others in the region. In terms of public support for the war,
this point is critical, since a majority of our respondents (53%) stated that the US should intervene with military force to restore the sovereignty of any illegally occupied country (compared with only 18% who supported intervention
to protect oil interests). What this suggests is that (unless they are advocating a whole series of military interventions) most people are unaware of other occupations in the Middle East -- or anywhere else. This is important, because such an awareness would undercut the moral cornerstone of the current war policy.

Less than a third of respondents (31%) were even aware that Israel was occupying land in the Middle East, and only 3% were aware of Syria's occupation of Lebanon. Despite repeated UN resolutions condemning both occupations, some may argue that Israel's occupation is more "justifiable"
than Iraq's. That is all well and good. What is clear from our survey is that most people are in no position to make such an evaluation, because they know about one occupation and not the other. The Bush Administration's
rejection of "linkage" between the two issues was therefore endorsed by a population who had no idea what it meant.

The lack of public knowledge of this issue was reflected in a survey conducted on February 4 and 5, 1991, by Marttila & Kiley, Inc. of Boston for the Anti-Defamation League. Question 53 of their interview asked:

"Do you favor or oppose giving the Palestinians a homeland of their own on the West Bank?"

In response to this question, people were in favor by a margin of almost three to one (58% in favor, 20% opposed). Question 67 then asked the same question, but in a different way. The question ran:

"Many people feel that if the West Bank were under Palestinian control, Iraq or other enemies might be able to use it as a base of operations for attacking Israel. With this in mind, which of these opinions about a Palestinian homeland is closer to yours: The Palestinians should have a homeland on the West Bank even if the risk to Israel's security cannot be completely eliminated, OR the Palestinians should not be allowed to have a West Bank homeland because the risk to Israel's security could never be completely eliminated."

Although the phrasing of this question makes the second (negative) response directly contradictory with a favorable response to question 53, opinion shifted quite dramatically: only 44% now responded favorably to the idea of a Palestinian homeland, while numbers opposed doubled to 41%.

How is it possible for public opinion to shift so markedly in the space of a few minutes? With a well-informed public, such a shift would be extraordinary. If attitudes, on the other hand, are not grounded in any clear understanding of the issue, opinion can be easily manipulated by nothing more than the phrasing of the question. What these responses indicate, in other
words, is a significant lack of awareness of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Similarly, while the plight of Kuwait quickly became common knowledge, only 15% were able to identify the Palestinian protest against occupation, the Intifada. Moreover, only 14% were aware that the United States was part of
the tiny minority in the UN to vote against seeking a political settlement to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. This is almost the same number -- 12% -- as those who suggested that Iraq were the gainsayers in this matter (we scarcely need to point out the irony of this misconception). This limited understanding, once again, makes it much easier for the President to appear
morally consistent, and to invoke "international law" as a basis for the attack on Iraq and occupied Kuwait.

This notion is also sustained by the idea that Saddam Hussein, like Adolph Hitler, is a madman who must be stopped. While we cannot comment on Hussein's inclinations towards megalomania, it is worth noting that the Iraqi
invasion of Kuwait was motivated, at least in part, by an unremarkable economic rationale. One of the most well documented reasons for the Iraqi invasion was Kuwait's insistence on lowering oil prices, a policy that was
severely straining Iraq's economy: yet only 2% of our sample were able to identify this as a reason for Hussein's action. While knowledge of this recent history would not, for most people, justify the invasion, it does make it more
difficult to portray Hussein as a power hungry lunatic with a relentless, unprovoked lust for power. The failure to understand this history, on the other hand, makes the Administration's attempt to portray Hussein as the most
evil leader since Hitler (as opposed to, say, Pol Pot, Pinochet or Assad, who might also have a claim to this infamous distinction) seem much more straightforward.

While most respondents had difficulty with questions about the Middle East or US foreign policy, there were a few areas that people were more confident about. Most of our sample (81%) knew the name of the missile used to shoot
down the Iraqi Scuds (the Patriot). Most people (80%) were also aware that Hussein had used chemical weapons against Iran and/or members of his own population. This knowledge suggests that the public are not generally ignorant
-- rather, they are selectively misinformed. There are some things, in other words, that most TV viewers do know about. However, just as the unknown facts are not neutral, neither are the known ones.

