How the United States Mainstream Media frames Foreign Policy Issues: A Comparative Case Study on the Battle of Aleppo and the Battle of Mosul

December 1, 2020

by Emma Bihan-Poudec, Central European University

In 2002, New York Times reporter Judith Miller published an article affirming that Saddam Hussein was in possession of arms of mass destruction, relying on an anonymous official source (2002). The allegations were later disproved, and this article became the source of heated debates surrounding ethics of media-state relations. In 2004, the outlet admitted the information they received, “was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged” (The Intercept, 2015). This example of collusion highlights the concerns of ethics in reporting and it is fair to wonder whether this alarming admission influences the culture of reporting. McCombs Maxwell describes the press as, “the citizenry’s principal source of information” (2005), especially on foreign policy issues, out of people’s perceptions. The complicity of US media in foreign interventions has been denounced by scholars such as Chomsky (1994) and Entman (2004), who established the correlation between certain media coverage and elite interests.                              

 As foreign interventions have consequences on international security, the media has a responsibility to portray conflicts accurately. With the evolution of the media landscape and the emergence of the internet as a primary source of information, some argue that media landscapes are more pluralist and independent (Bennett, 2006). Thus, this research aims to establish whether such biases were observed in the coverage of The Battle of Aleppo and the Battle of Mosul, through qualitative content analyses. This paper answers the following research question: Does mainstream media display a bias in its coverage depending on the foreign policy of the US government? This paper will conclude that the analyzed mainstream media outlet displayed a bias while covering these two foreign policy issues and that this bias was in accordance with the official position of the US government. To do so, the relevant literature on media-state relations and framing is analyzed; the methodology is then outlined; altogether to finally proceed with the qualitative content analysis. Finally, I will conclude that this study validates the hypothesis and provides evidence towards a systematic bias of the U.S. Media.

Literature Review

Academics widely recognize the interdependence between policies and media. This interdependence directed scholars to specifically focus on techniques used by journalists to analyze whether the mainstream media illustrated any such bias in its coverage and effectively fulfilling its function of an independent watchdog. These systemic and established journalistic techniques provide a comparative advantage while studying media bias. On one hand, the Cable News Network (CNN) effect school views media as a powerful independent regulating tool enough to force governments to change their agenda (Robinson, 2002). Scholars such as Livingstone (2000) considers the media as a neutral tool, conveying the elite’s views, without any power in foreign policy decisions. On the contrary, Chomsky (1994) attributes the great powers of news outlets to elites. Chomsky considers that the mass media inculcates, “individuals with the beliefs that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society” (1994). The Manufacturing Consent theory argues the media is a biased actor working in favor of corporate interests. More studies highlight the omnipresence of official sources in news coverage, which has been widely accepted in the literature (Bennett, 2006). To inculcate beliefs to the readers, journalists use techniques such as framing, which, “promotes a ‘perceived reality’, endorses a specific problem definition, moral evaluation, and a treatment recommendation” (Entman, 1993, 51). For the purpose of this study, framing is defined as “a central organizing theme that can consist of the use of texts.” (Dimitrova and Stromback, 2005)

Framing, within this paper, applies to foreign policy, which defines a government’s interaction with other states, regarding specific issues such as the cases used in this study. Some particular studies address productive framing, which implies an intention to portray an event in a positive or negative light (Mintz, 2003). This research aligns itself along scholars such as Entman, who used framing to highlight bias between cases in media coverage, while it fits more broadly into the theory of Manufacturing Consent, by Chomsky and Hermann (1994), which establishes a theoretical framework for the systematic bias of mainstream media overall.  The framing analysis of the Mosul and Aleppo cases will provide evidence in support of or contradict systematic media bias while contributing to the literature both empirically and analytically.

Methodology

This study substantially builds upon the previous work of Chomsky and Entman (2004), who established a pattern of systematic bias from mainstream US media. A deductive approach is adopted, through qualitative methods, for two case studies: the Battle of Aleppo and the Battle of Mosul. The following hypothesis will be deductively tested:

The media coverage from these outlets is consistently different across cases and reflects the official position of the US government, as supported by the differential use of the six studied frames.

