Dr. Becker listens to speakers before giving his presentation.

Cox Center Director Blames Media for Misperceptions About Justification for the U.S. Invasion of Iraq

Misperceptions in the United States about initial justifications for the war in Iraq can be blamed at least in part on the way the media have covered the conflict, Dr. Lee B. Becker of the University of Georgia told a gathering of journalists and journalism students in Ecuador in early June.

“I believe support for the war has been and is based on misperceptions about the war and its justification,” Dr. Becker said. “I believe those misperceptions illustrate a significant weakness of the communication system in our society. Specifically, I believe the misperceptions reflect a disconnection between the media and the citizens of our society.”

Dr. Becker, a professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, made his comments as an invited speaker at a conference organized by Auditoría Democrática Andina to celebrate the 100th anniversary of publication of El Comercio, a daily newspaper published in Quito.

The conference, held from June 1 to June 3 at the Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana in Quito, attracted approximately 500 participants, mostly from Ecuador and other countries in South America.

The theme of the conference was: What Power Do the Media Have? Dr. Becker was asked to speak on the topic of “Media and Citizenship.”

Dr. Becker, who directs the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research, a unit of the Grady College at the University of Georgia, said he felt there is evidence the media in the U.S. are disconnected from the citizens, and he is not optimistic about the future.

“I believe there is reason to worry that changes taking place in the media landscape in the United States make it more likely–not less likely–that the media system will be even more disconnected from the citizenry in the future,” he said.

Dr. Becker said the proliferation of media outlets has the positive effect of giving people more opportunities to speak but the negative effect of decreasing the amount of attention of audience members to important issues in the society.

Other speakers talked about public opinion research techniques, media audience fragmentation, new technologies, and legal issues surrounding access to information. Invited speakers included Dr. Derrick Cogburn from Syracuse University, Kela Leon from Consejo de la Prensa in Peru, Dr. Allan McCutcheon from the University of Nebraska, and Dr. Tapio Varis of the University of Tampere in Finland.

Dr. Becker said that a recent Gallup Poll showed that nearly four in 10 adults in the United States believe Saddam Hussein was Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the September 11th terrorist attacks.” While the figure is lower than it was when the question was first asked in September of 2002, Dr. Becker said it was “astounding” that so many people hold this belief today despite the evidence to the contrary.

Research has showed that misperceptions about this and other facts about the Iraq War are related to use of the media, with those who use read newspapers generally better informed than those who get their information from the broadcast media.

The relationship between the media and the citizenry is changing, Dr. Becker said, with audience members increasingly having choices about the information they receive.

As usual, there are optimists and pessimists, Dr. Becker said. “The optimists point out that there are more news voices than ever before, that entry costs for the creation of media organizations are low, and that, with the web, everyone can be a journalist.”

The pessimists, Dr. Becker said, note that “In a world where there is no prominent voice, where people can and do select their information sources to suite their own needs and biases, there is a very real chance that little information is going to get through.”

Dr. Becker said that the conference organizers “raised a question: Are the media and the citizens going to be disconnected or isolated from each other in this our new century?”

“I’m inclined to be a pessimist here,” he said, “and I think the consequences are very troubling.”