Are ‘wars of words’ related to real wars?


Ashley Washburn, June 21, 2016 | View original publication

Are ‘wars of words’ related to real wars?

Media coverage of international disputes can vary widely, from barely a mention to extensive coverage.

Does media coverage have any interplay on the outcomes of these disputes? A new University of Nebraska-Lincoln study says yes.

By examining 300 international disputes and the coverage and prominence of coverage given in two elite international newspapers, the study’s authors were able to find a direct correlation between media coverage and dispute escalation.

Ross Miller, associate professor of political science and the study’s lead author, said the research demonstrates that media coverage of a dispute can lead to audience costs – or political ramifications – for leaders in highly publicized disputes, meaning that they are more likely to take action or increase engagement if they feel the world is watching.

“We found that the more coverage there is, the more likely these disputes are to be ramped up with the use of military force, and possibly death,” Miller said. “It is more costly for leaders to back down in those publicized crises because of political loss.

“An example of that is the Cuban Missile Crisis, where it cost the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, his job because he backed down. He was out of Soviet politics shortly thereafter.”

Miller worked with student Scott Bokemper, who is now a graduate student at Stony Brook University, on the study. They looked at the amount of coverage each dispute was given in The New York Times and London Times from 1992 to 2001, as well as the prominence of that coverage, such as front-page placement. They also used a model to weed out endogenous effects, such as fatalities, effects on trade, power of country and United States involvement.

“Some conflicts are going to attract more media attention just because of the participants, so you have to be able to account for this reciprocal causation,” Miller said.

But even after taking account for those dependents in media coverage and escalation, Miller said the correlation between the media and escalation of dispute was very strong.

“Our hypothesis was that once states are involved in these crises, if there is a lot of media attention, that’s going to drive up audience costs for leaders, and we were correct,” Miller said. “The more coverage you have in The New York Times or the London Times, the greater the likelihood that the target uses military force. If that dispute is on the front page of either of those periodicals, it further increases significantly the likelihood that the target uses military force.”

Miller cautioned, however, that this model may not be as effective now in the United States because the public seems to be more war-weary because of the fight against terrorism, which has resulted in U.S. military actions for more than a decade.

“The model was wrong a few years ago, when Obama made the statement regarding the civil war in Syria, and Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people,” Miller said. “Obama was doing issued a threat, but we found out that they used chemical weapons and he didn’t follow through.

“This audience cost model suggests that he should have paid a higher price in terms of his public opinion, and he didn’t.”

As for the rhetoric in this year’s presidential race, Miller, who specializes in international politics, said the audience cost model from the study is generally not encouraging for a leader to engage in combat with such targets as ISIS, because it’s not a target that can be easily defeated.

“Generally, the audience cost model predicts that presidents in democratic countries tend to be reluctant to use military force unless they can be assured of winning,” Miller said. “Democratic leaders tend to be really careful about selecting their wars. They also tend to win the wars in which they participate. And those wars tend to have fewer casualties, simply because they know, going in that it’s easier for their constituents to impose costs on them than it would be for say, Putin.

“For candidates like Donald Trump, who are arguing, ‘Yes, we’re going to bomb ISIS,’ my guess is that if he gets into office, he will be much more moderate than what his rhetoric suggests and that’s simply because if he wants to survive politically, he’ll choose his battles carefully.”

The study was published in the journal Media, War and Conflict.

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