When historians take a look back on this period, the Iraq War will surely stand out as a remarkable event. A major power went to war, overthrew another government, and occupied the nation on the basis of stated assumptions that turned out to be false. Equally striking, following the invasion, large portions of the public of this major power—a democratic one no less—failed to get accurate messages about what had occurred, which raises compelling questions about the role and practice of the press in a democratic society.

During the summer of 2003, the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland, together with the polling firm Knowledge Networks, conducted a large-scale study of U.S. public perceptions and misperceptions related to the Iraq War, with a special eye to determining what role the press might have played in this process. The polls were conducted from June through September with a nationwide sample of 3,334 respondents.

The study found three widespread misperceptions:

  • 49 percent believed that the United States had found evidence that Iraq was working closely with al-Qaeda;

  • 22 percent believed that actual weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq;

  • 23 percent believed that world public opinion favored the United States going to war with Iraq.

Overall, 60 percent of those we polled had at least one of these three misperceptions.

Misperceptions and the Press

Naturally, this raises the question of how these misperceptions developed and persisted when no evidence of such links between al-Qaeda and Iraq had been found, no weapons of mass destruction had been located, and polls of world public opinion have found clear majority opposition to the U.S. war with Iraq. Was it simply a function of people seeking out information that confirmed their biases in favor of the war? Or did this represent some failure on the part of the press?

If these misperceptions were strictly a function of individual bias, then we would expect to find them distributed according to political preferences, no matter where respondents got their news. To find out if this was the case, respondents were asked about their primary source of news. It turned out that the frequency of misperceptions varied dramatically depending on respondents’ primary source of news. As shown below, the percentage that had at least one of these misperceptions ranged from 23 percent among those who primarily got their news from National Public Radio (NPR) or PBS to 80 percent among those who primarily got their news from Fox News.

It would seem that such misperceptions might be derived from a failure to pay attention to the news. Indeed among those who primarily get their news from print sources (just 19 percent of our sample), misperceptions were lower among those who paid more attention. But overall, those who reported paying greater attention to the news were no less likely to have misperceptions. Most striking was a finding that among those who primarily watch Fox News, the people who paid more attention were more likely to have misperceptions.

Of course, this leads to the question of whether such variations are due to difference in the demographics of the audiences. However, when these demographics were controlled for, the effect remained. For example, when we looked only at Republicans, or only at Democrats, the same pattern of misperceptions between the various audiences was found. Extensive multi-variate regression analyses that included numerous variables, including party identification, attitudes about the President, education and others, found that respondents’ primary news source continued to be a very powerful predictor of the frequency of misperceptions. Clearly, this suggests Americans had these misperceptions not simply because of internal biases but because of the important role being played by variations in the stimuli they received from their external sources of news.

Consequences of Bad Information

Such misperceptions can potentially have significant consequences: We found they were highly related to other attitudes. Among those with none of the misperceptions listed above, only 23 percent supported the war. Among those with one of these misperceptions, 53 percent supported the war, rising to 78 percent with those who have two of the misperceptions, and to 86 percent with all three of the misperceptions. While such correlations do not prove that these misperceptions caused the support for the decision to go to war with Iraq, it does appear likely that support for the war would be lower if fewer members of the public had these misperceptions. Such misperceptions are also highly related to the likelihood of voting for the President. Analyses suggest that if these perceptions changed, this could have a significant impact on voting decisions, apparently because they have an impact on perceptions of the President’s honesty.

Earlier PIPA studies also suggest that during the run-up to the war misperceptions played a role in support for the decision to go to war. Before the war, approximately one in five Americans believed that Iraq was directly involved in the September 11th attacks, and 13 percent even said they believed they had seen conclusive evidence of it. Among those who believed that Iraq was directly involved in September 11th, 58 percent said they would approve if the President were to go to war without U.N. approval. Among those who believed that Iraq had given al-Qaeda substantial support, but was not involved in September 11th, approval dropped to 37 percent. Among those who believed that a few al-Qaeda individuals had contact with Iraqi officials, 32 percent were supportive, while among those who believed that there was no connection at all, just 25 percent felt that way. In polls conducted during the war, among those who incorrectly believed that world public opinion favored the United States going to war, 81 percent supported doing so, while among those who knew that the world public opinion was opposed only 28 percent supported going to war.

