Remembering Our Shared Past: Visually Framing the Iraq War on U.S. News Websites


  • Carol B. Schwalbe

    1. Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
      Arizona State University
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    • Carol B. Schwalbe is an assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on the role of images in shaping ideas and public opinion during the early years of the Cold War, ethical concerns about publishing violent images, and the visual framing of the Iraq War on the Internet.

      Address: Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University, P.O. Box 871305, Tempe, AZ 85287-1305 USA


This exploratory study analyzes how United States news websites visually portray ongoing (contemporaneous) events and examines their potential role in shaping collective memory by commemorating past (resurrected) events through anniversary retrospectives. A content analysis of 526 images on the home pages of 26 mainstream news sites indicates that during the first five weeks of the Iraq War, the visual emphasis shifted from the official U.S. war machine to the more personal face of those touched by war, both Americans and Iraqis, as photojournalists traveled with the troops to Baghdad. The five main frames that emerged reinforced the patriotic, government-friendly war narrative: conflict, conquest, rescue, victory, and control. By the first, second, and third anniversaries of the war, the visual coverage of hostilities had dropped dramatically. This article discusses some of the reasons why online news sites did not feature many anniversary commemorations of the Iraq War.

Iraq and the internet’s coming of age

“Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.”—Cicero

Those of us who have never experienced war learn about it mainly through the mass media. Americans listened to World War II on the radio. They watched the Vietnam War on network television and the Gulf War on 24-hour cable networks. Most recently, the Iraq War marked the coming of age of the Internet, which joined the mainstream media “as a news medium serving a mass-market audience” (Outing, 2003, ¶4).

For online newsrooms, the Iraq War was a rite of passage. It was the first major United States war covered on the Internet. Dean Wright, editor-in-chief of, predicted that Iraq “may well become known as the Internet war” (Hewitt, 2003, ¶4). When the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003, the Internet ranked last as Americans’ primary source of war news (Palser, 2003). Of adult Internet users surveyed between March 20 and 25, 2003, 87% reported turning to television as their primary source of war news, followed by 22% for radio, 21% for newspapers, and 17% for the Internet (Rainie, Fox, & Fallows, 2003).1 During the first week of hostilities, however, 77% of Americans went online for war news (Rainie, Fox, & Fallows, 2003). Traffic on more than doubled the first day of the invasion—from 2.5 million on March 18 to 6.1 million on March 19; two days later the figure had jumped to 10 million (Hewitt, 2003). At the time, three of every four Americans had Internet access (Hewitt, 2003).

Iraq was also the first U.S. war photographed by journalists with high-quality digital cameras, laptops, satellite phones, videophones, and Internet access, making possible the instant dissemination of battlefield images. As Lasica (2003) wrote, “This time around, photographers will be stationed alongside troops, providing viewers an up-close kind of personal photojournalism not seen since the Vietnam War” (¶3). From up-close images and war blogs to the multimedia-rich websites of news giants like The New York Times and CNN, the Internet promised an unparalleled variety of coverage, commentary, and alternative perspectives.

The objectives of this exploratory study are to determine if this emergent medium delivered on the promises of “an up-close kind of personal photojournalism” and alternative perspectives 1) while war was being waged (an ongoing event), and 2) then later in anniversary retrospectives (past events). To achieve these objectives, a content analysis of 26 U.S. news websites examined images from the first five weeks of the war to determine how the visual frames changed over time, and then at points one, two, and three years later to see how the Internet helped shape the nation’s collective memory of the invasion. The study thus adds much-needed information about Internet framing to the growing body of research on print and television framing. It also lays the groundwork for a standard set of frames that can be used for future analyses of war images in any medium.

Collective memory and the mass media

Contemporary societies tend to value memories of a shared past. The ways in which they remember past events are shaped by many factors, from historical monuments and movies to textbooks and popular literature. In most societies, for example, history and civics textbooks tell an “official” story that celebrates “both the idealized past and the promised future of the community” (Hein & Selden, 2000, p. 3).

Creating this connection with a shared past and imbuing it with meaning is the function of collective memory. To remember the past, a society must “retell its story” (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985, p. 153). Each retelling coats the past with a new veneer of meaning and form. The French sociologist Halbwachs (1952) compared the process to retouching a painting, in which “[n]ew images overlay the old” (p. 72). Halbwachs provided one of the first descriptions of collective memory: “A remembrance is in very large measure a reconstruction of the past achieved with data borrowed from the present, a reconstruction prepared, furthermore, by reconstructions of earlier periods wherein past images had already been altered” (p. 69). More recently, Hoskins (2001) defined collective memory as “the ongoing collaborative re-casting of ‘the past’—of a particular group, event or experience—in the present” (p. 336).

