War and Military Journalism

Michael S Sweeney. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

With few exceptions, the American public supports the country’s armed forces at the onset of war—and so have American news media. War’s early stages encourage patriotic sentiment, a phenomenon known as rallying around the flag. New York editor Horace Greeley (1811-72) famously called for the invasion of the Confederacy by placing “Forward to Richmond!” in the masthead of the New York Tribune at the start of the Civil War in 1861. In 1898, New York press barons William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) and Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) clamored for hostilities with Spain during the two months between the mysterious destruction of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in Havana harbor and the congressional declaration of war. Rarer is the case of the press achieving peace despite public support for war. One example occurred in 1895, when Pulitzer’s New York World editorialized against efforts by Congress and President Grover Cleveland to intervene in a boundary dispute between Venezuela and British Guyana. While the majority of American newspapers echoed the government’s talk of possible war with Britain, Pulitzer defused the crisis by publishing telegrams of good will from British government and church officials.

Passions for war erode with time, both among the public and the news media. Lengthy wars are difficult to justify to a large and heterogeneous nation with a continuing strain of isolationism in some quarters. It is equally difficult to long sustain a belligerent mood among civilians whose lives are little affected by distant conflicts. Although the connection between war news and public opinion is complex and not yet fully understood, extended combat provides journalists with prolonged opportunities to portray war’s violence, scandal, heroism, and human error, as well as to raise questions about strategy and tactics, all of which become linked with shifts in public attitudes.

World War I proved an aberration. The press and public were slow to support American belligerence, even after Congress voted overwhelmingly for a declaration of war in April 1917. America had supported neutrality, and President Woodrow Wilson had won a second term in 1916 by campaigning on the theme of having kept the United States out of war. In the first six weeks after the congressional declaration, only 73,000 Americans volunteered for service. Wilson responded with a campaign to mobilize public opinion. The federal Committee on Public Information, which Wilson created, fomented prowar attitudes by distributing thousands of press releases and millions of propaganda pamphlets and posters, and by censoring unpleasant news of the war in Europe. According to photography historian Susan Moeller, the military and government suppressed all civilian combat photography during World War I because they realized the danger to morale posed by images of trench warfare, gas attacks, and wide-scale devastation. The combination of censorship and propaganda created anti-German hysteria by war’s end in 1918.

Images, more than the printed or spoken word, are credited with significantly impacting audiences’ interpretations of war. “The transformation of mass calamity into individual people and incidents arrests the viewers,” Moeller noted. “Through photography, war becomes personal and comprehensible—more than just grand patriotic schemes and unintelligible statistics” (Moeller 1989, 377). The press and public hailed the government’s release of photographs of casualties halfway through World War II as a worthy documentation of the nation’s sacrifice. Two decades later in the Vietnam War, video, film, and photographic images of combat and its victims had a different result, feeding a growing debate over conduct of the war. While only 26 percent of Americans opposed sending troops to South Vietnam in March 1966, 60 percent did so by January 1973. Many military and government officials blamed television in particular—the Vietnam War was the first to be extensively covered by TV network correspondents (critic Michael Arlen dubbed it “The Living Room War”)—for the loss of public support. The U.S. Army, however, noted in its official history of the war that rising casualty rates had a greater impact than television on public opinion. According to the official Army history, in the Korean and Vietnam wars, each increase of a factor of ten—from a hundred casualties to a thousand, from a thousand to ten thousand, and so on—prompted a decrease of 15 percentage points in public support for the war (Hammond 1996, 262).

News images of war affected public opinion in a variety of ways in later wars. The press and public expressed amazement at government-supplied video of high-tech weapons during the Persian Gulf War of 1991, followed by revulsion at images of death and destruction from the war zones and Iraqi cities. Live images from the armed forces advancing into Iraq in 2003 captured the public’s imagination and gave concrete evidence of the assault’s swift success. Later, images of tortured Iraqi prisoners and the results of ongoing violence contributed to a loss of public support for the war.

