Baghdad Urban Legends  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2003

Baghdad Urban Legends   

How come so many people think weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, or that Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11 attacks? Are the news media to blame?

By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      


Armed with at least the opportunity to have learned much about the war in Iraq--what with the months-long build-up, the up-close-and-embedded coverage, the pages upon pages of newsprint and hours upon hours of airtime--and prodded with multiple-choice and yes-or-no answers, the American public still fared poorly on current events polls.

The results from throughout this year suggest that a good portion of the public didn't do its homework. Polls have revealed people harbor a number of misconceptions or bits of false information about Iraq. For instance:

In a January Knight Ridder poll, half of the respondents said that one or more of the 9/11 hijackers was an Iraqi.

Fifty-three percent of respondents in an April CBS/New York Times poll said Saddam Hussein was "personally involved" in the 9/11 attacks.

In May, a poll for the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland revealed that 34 percent of those surveyed believed weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq, and 22 percent said Iraq had used chemical or biological weapons in the recent war.

The next month, a Washington Post/ABC News poll found a similar result: Twenty-four percent said Iraq had used such weapons against American soldiers. (Six percent said the U.S. had used those weapons against the Iraqis.)

We could cite these statistics as more evidence that the American public doesn't care about what happens outside U.S. borders or isn't paying attention to the news. The funny thing is, people are paying attention. Or at least they say they are.

In August, a time when most Americans have traditionally shunned news coverage in favor of serious beach time, 84 percent said they were either very closely or fairly closely following news about the situation in Iraq. That's according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which has been measuring the public's levels of interest in news since 1986. Other polls have found high levels of news consumption as well.

And consuming news usually--and logically--leads to greater understanding. Studies have shown that when the public is following a story and the press is covering a subject well, public knowledge increases. With the war in Iraq, it seems, this hasn't happened. Who is at fault? Did the news media fall down on the job? Could they have done something differently to better inform their audiences?

Or can we safely pass the blame to the clueless American people and their personal biases? What about the rhetoric of the Bush administration?

"What's curious is that [people] say that they're following it closely...and the news talks about it a lot, and somehow this is not getting through," says Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes.

Kull and others say no matter the cause of mistaken notions, it's the media's responsibility to set the record straight. "If there are misperceptions emerging, if there are biases," he says, "if the goal is to end up with an informed citizenry or electorate, then one has to compensate for these tendencies."

Stephen Hess, for one, is not losing sleep over the public's lack of political acumen. "I don't want it to sound like I think Americans are dumbbells," says Hess, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a one-time White House speechwriter. But the U.S. is "simply the most apolitical country in the world." Ask people what's on their mind, says Hess, and they'll answer family, health, job, religion. Anything but politics or foreign affairs.

Most of those interviewed for this story agree that the public often is misinformed, particularly when it comes to international events. But some, like Michael Traugott, chair of the department of communication studies and professor of political science at the University of Michigan, say the current phenomenon is a little more disconcerting than similar findings in the past. The fact that weapons of mass destruction have not been used and yet people believe they have been is surprising, says Traugott. More surprising than, say, not being able to rattle off the names of foreign leaders.

Indeed, the last few decades are replete with examples of polls in which the public had plenty of opinions but was short on facts.

In March 1982, as a guerrilla war raged in El Salvador, a majority of those surveyed in a CBS News/ New York Times poll said the U.S. should stay out of the conflict, though the poll showed many respondents would have had difficulty pinpointing the country on a map. "[H]alf the respondents said they believed that Soviet or Cuban troops were present in El Salvador, helping the insurgents, although there have been no news reports to that effect," wrote the Times.

In a 1988 Gallup Poll, half of those polled correctly identified Nicaragua as the country in which the Sandinistas and contras were fighting. The other half either didn't know or offered guesses ranging from Honduras to Iran to Lebanon.

But such foreign happenings didn't stir up massive public interest. According to the Pew Research Center news interest index, 13 percent of the public was "very closely" following the fighting in Nicaragua in November 1989; 37 percent said the same of U.S. troops being sent to Bosnia in January 1996; even the war in Afghanistan garnered 50 percent interest or less over the course of the conflict.