Most Americans learn about both ongoing and past events from the mass media, which can disseminate information to large numbers of people quickly (Schuman & Rodgers, 2004). “In this way our understanding of the past is ’manufactured‘ rather than remembered,” wrote Hoskins (2001, p. 336). In fact, Davis (1979) called “the media the primary forum for public reminiscence” (p. 122). Beginning with the attention paid to the Holocaust in the 1980s, Western media have accelerated the shift from a postmodern focus on the future, or “present futures,” to a “memory boom,” or a look back at “present pasts” (Huyssen, 2000, pp. 21, 29).

Journalists record the first draft of history by reporting breaking and ongoing (contemporaneous) events; journalists often produce second drafts as well by repurposing content to commemorate past (resurrected) events (Edy, 1999). Anniversary stories “provide an opportunity to exercise some kind of self-conscious sense of history” (Schudson, 1986, p. 9). Just as ongoing news frames provide a framework for synthesizing the present, anniversary retrospectives provide a framework for synthesizing the past. Both are selective processes that telescope events into a few images that stand for the whole. The former brings order and coherence to the fragments of history in the making, while the latter brings order and coherence to the fragments of the past resurrected. This reprocessing of past and present images shapes what society “remembers” and what it “forgets” (Hoskins, 2001, p. 341).

Anniversaries commemorate both specific, dramatic milestones (such as D-Day, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the first moon landing, and 9/11) and broad, complex periods (such as the Civil War, the Depression, and the Cold War). They mark the passage of time and the fleeting nature of life, yet they also give permanence and continuity to human institutions and remind us that we are part of something bigger (Davis, 1979). Through these widespread recollections of the past, “we are forging through the media a common recollection of the national past” (Nerone & Wartella, 1989, p. 85). As Kammen (1993) wrote, “Any evaluation of the relative roles of memory and amnesia in American culture must ultimately acknowledge that we increasingly tend to measure how we are doing (in terms of collective knowledge) by how well we commemorate anniversaries” (p. 667).

Only a few studies have looked at the role of the mass media in shaping collective memory. K. Lang and G. E. Lang (1989) identified four main reasons why journalists invoke the past: to define an era, serve as a yardstick, make comparisons, and provide lessons or explanations. Several scholars (e.g., Dayan & Katz, 1992; Fiske, 1987; Zelizer, 1992) examined how television news creates cultural memory. Kitch (1999) focused on the formation of collective memory and identity in news magazines. Kitch (2002) noted that when consumer magazines celebrate their founding, they not only define American values and reinforce journalists’ cultural authority but also create collective memory. Mikula (2003) discussed how two non-journalistic websites used repressed collective memory to skillfully manipulate the medium. No studies, however, have examined how images on news websites frame ongoing events and then recall them at a later time.

Picturing the Iraq War

This study attempts to fill the gap by comparing how U.S. news websites visually framed the first five weeks of the Iraq War as an ongoing (contemporaneous) event, and then how they looked back on the conflict as a past (resurrected) event at points one year, two years, and three years later. Photographs were chosen for study because of the power of images in what the art historian Gombrich (1974) called our “visual age” (p. 7). Each day the average American sees tens of thousands of images (Rosen, 2005). “More than ever,” wrote Perlmutter (1999), “the news that really matters is what is visually prominent” (p. 178). Visual records help the public remember and understand the past by stabilizing “the transient nature of memory” (Zelizer, 1995, p. 233). In addition, historians turn to images more than to text in their quest for collective memory (Le Goff, 1992). As Chambers and Culbert noted in 1996, “The public memory of war in the twentieth century has been created less from a remembered past than a manufactured past, one substantially shaped by images in documentaries, feature films, and television programs” (p. 16). If Chambers and Culbert were to write this statement today, they would no doubt add the Internet to the list.