Apart from opinion about warfare itself, the public’s view of the armed forces—shaped by the mass media—remained high in the early twenty-first century. Surveys by the Pew Research Center found more than 80 percent of Americans expressed favorable views of the military in 2005 and 2007, while at the same time opposition to the war in Iraq steadily increased. Similarly, the press lauded the sacrifice of individual soldiers, sailors, and airmen in the twenty-first century’s first decade. The New York Times and other news media published the names and photographs of the servicemen and -women killed in Iraq beginning in 2003. The practice had historical roots. Publications during World War I printed heroic portraits of Americans who died in France, and Life magazine honored the 12,987 Americans killed in World War II combat up to July 1943 by printing all of their names. Fighting personnel, especially in death, remain icons even while public and press support for war fades.

Coverage of the Armed Forces Army

The U.S. Army historically has been the largest and most easily covered branch of the armed services. Correspondents have generally been welcomed to army installations at least since troops marched on Mexico in the 1840s. Reporters usually have access to both officers and common soldiers for information, and they sometimes can witness enough of battle to draw their own conclusions. The amount of coverage, as well as its tone, often depends on the battlefield commander. Restrictive and suspicious generals such as William Tecumseh Sherman in the Civil War and Douglas MacArthur in World War II tried to minimize or otherwise control press coverage of their troops. Other military leaders, such as Col. Theodore Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War and General Dwight D. Eisenhower in World War II, allowed free access. The latter two received adulatory press coverage and parlayed their popularity into the presidency.

News coverage of the Army also has benefited from simple logistics. Combat on the ground offers the most consistent day-to-day source of news, unlike sea and air battles, which tend to be episodic, unpredictable, and widespread and thus hard to access. In addition, ground-based communication has historically provided the most reliable means of sending news from the battlefield; correspondents often resort to using their own means to transmit stories and pictures. Those covering a battle from the deck of a warship, however, have little choice but to rely on naval cooperation. Correspondents stationed at air bases may have greater flexibility than those at sea, but relatively few journalists actually accompany air combat missions.

The Army’s most devoted chronicler was Ernest Taylor “Ernie” Pyle (1900-45), who covered various units in World War II. Pyle hailed infantrymen as the “mud-rain-frost-and-wind boys.” He reported the war from the point of view of one soldier at a time because each man’s experience, though a small part of the big picture, was real and understandable to a mass audience. His devotion to the infantry helped popularize an image of “G.I. Joe” as an ordinary man doing extraordinary work. More than a half century later, the Department of Defense’s embedding program during the Iraq war of 2003 allowed hundreds of journalists to mimic Pyle’s methods and gave the public a close-up view of combat units, primarily in the Army and Marine Corps.

Other notable journalists associated with coverage of the Army include Homer Bigart (1907-91) and Rick Atkinson (1951-). Bigart earned a reputation as a no-nonsense reporter in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars. His aggressive, critical reports on strategic and tactical problems in fighting the Vietnam War, reported in the New York Herald Tribune and The New York Times, helped establish the dominant tone of war coverage of the 1960s and 1970s. Atkinson led The Washington Post‘s coverage of the Persian Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In the latter, Atkinson embedded with the headquarters of General David Petraeus of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.


The U.S. Navy historically served as America’s first line of defense. Warships at sea or in foreign ports were among the first units to see action through World War II. Their isolation at sea makes them more vulnerable than ground and air units, and therefore potentially more newsworthy. Yet the navy has received less wartime attention from the news media than would be suggested by its important role in national defense.