The war in Iraq and the 1991 Persian Gulf War, however, often scored 60 percent to 67 percent on the index. That level of interest suggests there might be something more at work than the "Americans don't test well" excuse.

Traugott, coauthor of "Election Polls, the News Media & Democracy," says the reasons for a lack of knowledge are usually a low level of education and partisanship. With questions about the war in Iraq, there is plenty of evidence that bias influences people's answers.

The Program on International Policy Attitudes asks factual questions in its monthly polls. Those believing that the U.S. has found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had declined from 34 percent in May to 21 percent in July.

Among Republicans in the poll, says PIPA's Steven Kull, those who said they were closely following the news about Iraq were more apt to have these perceptions than those who weren't following the news closely. This "suggests that there's some kind of distorting process going on," he says. It's a distortion on two fronts: one being a personal bias that leads someone to reach conclusions that conform to that person's beliefs, and two, "some skewing in the way the information is being presented," he says.

PIPA further analyzed its data from this summer to see if there were relationships between people's beliefs and their main news sources. And it found some: Those who said they watched the Fox News Channel "very closely" were more likely to say evidence of WMD had been found or that people in the world favor the U.S. having gone to war with Iraq than those who watched Fox "not very closely" or "not closely at all." For CNN, the opposite was true--those watching the network very closely were less apt to have these misperceptions. There was little difference among the attention levels of NBC, ABC or CBS viewers.

When PIPA compared Republicans who supported the war, would vote for Bush in 2004 and listed Fox as their primary news source with Republicans who met the first two criteria but listed other news sources, it still found differences in beliefs. Loyal Fox viewers were more likely to have some misperceptions about Iraq.

It's debatable whether that means there's something in the way news is presented or in the way Fox fans choose to hear it.

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, says there is a purely emotional reaction that people have to Iraq--and one man in particular--that may have something to do with the poll results. On the public's assumption that Saddam Hussein was involved with 9/11, Kohut says, "A lot of that has to do with a perception that Saddam Hussein is a really bad guy who wants to do us harm, and he comes from a part of the world that is dangerous."

When a question like that is posed, he says, people make assumptions, even if they aren't absolutely certain of the facts. "They tell the pollster," says Kohut, " 'Yeah, I suspect that's true.' " It's a combination "of not having the facts, not studying the coverage and the willingness to think the worst of a bad guy."

We can't expect the public to know as much about the story as the press does. Unlike many journalists, most Americans don't follow day-to-day policy developments, says Karlyn Bowman, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

People are more likely to be guided by their values when answering these questions than by what's actually going on. "I think journalists assume that American opinions are based on facts, because most people in journalism are dealing with facts on a regular basis," says Bowman, who studies public opinion. "I'm not sure that's how the American people, being mostly inattentive, make decisions and form opinions." They are "more likely to consult their values."

Also, once the public establishes a basic level of trust in a president, "they do give their presidents latitude," she says, "and they just don't pay attention to the specifics of a debate."

And the specifics were confusing. It was "found mobile weapons labs" one day, and "that's not what they were used for" the next. Journalists would report what the Bush administration said about possible evidence and then follow with skeptical remarks from arms and intelligence officials. Can we blame the folks out there for being a tad confused?

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, says we can't, and she isn't willing to say the public is wrong. One by one she ticks off valid reasons why people would answer these poll questions as they did.

On the hijackers-were-Iraqi response: "The Bush rhetoric and the rhetoric of the administration strongly implied that there was an association between Iraq and 9/11, so that the public thinks there is, when it has been told there is, isn't surprising," Jamieson says. "It's possible there's a link and we haven't found it yet."

On the WMD question: The administration still holds the position that the mobile labs could have been used to make weapons of mass destruction, she says. "So you can't say the public's wrong." What you can say is that there's a difference of opinion about what the labs were for.

On biological or chemical weapons used: It's not implausible for the public, knowing that gulf war illness may have been caused by some chemical interaction, to think such weapons may have been used in this war, Jamieson says.

Kathleen A. Frankovic, director of surveys at CBS News, agrees that conflicting information could have led to false beliefs. "There were certainly many reports about the finding of things that could be weapons of mass destruction at the end of the war," she says. "People could have generalized from that."