Scholars (e.g., Griffin, 1999, 2004; Kuhn, 1995; Schacter, 1996; Schudson, 1995; Zelizer, 1998) have shown that news photographs link the viewer’s memory to familiar categories and scenarios. “More than they describe, photographs tend to symbolize generalities, providing transcending frames of cultural mythology or social narratives in which the viewer/reader is led to process and interpret other information on the page or screen” (Griffin, 2004, p. 384). As images of the Iraq War become etched on our collective memory, they will shape the way the nation remembers and makes sense of this conflict. Will it be remembered as a heroic liberation of an oppressed people? As a well-intentioned but misguided crusade against terrorism? Or as a flagrant abuse of American power? Scholars have called the prism through which Americans interpret war a template (Keen, 1991), archetype (Galtung, 1987), and master narrative (Beeman, 1991). According to the master war narrative, the U.S. stands alone in the world as the exemplar of capitalism, democracy, and religious freedom. It has not only a right but also a duty to exercise its special moral responsibility. When compelled to fight, its military forces rely on technologically superior weapons to vanquish the enemy. This master war narrative is generally reinforced by the government, political and economic elites, and the media (Hackett & Zhao, 1994).

War images in the mainstream U.S. media shape the public’s perception of “patriotism, sacrifice, humanity, the nation-state, and fairness” (Zelizer, 2004, p. 115). During the 1991 Gulf War the pool system, censorship, and military escorts made it difficult for photojournalists to shoot the types of up-close pictures that had helped turn U.S. public opinion against the Vietnam War. A study of 1,104 Gulf War photos in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report concluded that “remarkably little of the photojournalistic coverage … depicts actual combat activity of any kind” (Griffin & Lee, 1995, p. 821). Photos of U.S. and Iraqi ordnance, U.S.-allied troops, U.S. and Iraqi political leaders, and U.S. military leaders comprised 57% of the war-related pictures.

Building on these Gulf War findings, Griffin (2004) analyzed photo coverage of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq in the same three news magazines. Griffin concluded that the predictable depiction as told from an ethnocentric perspective outweighed more complex and independent narratives. About half the photographs from the weeks just before and during the Iraq invasion reinforced the prevailing theme of U.S. political and military might. Images that contributed “new, independent, or complex visual information,” such as the Iraqi perspective, the human toll, or global economics, were rare (p. 399).

Bennett (2003) also found that the U.S. media tended to frame the Gulf War in a patriotic, American-centered way, ignoring opposition from the world community. Lester and King (2005) observed that The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune published twice as many war photos during the Iraq War as during the Gulf War. Even so, the number of combat images and close-ups rose only slightly, as did coverage of protesters and the home front. U.S. and British newspapers did not show much combat activity either, even though embedded photojournalists were close to the fighting (Fahmy & Johnson, 2005). Although about 20% of the war visuals in The New York Times and the Guardian newspaper depicted Iraqi civilian casualties, most images followed a narrow, allied-centered perspective that spotlighted allied troops, U.S. and British political leaders, and jubilant encounters between the troops and Iraqi civilians (Fahmy & Kim, 2006).

The visual framing of war

As these and other studies have shown, the media can subtly but powerfully shape public perceptions and opinion by how they frame a story. In the last three decades, many scholars have contributed to the literature on framing in two main areas: media frames (how the media present the news) and audience frames (how viewers and readers understand and react to those frames). This study will contribute to the growing body of research on media frames, specifically how U.S. news websites frame visuals of the Iraq War. As de Vreese, Peter, and Semetko (2001) wrote, examining media frames is “[a]n indispensable step toward testing the effects of frames in the news” (p. 108).

Although definitions of framing differ, many share similar characteristics. Broadly speaking, a frame “is a central organizing idea or story line that provides meaning to an unfolding strip of events. … The frame suggests what the controversy is about, the essence of the issue” (Gamson & Modigliani, 1987, p. 143). More specifically, framing refers to patterns that emerge in the way the media select, organize, emphasize, present, and ignore certain aspects of words and/or images over others (Gitlin, 1980). By examining the repetition (frequency) and prominent placement of images (size) as well as their association with a deeply embedded cultural template (subject matter), this study operationalizes Entman’s (1993) definition of framing as a process “to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient” to the audience (p. 52). For Entman, salience and selection are essential elements of framing. “Salience,” as Entman defined it, makes the message “noticeable, meaningful or memorable” (p. 53). The selection process involves ignoring some pictures in order to emphasize others. What is excluded, according to Entman, is at least as important as what is included, because the exclusions reinforce the inclusions by depriving the audience of information needed to forge alternative perspectives.

