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Mershon Center hosts conference on media’s coverage of war, public’s perception

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Steven Casey, left, professor of international history at the London School of Economics, and Scott Althaus, a political science and communication professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, address a question from the audience at the War, Media and the Public conference hosted by the Mershon Center for International Security Studies on April 21. Credit: Hailey Stangebye | Lantern Reporter

Friday morning marked the beginning of a two-day, interdisciplinary conference hosted by the Mershon Center for International Security Studies addressing the way media covers war, and the public’s perception of war based on that coverage.

Christopher Gelpi, the chair of peace studies and conflict resolution at the Mershon Center and a professor of political science at Ohio State, had the original idea to host this conference.

“The goal of the conference here, really, is to try to bring an interdisciplinary perspective to our understanding of how publics respond to military conflict. My goal here is to try to bring together people from political science, communications, history, journalism, geography to try to talk about this from different perspectives,” Gelpi said.

The first panel included presentations from Scott Althaus — a professor of political science and communication, and director of the Cline Center for Democracy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — as well as Steven Casey, a professor of international history from the London School of Economics. The conference is hosting scholars across various disciplines from a number of institutions including Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute for Technology and the University of Southern California.

Althaus opened the first panel with a historical analysis of the media’s portrayal of violence, and said his research has found that media doesn’t portray war as graphically today as it previously did.

“Many people think that moving images of war have become far more common and far more graphic in the era of television, which would coincide with the Vietnam War forward, but this research that I presented shows that moving images of war have been just as frequent in Vietnam and the Iraq invasion in 2003 as they were in World War I, and the most graphic coverage was in the pre-television era,” Althaus said.

Media coverage of war is actually less graphic today, Althaus said.

“CNN’s coverage of (the) Iraq invasion period is so sanitized with regard to death that we didn’t find one image in our randomly sampled 721 minutes that went beyond showing a grave or a body bag or something like that,” he said. “In comparison, the previous wars, particularly World War II (and) newsreel coverage of Vietnam were incredibly graphic.”

Casey also challenged the common perception that media coverage of war and media interaction with the military changed dramatically in the Vietnam War.

“We normally think that the relationship between the media and the military goes sour during Vietnam. But actually, there were many more pressure points and many more tensions in particularly World War II and Korea,” he said. “A lot of these problems predate Vietnam.”

The conference continues throughout the rest of Friday and Saturday, with more speakers and panels aimed at generating discussion on war, media and the public’s perception.

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