She sides with Kohut, as well, saying, "The opinion of Saddam Hussein is so negative and had been so negative for more than a decade...that it was very easy for people to believe the most horrendous acts" had been committed by the Iraqi leader.

That's not due to a failure on the part of the news media, Frankovic says, "but a deep-held feeling" about Hussein.

But can we let news organizations off the hook that easily? Jon Wolfsthal, deputy director of the Non-Proliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says he and his colleagues have been thinking about why the public is so misinformed. He says we need to realize the general public doesn't necessarily watch entire newscasts, read entire newspapers and consume the large quantities of reports that political types or those in Washington, D.C., might.

"If you're cooking dinner, and the lead story is the weapons of mass destruction search," Wolfsthal says as an example. "And then you start the blender." The next thing you hear is that a U.S. soldier has been killed in Iraq. It's likely, he says, that a person might associate American deaths with WMD.

The media, of course, can't make people listen.

But, Wolfsthal says, they could tone down the hype, especially when they're not completely sure what they're hyping. "In order to get viewers, [the media] feel they need to excite people's imagination," he says. They "tend to be more excited about events than warranted," which, he says, was true in the run-up to the war and when the U.S. revealed preliminary findings.

Journalists need to include more background in their stories, Wolfsthal adds, and "think about what goes above the fold as opposed to deep in the background."

A good percentage of the public might not make it to that "background" most of the time, but people do get the general message--if it's hammered home enough. In July, when the question "Where are the weapons?" was getting prominent play, the percentage of people who believed the weapons had already been found slipped in the PIPA poll. Kull says the press coverage certainly made a difference.

"I think the information keeps moving around and gradually it overrides" false beliefs, he says. "It's persistent enough so that it overrides people's resistance."

Editors and news directors can all breathe a small sigh of relief: Press coverage--at least eventually--does increase public knowledge. Media coverage matters.

"Accurate public knowledge goes up when the press is doing its job," says Jamieson. She saw the link in a yearlong survey Annenberg conducted in 2000 on the presidential election. "When there were high levels of press coverage" and when candidates were talking about certain issues, public knowledge increased, she says. "When one candidate was trying to confuse the public on where [he] stood, public knowledge went down."

But Jamieson doesn't know what more the press could have done in reporting news about the absence of proven links between Iraq and al Qaeda and the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction, subjects that elicited diverging viewpoints from the administration and outside experts. "What the press is not supposed to do is say, 'This side is right,' unless the press had some evidence to say that," she says.

Others don't have problems criticizing news outlets' performance, saying that they often failed to provide enough detail, were more likely to convey impressions than facts, and gave too much credence to administration claims (see "Are the News Media Soft on Bush?" page 16).

As for those elusive weapons of mass destruction, Kull says there were a series of headlines after the war that suggested a smoking gun had been found. The follow-up stories--saying many experts disagree--did not get such prominent play, he notes.

Traugott criticizes the media for not providing much detail or explanation in their coverage of foreign policy and events in general. Also, he says, "there's an overwhelming tendency of the American media to adopt the government view. And especially as the story develops...[the articles] turn into stories about conflicts within the administration, or about people taking sides in the Congress...and they focus on these aspects of conflict."

Danny Schechter, executive editor of MediaChannel.org, a Web site on media issues, and a frequent critic of the press, chastises journalists for being more concerned about presentation than information. The press, he says, "conveys and reinforces impressions, not facts; deals with ideology, not information." There's more emphasis on the tantalizing lead, he says, than on context and background.

Newspaper editors and others counter that the coverage of the war in Iraq was quite comprehensive, and they don't fault the media for any lingering public misperceptions. "I don't think this is a result of the press not doing its job," says Stephen Hess. "Look at the coverage of Iraq.... Gee whiz, the amount of money and personnel spent to cover this war, I think, was quite outstanding."

Robert Ruby, foreign editor of the Baltimore Sun, says the poll results are an example "of how a lot of citizens divide the world into us versus them" and don't worry too much about the specifics. "I think all that newspapers can do is put the information out there. If people read it, that's great, and if they understand it, even better. And if they don't, there's not too much a newspaper can do," Ruby says. "We're not running a political campaign or information campaigns."