As Cappella and Jamieson (1997) noted, a news frame “creates a structure on which other elements are built” (p. 39). Frames help readers and viewers “locate, perceive, identify, and label” the vast amount of information that bombards them every day (Goffman, 1974, p. 21). According to Pfau, Haigh, Gettle, Donnelly, Scott, Warr, and Wittenberg (2004), the way stories are packaged can add meaning by telling people not only what to think about the news but also how to think about it. By framing an event in one way rather than another, the media can influence the way people think about it and, later, remember it. During the Iraq War, for example, the news media could select to show the American perspective rather than the Iraqi, emphasize victory and heroism instead of loss and failures, elaborate frames of freedom rather than destruction, and exclude images of the injured and dead.

Visual framing is a continuous winnowing process. It begins with the choice of events to cover, followed by the selection of what pictures to take, how to take them (angle, perspective, assumptions and biases, cropping, and so forth), and which ones to submit (Perlmutter & Wagner, 2004). The process continues in the newsroom with decisions about which images to publish, what size to make them, and where to position them on the page.

De Vreese (1999) distinguished between issue-specific news frames (a specific issue, topic, or event) and generic news frames (a broad range of topics that can transcend thematic, cultural, geographical, or time limitations). Some studies have focused on issue-specific news frames, such as reader reaction to newspaper articles on rising crime in the Netherlands and the introduction of the euro (Valkenburg, Semetko, & de Vreese, 1999), news magazine coverage of America’s War on Terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq (Griffin, 2004), the impact of embedded journalists in Iraq on newspaper story frames and tones (Pfau, et al., 2004), the depiction of Afghan women in AP wire photos during and after the Taliban regime (Fahmy, 2004b), and television coverage of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue (Aday, Cluverius, & Livingston, 2005). Some scholars have compared issue-specific framing across different media and news outlets, such as U.S. television and print accounts of the downing of two international airlines (Entman, 1991), television and newspaper stories about five different issues (Neuman, Just, & Crigler, 1992), and the visual framing of the Iraq War in print, on television, and on the Internet (Schwalbe, Keith, & Silcock, 2003).

While issue-specific frames enable researchers to pursue a well-defined topic, generic frames “are broadly applicable to a range of different news topics, some even over time and, potentially, in different cultural contexts” (de Vreese, Peter, & Semetko, 2001, p. 108). Iyengar’s (1991) thematic frame, which “places political issues and events in some general context” (p. 2), exemplifies this more generic news frame, as compared with his episodic frame, which focuses on a particular case or discrete episode. Since news organizations usually produce stories with episodic rather than thematic perspectives, the media tend to emphasize recent developments that appear isolated from one another instead of explaining context and long-term effects (Iyengar, 1991). Examples of studies that transcend a specific issue, time, or place include identification of the most common frames used by both the media and the audience (Neuman, Just, & Crigler, 1992), the dominance of strategically framed news over issue-framed news in U.S. campaign coverage (Cappella & Jamieson, 1997), and a cross-national analysis of the 9/11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan in English- and Arabic-language newspapers (Fahmy, 2004a). Building on the work of Semetko and Valkenburg (2000), who observed that conflict and economic consequences were among the most common frames used in Dutch news stories about European politics, de Vreese, Peter, and Semetko (2001) conducted a cross-national comparison of these two generic frames with regard to a single event—the introduction of the euro.

This study also focuses on a single event—the Iraq War. Since a standard set of frames does not exist for examining war visuals, the research uses an inductive approach to determine what patterns of visual framing emerge in U.S. online news coverage. Studies of the visual framing of the Iraq War have focused on news magazines (e.g., Griffin, 2004), newspapers (e.g., Dimitrova & Strömbäck, 2005; Fahmy & Kim, 2006; Lester & King, 2005), television (e.g., Aday, Cluverius, & Livingston, 2005), and newspapers and television (Hatley, Major, & Perlmutter, 2005). Aside from a cross-media study of the Iraq War by Schwalbe, Keith, and Silcock (2003), the Internet has not been the focus of visual framing studies.

None of these studies considered the interplay between how news websites visually portrayed ongoing (contemporaneous) events, then later shaped collective memory by commemorating past (resurrected) events through anniversary retrospectives. This study attempts to investigate that interplay by posing two research questions about the Iraq War:

RQ1: How did mainstream U.S. news websites visually frame the first five weeks of the war as an ongoing (contemporaneous) event?

