March 28, 2003

TV Combat Fatigue on the Rise

But 'Embeds' Viewed Favorably

Summary of Findings

Wall-to-wall media reports on the war in Iraq have not resulted in significant improvement in the public’s view of the media’s coverage of this war compared with the first Persian Gulf conflict. However, there are signs that 24-7 televised images of war are taking an increasing psychological toll. In recent days, more than four-in-ten (42%) expressed the view that “It tires me out to watch” TV coverage of the war, up from about one-in-three who agreed with that statement in the early days of the conflict.

There also have been notable increases in the numbers reporting other emotional reactions to watching coverage of the war. Over the past three days (March 25-27), 67% said they felt sad when they watched war coverage, up from 56% during the first days of the conflict (March 20-22). Similarly, the proportion who said it was “frightening” to watch war coverage increased from 45% to 58% over the same period.

The Pew Research Center’s tracking poll on war opinion shows that, in general, public evaluations of war coverage are not much different than they were a dozen years ago during the first Persian Gulf War. Three-in-ten Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in the accuracy of war reports, while 51% have a fair amount of confidence. Similarly, about three-quarters give the coverage a rating of excellent (34%) or good (41%). In both cases, opinion is about the same as it was in late January 1991, during the air war in Iraq (and prior to the start of the ground campaign).

More Americans have a great deal of confidence in the accuracy of military reports on the war than they do in media coverage (40% vs. 30%), though overall positive assessments for the military and media are similar. The number expressing a high degree of confidence in military reports also has risen since the first Persian Gulf War (40% now, 29% then).

Initial public reactions to the practice of news organizations embedding journalists with the troops have been favorable, though not overwhelmingly so. Nearly six-in-ten think it is a good thing that TV and newspaper reporters are traveling with U.S. forces and filing dispatches from the field, while a third say it is a bad thing.

A sample of respondents who took a negative view of the practice of embedding journalists with military forces were asked why they felt this way. Most said they felt that the reporters were providing too much information. Among these, many expressed concerns that the coverage provides intelligence to the enemy that could compromise the military campaign, while about an equal number suggested that the coverage was not good for Americans to see, or was just “too much.”

A number of people also said they worried about the dangers confronting the reporters themselves, and a few expressed concern that journalists may hinder or encumber the troops. Only a few people thought the presence of journalists with U.S. forces would result in biased reports, either in favor of the war or against it.