There are two main reasons for this disparity. First, correspondents may not be on hand to witness naval encounters at sea, or may lack the ability to transmit information to distant audiences in a timely manner. The first accounts of the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Squadron’s decisive encounter with Spanish warships in Manila Bay in 1898 reached America in the most truncated form. The telegraph cable connecting the Philippines and Hong Kong had been cut after the battle, leaving American readers only with the news that “heavy losses” had been inflicted during the fighting. Full accounts of Admiral George Dewey’s victory arrived nearly a week later, when the American ships and correspondents reached Hong Kong. During the early months of World War II, naval battles in the Pacific also were underplayed by the news media. Chief of Naval Operations Ernest King set the tone for truncated news coverage of the Navy in 1941 and 1942 with his reluctance to release information about battles out of concern that the news might prove useful to the enemy. office of War Information Director Elmer Davis said of King that his “idea of War Information was that there should be just one communiqué. Some morning we would announce that the war was over and that we won it” (Sweeney 2006, 87). Adding to the lower coverage of the navy during World War II were the difficulties faced by shipboard correspondents and the lack of such correspondents on the vitally important submarines. The vulnerability of ships historically has raised concerns among high-ranking naval officers about the risk of news to operational security. Newspapers underplayed accounts of the pivotal 1942 Battle of Midway because of the navy’s reticence to discuss the battle in detail—it had gained a tactical advantage beforehand by breaking the Japanese navy’s operational code, information which had to remain secret during the war. In addition, King insisted during the war’s first months that full accounts of sinkings had to be withheld from publication in order to keep valuable information from the enemy. New York Times reporter Hanson Baldwin (1903-91) protested and helped gain a partial relaxation of the policy in October 1942. The navy still kept many secrets, however, and until late in the war insisted on banning press use of names of ordinary sailors from news accounts of battles. Relations between the navy and news media became strained again in 1983 during the American invasion of the Caribbean island of Grenada. A naval blockade kept reporters off the island during the initial invasion. The navy detained two correspondents who tried to run the blockade and ordered a fighter jet to fire warning shots at other journalists who approached the island in a private boat.


Though part of the navy, and smallest of the four services, the U.S. Marine Corps has enjoyed one of the closest relationships with the press, resulting in disproportionate coverage during wartime. The increased attention dates to World War I, when American censors decreed that individual units of the armed forces could not be identified in dispatches from the Western Front. Instead, reporters wrote about “the American Army” and other branches of the Allied armed services in combat. Floyd Gibbons (1887-1939) of the Chicago Tribune and other journalists effectively skirted the order. They wrote about “Marines” in combat. As American Marines fought in relatively small numbers along a small part of the American sector, which was dominated by Army troops, their coverage seemed more intimate and personal. Gibbons’ account of the Marines in the Argonne Forest brought their renowned fighting ability to world attention. In subsequent wars, the Marines have often spearheaded invasions or taken on the heaviest fighting—from Guadalcanal in World War II to the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir early in the Korean War, to Khe Sahn in South Vietnam—resulting in extensive coverage.

The Marine Corps ensured it would receive an extra measure of news coverage through the creation of an organization of combat correspondents working under the corps’ Public Relations Department in World War II. Unique among the armed forces, the combat correspondents consisted of civilian journalists recruited and trained by the corps. If the reporters and photojournalists passed the notoriously difficult Marine basic training at Parris Island, North Carolina, they were shipped to combat zones. As Marines, the correspondents were expected to fight and then file dispatches and photographs. During World War II, they carried eight-pound Hermes typewriters along with all other standard combat gear. More than 40 died in World War II and later conflicts.

During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Marines invited embedded journalists to experience an unusual degree of transparency. “Go wherever you want, ask whatever you want,” Marine Colonel Bryan McCoy told John Koopman (1956-) of the San Francisco Chronicle upon his arrival at division headquarters. “As long as you know that and I know that you’re not going to abuse that trust, do whatever you want; talk to whoever you want; write whatever story you want” (Katovsky and Carlson 2003, 115, 121).

After Gibbons, perhaps the most notable chronicler of the Marines was photojournalist and writer Dickey Chapelle (born Georgette Louise Meyer, 1918-65). Chapelle, who worked for National Geographic and other magazines, covered Marines in battle at Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II, and on patrol in South Vietnam. She earned Marines’ respect for her toughness and willingness to gather news as close to combat as possible. “In fatigues and helmet,” said a Marine Corps commander in Vietnam, “you couldn’t tell her from one of the troops, and she could keep up front with the best of them” (“The Press: Woman at War,” 54). Chapelle died of shrapnel wounds from a Viet Cong booby trap.