RQ2: How did mainstream U.S. news websites visually frame the first, second, and third anniversaries of the invasion as past (resurrected) events?


To examine how the news media frame issues and events, Cappella and Jamieson (1997) recommended content analysis as an important step in identifying journalistic patterns that are commonly observed, sufficiently described, and “a consistent component of the news environment” (p. 49). The researcher conducted a content analysis of 526 photographs, maps, graphics, and other visuals posted on the home pages of 26 U.S. news websites. These sites, which were also the focus of a cross-media study by Schwalbe, Keith, and Silcock (2003), represent a spectrum of mainstream U.S. media outlets: the three national news magazines with the largest circulations (Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News & World Report), the three major broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), the two major cable news networks (CNN and Fox), and 18 daily newspapers. These papers were selected for diversity in terms of location and ownership: the eight U.S. dailies whose weekday circulation averaged more than 500,000;2 the nine newspapers published by major corporations that do not have more than one newspaper with an average daily circulation above 500,000;3 and the St. Petersburg Times, the largest independently owned daily.

Only the images on the home pages were coded, because that is where most people first access online news before browsing the rest of the site. According to Ha and James (1998), coding an entire news website would take a long time and could introduce biases based on site size, which can range from hundreds to tens of thousands of pages. Analyzing the one page that exists on every site—the home page—guarantees consistency across the sample. The collection of screen shots began March 19, 2003, at 10:15 p.m. Eastern Time, right after President George W. Bush announced that U.S.-led coalition forces had attacked Iraq. Images were then collected every Wednesday evening for the next four weeks, by which time the war appeared to be over. Since these images were collected at one-week intervals, they are “snapshots” of specific points in time rather than a continuous “motion picture” over time. Different results might have emerged if the images had been collected on other days. Generalizations cannot be made beyond this medium and the days studied.

A professor who teaches online journalism coded screen shots of all 526 images. A second coder was trained using non-sampled sites. This print news professional then coded a 10% subsample (n = 53) to ensure that the identical images were coded. Holsti’s intercoder reliability across all coding categories was in the acceptable range (0.91). To correct for chance agreement, Scott’s pi was calculated and resulted in a coefficient of .896. Discrepancies between the coders were discussed and resolved.

The unit of analysis was the individual news image—a photograph, map, graphic, or other visual that depicted a war-related event. Each image was coded according to one of 28 topic categories.4 In addition, each image was coded as either dominant or secondary. The dominant image was the largest photograph, map, graphic, or other visual on the home page. If two or more images were the same size, then the coder selected the category “No dominant image.” Dominant images were put in a separate category because the “essence of framing is sizing” (Entman, 1991, p. 9). Secondary images comprised the remaining photographs, maps, graphics, and other visuals on the home page.

Most of the common news frames, such as conflict, human interest, economic consequences, morality, and attribution of responsibility, are better suited to textual analysis than visual analysis (Neuman, Just, & Crigler, 1992; Valkenburg, Semetko, & de Vreese, 1999). This study, therefore, employed an inductive approach because no standard set of frames exists for analyzing war images. Rather than ascertaining the extent to which the images fell into a predetermined set of frames (deductive approach), the researcher analyzed the images with an open view to revealing the possible frames that could emerge (Semetko & Valkenburg, 2000).


RQ1: How did mainstream U.S. news websites visually frame the first five weeks of the war as an ongoing (contemporaneous) event?

Online news images initially focused on the official war machine, then shifted to the perspective of the ordinary person over the next four weeks. The official war machine was depicted as the big, powerful, impersonal forces, including images of air strikes on Baghdad, military hardware, civilian and military leaders, and destruction. The personal face of war was conveyed by images of the people who carried out the policies and those affected by the war, including Baghdad street scenes, troops, civilians, journalists, humanitarian relief efforts, protesters, and the home front (see Table 1).

Table 1.  Changes in Internet images during the first five weeks of the Iraq War and the first, second, and third anniversaries of the invasion (N = 544)
 First Five Weeks of Iraq WarAnniversaries
  • Notes: Not all categories of images have been included in this table, and some have been counted in two categories. The numbers, therefore, do not add up to 100%.

  • 1

    Official war machine includes ordnance, civilian and military leaders, Baghdad air strikes, and destruction.