Thus, this paper tests whether the official position of the US government explains the variance in the framing used in the media coverage of these two cases. The observation of this variance is based on comparative analyses of frames used in the previous study of Dimitrova and Stromback (2005). A detailed Coverage Codebook of the author’s methodology allowed for specific examples of frames and criteria. This case study observes the most similar systems design (Pfetsch and Esser, 2004) as both presented military operations similar tactics, targets, settings, and objectives. Both resulted in liberations. I will use three outlets from the United States that represent the diversity of the mediatic landscape: The New York Times, ABC News, and Fox News. The New York Times is considered a liberal outlet that is often referred to as an agenda-setter (Dimitrova and Stromback, 2005). Fox News reaches a more conservative audience, mainly those who are aligned with the Republican party ideology, whereas ABC is more centrist. The online database LexisNexis was used to select articles from the New York Times and ABC News, whereas the website of Fox News was used to select articles from this media outlet. The timeframe of the Battle of Aleppo went from August 2016 to February 2017; February 2017 to August 2017 for the Battle of Mosul. The keywords ‘Aleppo’ and ‘Mosul’ were specifically used to refine the search to yield the relevant articles:

                                                   Mosul                         Aleppo

              NYTimes                           96                              175                            

             ABC News                         17                                21

              Fox News                         188                             278

              Total                                  301                             474                 

Figure 1: Relevant articles selected for this study

A total of 775 articles were selected for the content analysis, which establishes whether the headlines presented a positive or negative tone. Words used over 50 times in headlines were determined through an analysis with the Nvivo12 software and appears in Figure 1 and Figure 2. Furthermore, the study was completed by a qualitative discourse analysis, for which one article per outlet per case was selected. The following articles were selected:

NYT, Mosul: Iraqi Prime Minister Arrives in Mosul to Declare Victory Over ISIS, 9th July 2019.

NYT, Aleppo: Assad’s lesson from Aleppo: Force works, with few consequences, 16th December 2016.

Fox News, Mosul: 5 things to know about Iraq’s Mosul, 27th September 2017.

Fox News, Aleppo: 5 things to know about Syria’s Aleppo, 22nd December 2016.

ABC News, Mosul: Iraqis close to victory against ISIS; U.S-backed troops fighting for Mosul. 9th July 2017.

ABC News, Aleppo: The children of Aleppo, families flee city, Assad claims victory, 15th December 2016.

The selection permitted to establish the overarching opinion of the respective media outlet. The analyses were based on the following frames: (1) the military conflict frame, which emphasizes military actors and actions; (2) the human-interest frame, which highlights the human impact of conflict; (3) the responsibility frame, which indicates the responsible actor; (4) the violence of war frame which concentrates on destruction; (5) the diagnostic frame, which establishes the reasons; (6) finally, the prognostic frame, which discusses implications. Finally, the type of source and the moral terminology were controlled for.

Data Analysis

 In total, 775 headlines were analysed, separately, according to the case. The first emerging finding is the difference in volume between articles (refer to Figure 1). All outlets, except for ABC News, covered Aleppo more extensively. In the case of Aleppo, the articles are longer and diverge towards international issues. Contrastingly, the articles on Mosul are shorter and focus on military operations. There are significantly more articles available on Aleppo from the New York Times and Fox News, illustrating the framing technique of ‘contrasting magnitude’, which, “magnifies those elements of depicted reality that favor one side’s position” (Entman, 2004, p30). While these two battles caused thousands of civilian casualties, in densely populated areas, the media magnified the Battle of Aleppo, aligning its coverage with US government foreign policy (US Department of State, 2020). The Nvivo12 ‘cloud word’ tool permitted to identify the words used in the headlines with a minimum frequency of 50:

Figure2: Mosul coverage cloud word

Figure 3: Aleppo coverage cloud word

The use of different vocabularies between the two cases is apparent. In the case of Mosul, adjectives such as ‘liberation’ and ‘victory’ appear systematically, attaching a positive moral terminology, which again aligns with the position of the US government (US Department of Defence, 2017). The keywords focus principally on the military operations and advances of the coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS). The words ‘deaths’ and ‘killed’ were mainly linked to the Islamic State, denouncing the actions of the adversary. Contrastingly, to cover Aleppo, adjectives such as ‘victory’ or ‘liberation’ are not used. The headlines are more focused on the death toll and devastation caused by military operations, expressing strong moral condemnations. Words such as ‘siege’ are prominent to describe Aleppo, emphasizing the violence of the war frame.

However, the software analysis of the headlines solely cannot capture the subtilty of framing. As the software analyses single words, the combination of words or rhetorical devices are excluded, which emphasizes the need for a complementary manual analysis. A particular headline from the New York Times summarises this established narrative, “U.S. forces play a crucial role against ISIS in Mosul” (New York Times, 2017). Other recurrent words are “retake”, “advance”, “progress”, which can be aimed to incite a positive judgment from readers. Keywords used over thirty times to describe the Battle of Aleppo were “agony”, “failed”, and “hell”. An August 3rd, 2016 article from the New York Times had for headline, “The case for (finally) bombing Assad.” No headlines on Aleppo focused on actions by rebel groups, some of which had the US government supports. The analysis of headlines highlights a significant contrast, reflecting the position of the US government in both conflicts and providing additional evidence towards bias.

