Media Coverage During War

In her article, Tangled Memories, Marita Sturken analyzes the effect of the media on wars.  There are a lot of different opinions regarding the media’s involvement in wars.  It can either help the cause or hinder it.  Media in wars can be a good thing depending on when and how it is used.  The camera has been such an advantage to American society and is described as “a device for constructing cultural memory and history and as a device for waging warfare” (131).  It should seem logical that the next step with the camera and media was to take it into warfare to provide a front row view of what was going on.

Marita Sturken uses the effect of the media on wars to contrast two different wars: the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War.  In the Vietnam War, the media had no restrictions and its result was devastating to the American public.  Contrasting this idea, is the Persian Gulf War. In this war, the military controlled the media and it had a vastly different effect on the American public.  Although there can be advantages to using media in wars, Sturken uses these wars to provide insight of the disadvantages of media and its lasting effects on America.

The Vietnam War proved to be a rather graphic war.  The media was allowed to provide full coverage of the war and although the images took a few days to get back to the United States, they still had their effects.  As we were discussing in class, there are images in American history that are iconic and everlasting.  The Vietnam War provided many images that showed the graphic nature of this war.  For example, the little girl running naked from napalm, the shooting of a Vietcong suspect, and the victims of the My Lai massacre, which were all images we viewed in class.

In describing the Vietnam War, Sturken focuses on the topic of the Vietnam syndrome, which she defines as “the national ‘malaise’ that fueled popular sentiment against interventions with American troops in foreign conflicts” (123).  Vietnam syndrome is also described as “a ‘disease’ that prevented the government from displaying strength” (123).  She continues to explain and give examples that media usage in wars does not display America’s strengths.  A separate example that Sturken gives aside from the Vietnam War is the Iran hostage crisis.  Sturken argues that it “left America impotent, unable to wield it’s might” (123).

The Persian Gulf War is one that remained mysterious for so long.  What is confusing about the Persian Gulf War is that it was the first actual television war, yet so much remained unknown for years afterward.  Through the years, the events of this six-week war were pieced together.  But why is this?  Because the military began to control and limit what the media could produce from the war.  After the Vietnam War, the military learned to have better control over the media because of the disastrous consequences the media had on America’s public image.  Sturken describes the media coverage of the Persian Gulf War as “military censorship kept reporters and their cameras where they often had access only to distant images of bombers taking off and weapons in the sky” (132).  What was captured of the Persian Gulf War, was selectively shown to the United States public by the media.

Whereas the Vietnam War was one that provided images of human beings, the Persian Gulf War had images of machines, tanks, bombs, helicopters, and planes.  This is due to the intense media coverage of the Persian Gulf War mentioned in the previous paragraph.  The Vietnam War is so lasting in American’s minds because of the graphic nature of the images.  Unless you were part of the military and actively fighting, you did not see images like the ones were produced.  The Vietnam War contrasted with the Persian Gulf War, set the stage for media coverage for wars to come.


  1. Is media usage during wars really as bad as Sturkin makes it sound?  If not, what could be some advantages?

2.   Since media coverage of wars is controlled by the media, how do we know that what we are being shown is actually true?

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7 Responses to Media Coverage During War

  1. Chen says:

    Controlling on the media has both advantages and disadvantages.
    There exists the possibility that the media report something wrong or they don’t introduce the entire story. Those inaccurate reports on the war may mislead the public to protest the government. Citizens who are misled by the media may use improper ways to force the government to stop the war, such as attacking officials. But actually they have no clear idea of whether the war is just or not. In that case, governments may need to restrict the media for prevention of society instabilities.
    However, controlling on the media may also take over the rights of the public to know the truth of the war. For example, without photos like the little girl with napalm, the public would not realize the brutalities and injustice of the Vietnam War. Just as you say in the article, we can’t figure what really happened in the first Gulf War because we only see bombs and explosions.
    It is a controversial problem which in my opinion has no perfect solutions now. Setting some standards of the content of the media report is too hard to realize because the government and the public have different preferences for the reports.

  2. jeongyeon Ha says:

    In my opinion, media usage during wars affect negative influence as Sturkin stated, but i think there are some advantages of media usage during wars.
    Wars are strongly linked to the public’s life and nation’s security most of all. It is true that Americans suffered from ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ and there are disadvantages when media allows media to provide full coverage of the war. However i think it can be a kind of ‘side effect’. We all know and we are mindful of side effects but we usually take that risks and allow ourself. We might take a risk because this case is ‘the right to know’. We have rights to know what is happening and there should be things that we can learn from wars.
    Controlling over media is controversial matter and it exists everywhere. For instance, this also happened at the outbreak of the Korean War. At that time, nobody could not tell what they were being shown is actually true. I think, regardless of the truth, there are advantages of media usage during wars and ‘ the right to know’ should be guaranteed.