  • 2

    Personal face of war includes troops, civilians, journalists, humanitarian relief, protesters, and home front.

  • 3

    Other includes maps, flags, graphics, and miscellaneous images. The differences in the relative frequency of war photos exhibited across the five-week period are statistically significant (x2= 33.5, df = 4, p < .001). (See Table 2)

Dominant ImagesN = 19N = 24N = 22N = 23N = 19N = 4N = 4N = 6
Official war machine179.0% (15)37.6% (9)27.3% (6)0.0% (0)15.9% (3)25.0% (1)0.0% (0)33.3% (2)
Personal face of war215.9% (3)62.7% (15)72.6% (16)100.0% (23)84.2% (16)75.0% (3)100.0% (4)66.7% (4)
Other35.3% (1)0.0% (0)0.0% (0)0.0% (0)0.0% (0)0.0% (0)0.0% (0)0.0% (0)
Secondary Images3/19/033/26/034/2/034/9/034/16/033/19/043/19/053/19/06
 N = 55N = 96N = 82N = 92N = 60N = 18N = 8N = 12
Official war machine140.0% (22)28.1% (27)18.3% (15)17.4% (16)16.7% (10)27.8% (5)0.0% (0)25.0% (3)
Personal face of war230.9% (17)45.8% (44)58.4% (48)63.1% (58)63.2% (38)67.0% (12)87.5% (7)75.0% (9)
Other329.1% (16)26.0% (25)23.2% (19)19.6% (18)20.0% (12)5.6% (1)12.5% (1)0.0% (0)

If one places the weeks in order from high to low, only Week 1 stands alone as significantly different from all other weeks. All others are significantly lower.

War Photo78.9%37.5%27.3%15.8%0.0%

We may safely reject any null hypothesis that there is no difference or only some random difference among them. Table 2 clearly shows that the first week, which focused on the war machine, is substantially different from the other weeks, which featured the human face of war. That is evident in Table 2, which provides the results of successive Fisher’s exact tests for the different pairs of weeks. Week 1 is significantly higher at 78.9% than each of the other weeks. In contrast, Week 2 is not significantly different from Week 3, and neither is significantly different from Week 5. Week 4 is somewhat of an anomaly, with no war machine images, but even that is not significantly different from the 15.8% in Week 5.

Table 2.  Statistical changes in the dominant Internet images during the first five weeks of the Iraq War (N = 107)
 Week Cross-TabulationWeek 
Dummy Type 12345Total
  1. Notes: 0 = personal face of war; 1 = war machine

Dummy type0Count41516231774
 % within week21.1%62.5%72.7%100.0%84.2%69.2%
 % within week78.9%37.5%27.3%0.0%15.8%30.8%
Total Count1924222319107
 % within week100.0%100.0%100.0%100.0%100.0%100.0%
Fisher’s exact probabilities. Conventional value for rejecting null hypothesis: p ≤ .05
2 .539.002.174
3  .009.466
4   .084

The five collection times coincided with some of the invasion’s major events: the initial attack (Week 1), the march to Baghdad (Week 2), the rescue of Jessica Lynch (Week 3), the toppling of Saddam’s statue (Week 4), and the assertion of U.S. control (Week 5). The dominant visual frames, in turn, changed from week to week and reflected elements of the master war narrative: conflict, with the threat of technologically superior weapons (Week 1), conquest, with a display of hegemonic military power (Week 2), rescue (Week 3), victory (Week 4), and control (Week 5).

Week 1: Conflict frame

Neuman, Just, and Crigler (1992) found that the most common frame used by the U.S. media was conflict between individuals, groups, or countries. Conflict is one of the key news values employed by journalists in the selection and presentation of news (Price & Tewksbury, 1997). Based on previous research findings that weaponry dominated news magazine images of both the Gulf War (Griffin & Lee, 1995) and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (Griffin, 2004), it was expected that online images would initially focus on the technological superiority of the U.S. war machine. In fact, 79% of dominant images and 40% of secondary images focused on U.S. political and military might. They reflected America’s shock-and-awe campaign, as U.S.-led coalition forces massed on the Iraq border and warplanes bombed Baghdad. Shock and awe refers to “the psychological destruction of the enemy’s will to fight rather than the physical destruction of his military forces” (D. Martin, 2003, ¶6). This show of force was “meant to send a powerful message to the Iraqi people” (Bucks, 2004, ¶9).