              Therefore, an analysis of six selected articles permits to deepen the analysis of the framing used in both cases and strengthen the patterns observed. The findings establish a consistent difference in the coverage of these two cases. On the one hand, the moral terminology on the Battle of Aleppo is negative. While describing the battle, the coverage emphasizes the disastrous consequences, the civilian casualties, and the injustices of war. The use of pejorative adjectives is consistent and primarily used besides mentioning the Syrian government of President Bashar Al Assad. On the other hand, the articles covering the Battle of Mosul use a positive tone, painting a noble account of a battle fiercely won through the use of glorifying adjectives. Overall, no outlet in this research covered either battle neutrally. Fox News, in particular, is the outlet that focuses on the military frame the most, rarely employing the human-interest frame. Moreover, the negative tone of the New York Times, on the issue of Aleppo, provides an interesting finding. The newspaper principally used these three frames: the violence of war, responsibility, and military conflict. The outlet addresses the liberal platform of the United States, traditionally less inclined to support military interventions. However, it observes an aggressive and conservative approach in the case of Aleppo, which particularly echoes the New York Times advocating for an invasion of Iraq in 2002. Therefore, it is fair to conclude that the New York Times demonstrates a bias in this case. Similarly, ABC News did not offer a different perspective on these two conflicts. It used the military frame less and used the human-interest frame more as opposed to the other outlets. It focused on the civilians’ plight in both conflicts but adopted a negative tone on Aleppo, in contrast with the positive tone used to cover Mosul. As Mutz explained, one-sided coverage leads to a ‘consensus heuristic’, which means that interpretations of certain events function as clues to which viewpoints are valid or acceptable (1998). These clues, in the cases of Mosul and Aleppo, are given through the volume of media content, the framing utilized, and the use of systematic negative or positive adjectives.

              The main finding that emerges from the use of sources across these two cases is the use of official versus unofficial sources. A discrepancy in the use of official sources in Mosul and unofficial sources in Aleppo is noticeable. According to Bennett’s ‘indexing hypothesis’, non-official sources solely appear in news stories when their opinion are in official circles (1990). Indeed, the media uses the ‘rebels’ as sources in the headlines published on Aleppo, reflecting the US government policy of supporting rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo (Foreign Affairs, 2019). A striking finding is the regular mention of Aleppo’s battle as the ‘fall’, while Mosul is referred to as a ‘liberation’. A significant correlation between the frames and the sources can be observed. The use of military sources correlated with repetitive use of the military conflict frame and was less likely to be used alongside the human interest and prognostic frames. Individuals' stories of civilians or soldiers were quoted principally alongside the human-interest frame and with a very low frequency alongside the military conflict frame, which emphasized facts over personal accounts.

The New York Times consistently used official sources and did not quote any opponent of the United States actions in both cases. The Syrian government was not quoted once across all outlets, reflecting the wide opposition of the Western world towards the Assad regime. ABC News quoted official sources in the case of Mosul and civilians in the case of Aleppo. Fox News focused mainly on military and governmental sources to report on the victory in Aleppo and only cited a human rights observatory while covering Aleppo. The findings outlined in this section are consistent with the worldwide trend that media mainly relays the voice of their government while covering international events (Mermin, 1999). This analysis thus validates the hypothesis of the media coverage being consistently different and echoing the official position of the US government, as supported by the differential use of the six studied frames, the use of sources, and the moral terminology attached to the analyzed framing.

Conclusion

Through a qualitative content analysis, this research validated the following hypothesis: the media coverage from these outlets is consistently different across cases and reflects the official position of the US government, as supported by the differential use of the six studied frames. This paper provides empirical evidence towards a bias in the media, through the use of frames, tone of the coverage, and sources used. The findings apply across all outlets studied, with the content consistent with the official position of the US government. The results show that the mainstream media focused on some aspects of the reality of war such as military success and victory, however, it excluded some other aspects such as human suffering. Nevertheless, the limitations of this study in terms of resources and sample size are worth mentioning. More resources should be devoted towards larger samples which would strengthen these results. These limitations do not, however, revoke the importance of this study.

Appendices

Note: The Codebook used for this study is available upon request from Dr. Dimitrova and Dr. Stromback.

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