Knowing details about military hardware -- particularly one that, like the Patriot, has been celebrated for its defensive capabilities, may well help those who wish to promote the idea that the enormous Pentagon budget is "money well spent". Either way, it is, extremely disturbing that this public expertise in aspects of military technology is not matched by any clear
understanding of the circumstances that lie behind their deployment.

Similarly, knowledge of Hussein's past atrocities (which, brutal as they are, are not uncommon in a world littered with dictators with scant regard for human life), clearly support the Administration's moral case against Hussein.
So, for example, when asked whether the US should forcefully intervene against leaders that slaughter significant numbers of civilians, 58% responded
positively (less than half this number, 27%, said no). If this moral position was applied consistently, the US would have invaded many countries that the Administration has actually supported. This suggests that people's awareness
of Hussein's abuse of human rights is combined by unawareness of other comparable human rights abusers.

This amounts to a highly selective understanding of contemporary history, with all the awkward information neatly removed. It is a world view that allows people to construct an extremely misleading impression about US foreign policy based on a naive faith in being on the side of the "good guys" against the "bad guys". This context of information makes it far easier for President Bush to legitimate the war in moral and absolute terms. A moral reading becomes harder the more knowledge there is of other occupations (such as Israel's) and past U.S. policy towards Iraq.

We cannot blame the Pentagon or the Bush Administration for only presenting those facts that lend support for their case -- it isn't their job, after all, to provide the public with a balanced view. Culpability for this rests
clearly on the shoulders of the news media, particularly television, who have a duty to present the public with all the relevant facts. Our study suggests that they have failed, and failed quite dismally, in performing this duty.


One explanation that might account for the media's failure to communicate certain basic information (particularly information, as we have suggested, that undermines the Administration's war policy) is that people are simply not
watching the news. However, as this and other surveys have discovered, people watch a great deal of TV news. They may not be watching it carefully, but they are certainly watching it. Moreover, as we have demonstrated, some
information (usually information that "fits" the Bush Administration line) is undoubtedly getting through.

What our study revealed, in fact, is that TV news seems to confuse more than it clarifies. Even after controlling for all other variables, we discovered that the correlation between TV watching and knowledge was actually quite
often a negative one.

Our respondents were divided into three groups based upon how much television per day they reported watching -- light viewers (less than 1.5 hrs), medium viewers (1.5 to 3 hrs), and heavy viewers (more than 3 hrs). Using these divisions we found that overall, the more TV people watched, the less they knew.

For example, light viewers were more than twice as likely than heavy viewers to know that in the pre-invasion discussions between Iraq and the U.S., the American position had been to indicate that no action would be taken against Hussein should he invade Kuwait. Conversely, 70% of heavy viewers versus 59% of light viewers thought that the U.S. had informed Iraq that they would protect Kuwait with the use of force. Concerning past U.S. relations with
Iraq, heavy viewers were less likely than light viewers (46% to 67%) to know that the U.S. had supported Iraq during the Iran/Iraq war. On the issue of the political structure of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, heavy viewers were more than twice as likely to wrongly identify them as democracies than light viewers. In regards to the question of other occupations, 40% of light viewers versus 23% of heavy viewers were able to identify Israel's occupation
of other lands in the Middle East. Light viewers were twice as likely to know about the Palestinian uprising on the West Bank (the Intifada) than heavy viewers. Overall these results are a sad indictment of television's priorities regarding the conveying of relevant information at a time of national crisis.

Our own monitoring of the coverage suggests that the problem here is one of proportion. All the facts that we asked people about have, at one time or another, been reported. Their overall presence in the news coverage is,
nevertheless, very low. When compared to the presence of information about the mechanics of war or the administration's view of the situation, it is clear that information gets lost. Whatever else this signifies, it is not good journalism.

Television's tendency to present a one-sided view is compounded by the economic imperatives of a system funded by advertising. The upbeat tone of the coverage was seen as necessary to retain advertisers, since nobody wants
their product surrounded by images of death, pain and destruction. The problem, from the point of view of journalistic objectivity, is that this upbeat tone has played into the hands of the Bush Administration's attempt to sell the public the war policy.