Air Force

Media coverage of the U.S. Air Force, newest of the service branches, has been shaped by the inaccessibility of warplanes to most journalists, as well as public and journalistic fascination with high-technology weaponry—a phenomenon the media watchdog organization Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting calls “weapons fetishism.” Air combat has captivated the public since World War I, when aviators in biplanes fought dogfights and harassed ground troops but had little impact on the outcome of the war. Journalists including Edward R. Murrow (1908-65) of CBS and Walter Cronkite (1916-2009) of the United Press observed bombing raids during World War II, and William L. Laurence (1888-1977) of The New York Times accompanied the atomic attack on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945. During the Korean War, when the air force first fought as a separate branch of the armed services, Life photographer David Douglas Duncan (1916-) became the first journalist to fly aboard a fighter jet. Like many journalists covering air war, his accounts focused more on the experience of high-speed combat than on tactics and strategy.

For such context, journalists covering the air force typically have turned to official sources at air bases, the Pentagon, and the White House. During the Persian Gulf War, most journalists relied on military briefings and other official sources for news of air strikes against Iraq. Military-supplied video of the air war dominated television coverage and contributed to record ratings for cable news programs, but the images distorted perceptions about the war. Journalists and the public initially marveled at the precision of laser-guided “smart” bombs and Patriot interceptor missiles in action. It was not until after the war that the Defense Department revealed Patriots destroyed only 40 percent of the Iraqi “Scud” missiles aimed at Israel, and that the telegenic smart weapons accounted for only 7 percent of bombs dropped on Iraq.

War Coverage and “Spin”

The armed forces received supportive news coverage at the beginning of most American wars, including those of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The war in Iraq proved popular, at first, and that popularity raised public support for the military and the news media. During the first weeks of the war in Iraq in spring 2003, a Pew survey found 85 percent of Americans reported having at least a fair amount of confidence in military information, compared with 81 percent similarly confident that the news media were reporting the war accurately. Four years later, however, those percentages fell to 21 percent for the military and 27 percent for the press. Military operations were marked by a series of scandals, including intelligence failures, prisoner torture at Abu Ghraib, and inadequate health care for injured veterans at Walter Reed Hospital. Press coverage also suffered lapses, including lack of skepticism about White House claims of weapons of mass destruction and hasty, erroneous reporting on the rescue of captured Army Private Jessica Lynch. Thus, the war tarnished both press and military. Extended news coverage helped undermine public opinion, prompting some military observers to question whether, if future military actions are to be effective, they must be fought to swift and decisive conclusions—before long-term coverage has an impact.

In the late twentieth century, journalists confronted increasing efforts by military and government news sources to put a positive “spin” on coverage of combat. official attempts to slant the news toward supportive, noncontroversial coverage have existed for many decades. During World War I, military censors allowed correspondents to file reports for American newspapers when soldiers in the American Expeditionary Force captured their first German prisoner. The censors deleted the fact that in their nervous excitement, the Americans bayoneted the soldier and he died. At the conclusion of World War II, military censors prevented Chicago Daily News correspondent George Weller (1907-2002) from filing dispatches about his touring the city of Nagasaki a few weeks after it was leveled by an atomic bomb in 1945. Weller had written the first accounts of radiation sickness, but military authorities preferred to sanitize news that might provoke sympathy for the bomb’s victims or imply that the bombing was inhumane. The federal government continued to spin news about atomic weapons for many years. Amid growing public fears about radioactive fallout during atomic tests in the 1950s, the U.S. Civil Defense Administration published a pamphlet that said, “Fallout is nothing more than particles of matter in the air.” Acknowledging that the particles were radioactive, the pamphlet added, “Radioactivity is nothing new… the whole world is radioactive.”