The frame that commanded attention during the initial assault was the Baghdad skyline. Images of bombs exploding “framed the war as a visual spectacle involving buildings. … Embedded in such images was the portent that Saddam Hussein might be dead inside the buildings pictured” (Schwalbe, Keith, & Silcock, 2003, pp. 23-24). Although the actual weapons could not be seen, the power and technological superiority of the U.S. war machine was embedded in those early images. This conflict frame supports Griffin’s (2004) findings about Afghanistan and Iraq in news magazines: The predictable theme of U.S. political and military might overshadowed more complex and independent perspectives, such as the Iraqi perspective, the human toll, environmental damage, or global economics. In later weeks the Baghdad coverage changed to more intimate street scenes with people, reflecting the transition from the impersonal coverage of buildings to the personal coverage of life (and death) on the streets.

Week 2: Conquest frame

This study indicates that in the second week of the war, the visual frame had already shifted from shock and awe to the human face. Ordinary people were the focus of 62.7% of dominant images and 45.8% of secondary images. Most of them depicted the conquering march of U.S.-led coalition troops toward Baghdad. Photojournalists with digital cameras accompanied the troops, so it became easier logistically to photograph both troops and Iraqi civilians.

This conquest frame captured the triumphs and travails of a wide array of people—mainly Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops, but also coalition troops and Iraqi soldiers. Images of those fighting and those affected by the combat framed the war in personal terms. The war was not something that happened “over there.” Viewers sensed what it was like to cradle a wounded Iraqi boy or hunker down in a trench.

Week 3: Rescue frame

The human face continued into Week 3 (72.6% of dominant images, 58.4% of secondary images). One individual especially represented the human face of the war—the newly rescued U.S. soldier Jessica Lynch. In this rescue frame, news websites portrayed Lynch either as a smiling hero standing in front of an American flag (pre-injury) or as an injured victim lying on a stretcher (post-injury). Lynch’s heroic rescue, it could be argued, was used to win support for the war, as those who viewed the war as a military success would likely be more supportive (Kumar, 2004).

Week 4: Victory frame

In the fourth week U.S. forces had secured Baghdad, and victory seemed close at hand. People appeared in all the dominant online images as home pages spotlighted the victorious toppling of Saddam’s statue. Pictures of the fallen statue, itself a fallen icon, symbolized the collapse of Saddam’s regime. The news media “embraced the statue toppling as a supercharged moment of symbolism” and immediately labeled the images as “icons” (Hatley Major & Perlmutter, 2005, p. 43). The Boston Globe called the statue’s fall “the first feel-good moment of the war” (Gilbert & Ryan, 2003, p. D1).

Aday, Cluverius, and Livingston (2005) called these joyous scenes of liberation the victory frame. The scenes featured the war’s major “players”: U.S. troops, Iraqi civilians, Baghdad, and Saddam Hussein (or at least his representation). This victory frame, of a city conquered and a battle won, contrasted dramatically with the conflict frame on the first night of hostilities, when bombs and missiles rained down on the city. Although the victory frame, like the rescue frame for Jessica Lynch, was later questioned as “a perfectly orchestrated media event,” at the time it represented the psychological end of the war (Sylvester & Huffman, 2005, p. 98). It also represented a staple of war imagery—jubilant crowds celebrating in the streets and destroying the symbols of the old regime (Hatley Major & Perlmutter, 2005).

Week 5: Control frame

By the fifth week of the study, the war appeared to be over, as reflected in the declining number of war images. Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops persisted as the focus (84.2% of dominant images, 63.2% of secondary images), giving the visuals a personal touch. In this control frame, U.S. troops appeared to be in charge of Baghdad. Images showed General Tommy Franks striding triumphantly through the ruins of one of Saddam’s palaces, U.S. soldiers searching for Iraqi leaders, and American prisoners of war arriving in Germany.

As might be expected, the visual coverage of the war diminished over time (see Table 3).