The Role of the Press

Such data lead to the question of why so many Americans have had these misperceptions, even after controlling for their political biases. The first and most obvious reason is that the Bush administration made numerous statements that could easily be construed as asserting these falsehoods. On numerous occasions the administration made statements strongly implying it had intelligence saying that Iraq was closely involved with al-Qaeda and was even directly involved in the September 11th attacks. The administration also made statements that came extremely close to asserting that weapons of mass destruction were found in postwar Iraq. On May 30, 2003, President Bush made the statement: “… for those who say we haven’t found the banned manufacturing devices or banned weapons, they’re wrong. We found them.”

But the fact that misperceptions varied so greatly depending on their primary source of news strongly suggests that the way that the press reported the news played a role. This might be partly due to prominent reporting of official statements saying that it appeared that clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction had been found, while the later conclusions—refuting such assessments—were given little play. But it also appears that misleading assertions were often not challenged.

There is evidence that in the run-up to, during, and for a period after the invasion of Iraq, many in the press appeared to feel that it was not their role to challenge the administration. Fox News coverage of the invasion included a U.S. flag in the corner of the screen, and its correspondents and news anchors assumed the defense department’s name for the war, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” Fox’s reporting on Iraq during the occupation phase was conducted under the banner “War on Terrorism,” implicitly confirming the administration’s association between Iraq and al-Qaeda. When Fox News was criticized for taking a pro-war stance, one of its anchors, Neil Cavuto, replied: “You say I wear my biases on my sleeve. Better that than pretend you have none, but show them clearly in your work.” Dan Rather of CBS News commented in an April 14, 2003 interview with Larry King: “Look, I’m an American. I never tried to kid anybody that I’m some internationalist or something. And when my country is at war, I want my country to win …. Now, I can’t and don’t argue that that is coverage without a prejudice. About that I am prejudiced.”

A study conducted in 2003 by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) tracking the frequencies of pro-war and antiwar commentators on the major networks found that pro-war views were overwhelmingly more frequent. In such an environment, it would not be surprising that the press would downplay the lack of evidence of links between Iraq and al-Qaeda, the fact that weapons of mass destruction were not being found, and that world public opinion was critical of the war.

When the press are reluctant to challenge what government leaders say, they can simply become a means of transmission for an administration, rather than serve as a critical filter for information. For example, when President Bush made the assertion that weapons of mass destruction had been found, the May 31, 2003 edition of The Washington Post ran a front-page headline saying “Bush: ‘We Found’ Banned Weapons.”

There is also striking evidence that readiness to challenge the administration is a variable that corresponds to levels of misperception among viewers. The FAIR study found that the two networks notably least likely to present critical commentary were Fox and CBS. These are the same two networks whose viewers in the PIPA study were most likely to have misperceptions.

Clearly Americans had hoped and expected that once the United States went into Iraq, evidence of Iraq’s link to al-Qaeda and of the development of weapons of mass destruction would be found, thus vindicating the decision to go to war as an act of self-defense. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that many people have been receptive when the administration has strongly implied or even asserted that the United States has found evidence that Iraq was working closely with al-Qaeda and was developing weapons of mass destruction. However, there is also evidence that news outlets—some more than others—have allowed themselves to be passive transmitters of such messages.

Steven Kull is director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) at the University of Maryland. PIPA is a joint program of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the Center for International and Security Studies. Kull is a leading scholar on public opinion toward U.S. international engagement after the Cold War. Clay Ramsay and Evan Lewis of PIPA contributed to the research and writing of this article. PIPA’s study, published in April 2004, can be found at www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/Iraq/IraqReport4_22_04.pdf.

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