While efforts to spin stories continued in the early twenty-first century, journalists found new allies and adversaries in attempting to report fully and accurately. The advent of cable television and the World Wide Web, and weblogs (“blogs”) in particular, allowed nonjournalists to publish their own critiques of government news management and the media’s presentation of the news. Some of the information on independent websites was of high value—the website Iraq Body Count, for example, provided reliable documentation on casualties after the U.S. military refused to give figures to reporters—but other sites reported rumors or focused on some elements of war news to the exclusion of others. “If you rely on newspapers and TV networks for your news, chances are you have no idea that the controversial performance of western reporters in Iraq is emerging as a big issue,” the conservative magazine U.S. News & World Report noted in October 2003 (Leo, 59). Citing allegations on the Internet and on the conservative Fox News network, as well as six members of Congress, the magazine accused journalists of reporting little but bad news out of the ongoing conflict in Iraq. U.S. News credited Internet bloggers, notably University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds’s “Instapundit” website, with leading the campaign for more “balance” in coverage of the war. Meanwhile, commercial radio, led by the conservative, continental-wide Clear Channel chain of stations, contributed to the spin on war news by banning antiwar songs and using the airwaves to organize prowar rallies.

While right-wing observers assailed the news media for a perceived lack of support for the war, left-wing observers added their critiques as well. For example, during the months leading to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, New York Times reporter Judith Miller (1948-) published stories bolstering the American government’s case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. The presence of such weapons became one or the government’s key reasons to invade. However, the invading troops found little or no credible evidence of the existence of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. Miller and The New York Times took heavy criticism from the Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting watchdog group and the liberal online magazine Slate over their failure to see through the government’s prowar publicity campaign. After the war began, left-wing critics accused the media of playing down the war’s impact on Iraqi civilians. Fuller accounts were available not only on the web, but also in satellite broadcasts from international news organizations, such as the BBC and the fledgling Arabic-language al Jazeera network in Qatar.

Changing Dynamics of War Reporting

The task of covering war has grown more complex since the first professional war correspondents rode into Mexico with the U.S. Army in the 1840s. Partisanship was the norm for the American press until the beginning of the twentieth century, and news stories about the Mexican-American War, Civil War, and Spanish-American War reflected the patriotic tenor of the home front. Coverage was relatively easy—journalists wrote not only what they saw, but what they thought about it. The rise of objectivity as the goal of a more professional press, targeting mass audiences, coincided with the onset of total war and widespread censorship in World War I. That combination of factors made the job of reporting war more difficult. Restrictions on journalist movements along the Western Front, particularly in the early years when England and France suffered heavy losses, were coupled with military censorship that prevented correspondents from sending home true accounts of the horrors of gas and machine gun attacks, trench warfare tactics, and massive casualties.

Journalists relied heavily on official accounts of action, essentially allowing government sources to “spin” the news for civilian consumption. Only after the war, as veterans came home and the censorship lifted, did families in Allied countries get a more complete picture of the war. World War II was heavily covered by more than 1,000 accredited American correspondents, but military restrictions and patriotic self-censorship once again sanitized much of the news.

Not until the conflict in Vietnam, when television cameras dramatized combat and the lack of field censorship in the undeclared war allowed virtually unrestrained coverage, did Americans witness the scope of combat’s violence. Television dominated the news media in the 1960s and 1970s, when only three major networks existed and cable did not yet provide news competition. News accounts tended to have high credibility levels, with CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite sometimes described as the most trusted man in America. Thus, the era of the Vietnam War is considered by many observers as the pinnacle of American war correspondence.


Journalists of the twenty-first century contend with much more competition than existed during the Vietnam War. Technology has empowered not only journalists in new media of communication, such as the World Wide Web, but has also shortened the production cycle for news, making information available nearly instantly from any point on the globe through the use of mobile and satellite phones, Internet connections, and broadcast signals. Journalists enjoyed as much access to the armed forces during the Iraq war as they had in Vietnam, easing their ability to gather news. However, the competition to be first among the many outlets of news to report significant developments raised the danger of publishing or broadcasting erroneous information, as well as the risk of having those errors dissected and criticized via the web and other watchdog outlets. In addition, the so-called War on Terror added new dimensions to war coverage, placing new burdens on journalists to assess progress against an enemy that does not fight with conventional armies or tactics. Given the continuing advances in technology and the difficulty of stamping out stateless terrorism, war coverage is unlikely to become any less demanding.