One of our most striking findings concerned the perception of how much damage the intense bombing of Iraq and Iraqi troops had caused. When we asked people to estimate the number of Iraqi deaths thus far, light viewers gave a mean
estimate of 9,848 deaths (by February 4, 1991), while heavy viewers gave a mean figure of 789 (8% of the light viewers' estimate). The question here is not about accuracy but about relative perceptions -- clearly heavy viewers were more inclined than light viewers to buy into the idea that the war was being fought cleanly and efficiently with "smart" bombs that were only damaging buildings. The lack of visual pictures of actual dead people no doubt helps to cultivate this image of cleanliness.

The question raised by our findings is a significant one: if the news media had done a better job in informing people, would there be less support for the war? Our study indicates that the answer to this question is yes. This is not to say that it is not possible for people to be aware of most of the relevant facts about the Middle East and recent US foreign policy and still support the Bush policy: what are study suggests is simply that they would be less likely to. Fuller knowledge would make it harder to accept a moral rationale for the war (because there is so much non-supporting knowledge). To support the war in the light of this knowledge would require additional thought and reasoning -- support would have to be contingent, based upon particular judgments and configurations of rationales.


This point is implicit in our description of those things the public, on the whole, do not know, since many of these facts undermine key parts of the Administration's moral argument. What confirms it is that our study revealed a
strong correlation between knowledge and opposition to the war. The more people know, in other words, the less likely they were to support the war policy. We are not saying that people against the war are right and those in
favor of it are wrong, merely that since our study shows a clear relation between knowledge and opinion, and, since the things people do not know tend to undermine the Administration's moral position, it is plausible to assume
that an increase in knowledge could lead to an increase in the opinion more strongly associated with it.

There are many examples of this correlation. Strong supporters of the war, for example, were more than twice as likely to wrongly assert that Kuwait was a democracy than non-supporters (28% to 12%). This suggests that over a
quarter of those supporting the war have been misled into supposing that this is a "fight for democracy". Similarly, only 10% of strong supporters were aware that the US had failed to warn Hussein of their response to an invasion,
compared to 27% of non-supporters. Additionally, 71% of strong supporters as opposed to 46% of opponents erroneously thought that the U.S. said it would support Kuwait with the use of force. In relation to the Palestinian uprising on the West Bank opponents of the war were more than twice as likely to be able to identify the Intifada than strong supporters (24% to 12%). One of the
few facts that supporters were more aware of was the name of the Patriot missile.

In regards to "opinion" questions, there were also some striking differences between supporters and non-supporters. When asked on what basis the U.S. should intervene in other countries, supporters of the war were much more likely to countenance military action. For example, 63% of strong supporters, compared with 27% of opponents of the war, thought that the U.S. should
intervene militarily to protect human rights in the case of a guerrilla army taking power and slaughtering civilians. Similarly, 65% of supporters, compared with 15% of opponents, thought that the U.S. should intervene
militarily in the case of illegal occupations of foreign countries. Even in the case of fighting for oil, supporters were more than twice as likely as opponents to support military intervention (21% to 10%). Given the
association between knowledge and opinion, the anti-war respondents' reluctance to endorse military intervention may have been partly due to their awareness that agreement would imply widespread military actions, since some of them doubtlessly knew that these situations apply to many other countries apart from Iraq.

On the question of whether the U.S. fought the Viet Nam war "with one hand tied behind their back", as President Bush has asserted, 87% of strong supporters agreed with that statement, as compared with 67% of non-supporters.
It is also worth noting that supporters of the war also gave much lower estimates of the loss of life in the war thus far, particularly on the Iraqi side. The average estimate of Iraqi casualties was between three and four
times higher amongst those who did not support the war. While we are not in a position to verify which estimate was more accurate, there is clearly a very different perception between the two groups about the effects of the war.


Given the relationships we have described between media use, knowledge, and support for the war, we would expect amount of television viewing itself to be associated with support for the war. Overall, there is an extremely strong
positive relationship between general amount of television viewing and support for the war. Less than half (46.6 percent) of the light viewers, compared to three-quarters (75.7 percent) of the heavy viewers, "strongly" supported
President Bush's decision to use military force against Iraq (gamma = .30, p

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