There is evidence that even if the media do provide details, the public doesn't pay close attention to them. Traugott mentions studies on the relationship between the number of U.S. troops killed in a conflict and American support for the fighting. "I think that the body count measure is just an indicator of the tone of the coverage," he says. "I don't think people are paying attention to how many people died.... But there's a relationship between a focus on a particular topic" and the tenor of the news.

The Annenberg 2000 study suggests that whether people caught snippets of election coverage or read a good portion of it, they walked away with similar levels of knowledge about the presidential candidates. "There was little difference between high, medium and low consumers of television news on knowledge of the candidates' issue positions," the report reads.

There were only small differences (5 percent to 10 percent) between the knowledge levels of those who had high exposure to newspapers or talk radio and those who said they had a low exposure.

So is it the coverage--or the public--that's fuzzy on the details?

Schechter describes a vicious cycle of news coverage: "Television helps in a sense limit the attention span of the audience," he says. "Now, it's creating programming geared to that phenomenon it's created."

While he does say that "print is better," Schechter adds that newspapers are trying to look more like TV, with shorter stories and bigger pictures.

People do learn from the media, but they may not retain information for long. Hess says the relationship between news coverage and public knowledge is evident in the ratings of politicians--they move up at one event, and down at another. "The problem," he says, "is the degree to which people forget it. They just go on to something else."

The need for repetition is one lesson Peter Bhatia, executive editor of Portland's Oregonian, says the media can take from these poll results. "It's not so much correcting the public, it seems to me," he says on the question of whether the press has a responsibility to fix misperceptions, "it's more a matter of...understanding that people don't read every word of a newspaper every day, and especially on long-running stories like this one, we need to come back and revisit things over and over and over again," he says. "We need to keep telling people, taking the opportunity to tell people things in context that keep refreshing their knowledge of the story."

"Often," adds Bhatia, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, "we're guilty of moving on to the next thing."

He and Ed Jones, editor of the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia, say the public wasn't following the news from Iraq all that closely, at least not in newspapers. "I think I was surprised--as were many newspaper editors--to find that rather than readership going up during wartime, it was either flat or down," says Jones, president of Associated Press Managing Editors.

Jones says that trend was "extremely unfortunate," because while the public could see first-rate reporting in the broadcast media, people who didn't read the paper missed "more [of] the background and the context and the texture with all this.... I think they really missed an educational opportunity."

Jones and Bhatia understand the complaint that follow-up reports weren't always played prominently enough, but overall they say media coverage was solid and comprehensive.

But does the press need to correct public misunderstanding? Steven Kull says yes. "It's really the responsibility of the press to realize [what misperceptions exist] and make offsetting efforts to watch for things that they might say that contribute to it," he says.

The editors interviewed for this story agree the media have the responsibility, but say they can only do that through their reporting. "We couldn't do a scorecard every day," along the lines of, " 'We're smarter than you, so here, let me tell you,' " says Martin Kaiser, editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The larger question is whether knowledge alters opinions: If people held different beliefs--that weapons of mass destruction hadn't been found, for instance--would their views on the war change?

Kull says studies have shown that people's attitudes do change when they're given more information. In 2000, for instance, a PIPA poll found that 75 percent of respondents thought the U.S. spent too much on foreign aid. The median estimate, by those surveyed, was that 20 percent of the federal budget goes to foreign aid. When they were told that it was only 1 percent, Kull says, only 13 percent still thought that was too much.

Such studies do raise the question, says Kull, "if people had more complete information on the softness of the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and links to al Qaeda, whether that would have influenced people's readiness for the war in Iraq."

But, then again, maybe the details don't much matter. Polls have indicated that a majority of the public feels the war was justified even if weapons of mass destruction are never found.

Kohut, of the Pew Research Center, says the purported linkage between Iraq and 9/11 was not an important element of support for the war. For the public, the more significant attitude was that the U.S. was vulnerable and Saddam Hussein was a threat.

"In the end, on the big question," Kohut says, "the public comes to judgments that are pretty rational, and it gets to know what it needs to know to make [decisions]--even though it might not have all the facts right."

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