  3. Grace Gu says:

    I like your comparison of media coverage between Vietnam War and Persian Gulf War. The images shown during the Persian Gulf War were mainly tanks, bombs, planes. These images were presented before U.S public after selected by the military.
    For journalism industry, it is crucial to show the truth through images and news reports. However, in some special occasions, it is tolerable that the government or military have some control over the media when they have a greater goal to achieve. In the Persian Gulf War, the images of the high-tech weapons definitely help to gain the supports from the public. While the media was reporting the success of the new weapon, it ignored the fact that those weapons might cause the death of hundreds of local people. If the images of blooding body of local residents were shown to the public, the public might not be that supportive as they were. Certainly, government wanted the support from the people, and it is understandable that it had control on the media. I am not saying that controlling over media is right or wrong, but sometimes for the sack of a greater goal, such as the interest of the whole nation, it is tolerable even if the media is controlled by the government.
    However, I believe media is always biased. Social media usually doesn’t have strong economic power and political power. Although it can lead the direction of public opinions, it is a profit organization in nature. It needs to earn money to manage its daily expenses. It needs to appeal the public so that they can have more audiences or subscribes to ensure its economic standing. When it comes to the sensitive issues related to the government, the media needs to address them properly to make them less offensive. Take the media coverage during Persian Gulf War as an example. The media didn’t want to offend the military so that they didn’t risk to publish images that weren’t selected by the military. Meanwhile, the media knew that the public liked the reports about the new powerful weapon, so that they heavily focused on it. The social media is struggling between public and government and got to find a way to survive. This always comes with price. The sacrifice is that they can’t make the news reports as objective as they should.

  4. cekarri says:

    I recently had a history class (174C) where we discussed the media coverage on the Vietnam War and what the effect was. In the class we learned that the government as well as the soldiers were not at all happy with the coverage of the war and often found it to be rather inaccurate. They felt that there was too much focus on the scandals that happened during the war such as the Accidental Napalm and not enough on the good that the soldiers were doing. The coverage of the Vietnam War caused the American people to turn on the war and many protest ensued. The soldiers and some members of the government felt that the war itself could have been winnable if it were not for the media coverage that painted such a bleak picture of what was going on in Vietnam. They felt that the coverage even caused the loss of some potentially good soldiers who never signed up because they were either too afraid, or so against the war they avoided the draft any way they could. To answer your question we cannot be one hundred percent sure that what we are seeing on television or through other sources of media is true because we are not there in the war zones ourselves.

  5. Lydia says:

    Answering to the first question, I think the usage of media during wars is not a bad thing. Actually, all people in a country have a right to know. Of course, there might be some extreme scenes or secrecy that should not be recorded. However, I cannot say that in this situation. As you said, there are differences between the photos of the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. If the military accepted the media, the photos of both wars should be similar in some ways. However, they were very different; there is more humanity in the photos of the Vietnam War, but more machines in the photos of the Persian Gulf War. I think it is because in the Persian Gulf War, the military used media to show only the advantages of their own army.
    But the truths are brought out some day. Some people might record the other sides of the situation, and it will be opened to the public some day, as the all historical evidences had been. Especially in these days, there are so many ‘social’ and ‘real time’ things, so the truth is even harder to be concealed. Therefore, it became easier to know the fact.

  6. tayjern says:

    Most people may think it is very scary to turn on the TV and not have the ability to trust that what they are seeing may not be fully true. This however is how any type of reporting is. If it were say a newspaper article, the entire article may not be 100% accurate because the editors and writers have the ability to add and take out whatever they please. Even with one of your friends who are telling you a story about something that they saw or happened, the story may not be completely accurate either. Unless one is actually at the scene of the event, no one can be guaranteed that what they are hearing or seeing is true. After realizing this as a viewer one can either freak out and not watch the news at all or one could watch the news and take from it what they please because of what they now know. At the end of the day, the government has complete control over what gets shown to the public. This may be viewed as a bad thing; however, they are doing this for our protection. Whether people see it or not, the government always has the best interest of the people in mind. This can be a bad thing however because the government could keep information that should be known by the public.

  7. Liz says:

    I also partly agree that Sturken’s idea that 24 coverage media is bad in that it hinders political decision making. However, to answer the question 1, I think that media also have positive effect on war, too. Like disclosure in the Vietnam War and Iraq, the media can play a major role in revealing the immorality during the war. I cannot forget that I’ve seen the photo about sexual assert and tortures done by the U.S. army in Iraq. Before that photograph, the image of the U.S. is like symbol of justice and freedom. Moreover, the U.S. stirred up the Iraq War in the name of justice. That was not the justice that it meant at all. If it were not been for the press, the truth behind the war would not have appeared. The emotional stimulation caused by virtual media images helps people to embody an anti-war, and also facilitates the world more peaceful. Moreover, I think it would be better of that decision making is hindered rather than politicians handle the media as their wish. I believe the role of media helps people and politicians more democratic, because it shows everything, even though it also has inevitable flaws like Sturken said.

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