Dec 24, 2007

Do Europeans Speak With One Another in Time of War? Results of a Media Analysis on the 2003 Iraq War

The Reconstructing Democracy in Europe project [a five-year research project with 19 partner institutions and approximately 70 participating researchers across Europe] has published a study comparing the framing in various print media in Europe of the key issues in the period leading up to the war in Iraq.

Do Europeans Speak With One Another in Time of War? Results of a Media Analysis on the 2003 Iraq War [28-page pdf]:

Some might depict this approach as ‘media centric’ – and they are correct. This study deliberately chose mass media discourse - and not discourses of political elites, for instance - as one but not the only possible forum where a public sphere can develop. The main argument for concentrating on mass media is that in modern democratic states opinion-forming with respect to issues of common concern, in which politicians, civil society and media can engage as active speakers, and interested citizens as – at least - passive observers, can no longer function without recourse to the mass media (cf. Habermas 2001: 119). Thus, mass media have a most significant and essential function in mediating these debates and consequently the term ‘European public sphere’ as used in this study means first and foremost a European public media sphere. Another possible, twofold objection to this approach has to do with the particular logic of news reporting in mass media. One argument is that mass media tends to focus on news issues with a national dimension. Granted that news with a national framing tend to be more salient than news with a European one, the question arises how one can measure European communication in mass media that leaves a smaller chance for issues with a European dimension to make the news? As I consider this question not only a theoretical but also an empirical one, I thus want to leave the answer to empirics. In this respect, the findings presented in chapter three (p. 12ff) may come as striking. Contrary to the theoretical supposition, the findings of this media analysis do not point to a dominant national but transnational framing of the run-up of the 2003 Iraq War. As will be shown in more detail later, four out of the five most frequently used and visible frames in national newspaper discourses are used similarly in a transnational dimension whereas only one frame seems to be a characteristic of a national, in this case the British, discourse. So, addressing the issue of a possible data bias from the empirical perspective of this small study, a predominantly national framing cannot be confirmed. A second problem that might arise of the particular logic of mass media is the argument that news reporting in mass media is biased towards crises, problems or ‘negative’ news in general. This assumption may be correct but in my view, it might not pose a particular problem for the research design of this study. The issue of war and intervention was deliberately chosen: Because of its generally contested character, public debates on this issue might exactly lead to the types of debates this study is particularly looking for. Therefore, the argument that news reportage might show a bias towards ‘negative’ events may be correct but not necessarily problematic for this particular study – even the contrary might be the case. To put it simplistically, one could maybe even argue that the stronger public discourse focuses on crises and conflicts, the more ‘beneficial’ effects this might have for the purpose of this study as it raises the likelihood that debates of a more general kind come up that also contain discussions on shared and diverging view points and problem definitions, interpretations of reference, with regard to the issue of war and peace.


In order to test the difference hypothesis, two American newspapers were included along with the European newspapers. The evaluation demonstrated that the assumption of diverging interpretations in transnational comparison could only partially be confirmed. In other words: in the case of three frames, namely ‘Iraq poses a threat’, ‘United Nations matter’ and ‘US foreign policy is problematic’, it was impossible to provide evidence of a typically European discourse. These interpretations appear with similar frequency in German, British and American media debates, although with small differences. For instance, there seemed to be a more intensive discourse on the subject ‘Iraq poses a threat’ in the American and British press than in German newspapers, while the critical discourse on ‘Iraq poses a threat’ was in turn stronger in the British and German papers. ‘United Nations matter’ was the frame that appeared most frequently. Only in relation to the frame ‘US foreign policy is problematic’ did the paper’s political affiliation play a significant role: in all of the countries, criticism of the United States was reflected more intensely in liberal newspapers. For all the above mentioned three frames, the difference hypothesis could not be proved. However, the interesting finding was that it could be verified for the ‘International Law matters’ frame. Seemingly, this frame reflects a specifically European aspect of the debate on the use of military force in Iraq. Although this interpretation type was indeed found in American newspapers, the frequency with which the legal dimension of the debate was highlighted varies quite considerably between American and European newspapers. In the American press, particularly the conservative Washington Post, this viewpoint plays a very insignificant role.


It is notable that the frequency with which statements are assigned to [the International Law matters] frame does not exceed the 10 per cent threshold in either of the American newspapers. In the European newspapers, the frequency is somewhat higher in the liberal papers Guardian and Sueddeutsche Zeitung. From the perspective of ‘International Law matters’, passionate positions were taken in German and British newspapers with respect to the use of military force in Iraq. The following quotes are examples:

SZ: The end of international law? Simma: At any rate, this is a fateful hour. But you also have to see that the concern of the world public for international law has never been so pronounced as it is today! (SZ 01.02.2003)

For this reason alone it is impossible to comprehend the position of a number of politicians who interpret the serious consequences referred to in Resolution 1441 as an immediate starting gun for war. (FAZ 06.02.2003)

No, Mr. Blair, there is absolutely no justification whatsoever for an invasion of Iraq. The attempt by the US and UK governments to finesse us into support for a war that is illegal and immoral leaves us with no confidence in our leaders. (Times 12.02.2002)

Britain and the United States are on the verge of launching a ‘19th-century gunboat war’ in the Gulf which will be illegal and immoral, the former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle warned the House of Commons yesterday.’ (Guardian 19.03.2003)

In the New York Times and the Washington Post, by contrast, there are far fewer references to the legal dimension of the Iraq debate. Barely six per cent of all coded references in the New York Times relate to ‘International Law matters’, while the equivalent figure for the Washington Post is only just above four per cent. It was particularly noteworthy that not one single reference was found in the Washington Post reflecting the opinion that the use of military force was not compatible with or was difficult to reconcile with international law. The overwhelming opinion emerging from German and British newspapers, on the other hand, was that there was no legal basis for the use of military force in Iraq.

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