Table 3.  Changes in the number of war vs. non-war images during the first five weeks of the Iraq War and the first, second, and third anniversaries of the invasion (N = 1,547)
 First Five Weeks of the Iraq WarAnniversaries
N = 174N = 237N = 229N = 257N = 245N = 209N = 196N = 328
Dominant Images3/19/033/26/034/2/034/9/034/16/033/19/043/19/053/19/06
War73.1% (19)92.3% (24)84.6% (22)88.5% (23)73.1% (19)15.4% (4)15.4% (4)23.1% (6)
Non-war26.9% (7)7.7% (2)15.4% (4)11.5% (3)26.9% (7)84.6% (22)84.6% (22)76.9% (20)
Secondary Images3/19/033/26/034/2/034/9/034/16/033/19/043/19/053/19/06
War37.2% (55)45.5% (96)40.4% (82)39.8% (92)27.4% (60)10.9% (20)5.9% (10)4.0% (12)
Non-war62.8% (93)54.5% (115)59.6% (121)60.2% (139)72.6% (159)89.1% (163)94.1% (160)96.0% (290)

Although there were no significant differences among the dominant images for the first five weeks (x2= 6.8, p = .150), there was a notable drop in secondary war images in Week 5 (x2= 16.5, p = .002). War images were fading from home pages, accounting for only 27.4% of secondary images. Just two weeks later, on May 1, 2003, President Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and announced the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Americans were turning to matters closer to home, such as the outbreak of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome).

RQ2: How did mainstream U.S. news websites visually frame the first, second, and third anniversaries of the invasion as a past (resurrected) event?

The subject matter, size, and frequency of online images provide an ongoing barometer of how U.S. news websites framed the Iraq War as it was being waged. Anniversary retrospectives, in contrast, look back at the broader sociopolitical context and create a scrapbook of the more enduring images. Because the parent organizations of the U.S. news websites studied traditionally commemorate major events, it was expected that their offspring would follow suit on the first, second, and third anniversaries of the invasion. It was also expected that U.S.-coalition troops and Iraqi civilians would continue to dominate the first anniversary coverage. Those similarities would diminish by the second anniversary, when the focus would turn to the tension between the fledgling Iraqi government and the growing insurgency.

On the first and second anniversaries, the visual coverage of hostilities dropped dramatically, to 15.4% of dominant images. On March 19, 2004, war images dominated the home pages of only four of the 26 news websites studied. Just two of those dominant images depicted past events: a GI with Baghdad burning in the background (Dallas Morning News site) and a Marine draping the American flag on Saddam’s statue (Newsweek site). The other two images—a GI (ABC News site) and a frontline Navy commander (The Virginian-Pilot site)—captured ongoing events. Other websites featured NCAA basketball’s March Madness, Paris Hilton’s riding accident, and violence in Kosovo, Taiwan, and Pakistan.

A year later, on March 19, 2005, mainstream U.S. news websites again posted only four dominant war images. All of them depicted ongoing events—two of anti-war protesters (Chicago Tribune site and MSNBC site), one of a GI (Newsday site), and one of Iraqi counter-terrorism forces training in Baghdad (Time site). Most websites concentrated on breaking news and updates about March Madness and the removal of Terry Schiavo’s feeding tube.

On the third anniversary—March 19, 2006—only six of 26 dominant images (23.1%) depicted the war. All six showed ongoing events. Three appeared on televisions news sites: President George Bush (Fox News site), Vice President Dick Cheney (CBS News site), and U.S. and Iraqi soldiers with civilians (NBC News site). The others were published on print websites: two Iraqi boys looking at a bombed vehicle (Newsday site), GIs at home (Oregonian site), and U.S. soldiers in the field (U.S. News site). Other websites featured March Madness, radio talk show host Howard Stern, and local news.

Of the few images posted on the three anniversaries, most depicted the human face of war. The first anniversary images showed the human face (dominant 75%, secondary 67%) rather than the official war machine (dominant 25%, secondary 27.8%). This personal frame remained the focus on the second anniversary (dominant 100%, secondary 87.5%) and the third anniversary (dominant 66.7%, secondary 75%).

Few news websites, however, looked back and posted memorable images from the early weeks of the invasion, such as Baghdad burning, Jessica Lynch, or the toppling of Saddam’s statue. Were news websites ignoring the past? What follows is an examination of some possible reasons why mainstream U.S. news websites did not resurrect visual pieces of the past.


Several factors pertaining to the Iraq War may explain the scarcity of online retrospectives: the absence of weapons of mass destruction and other factors that diminished the reasons for the war in the minds of many, the mounting loss of life, the prolonged length of the conflict as the war evolved from an acute to a chronic event, and the cost and other dissatisfactions associated with the conflict. The date of the outbreak of hostilities was not seared into the American psyche, like November 22, 1963, or September 11, 2001. Probably few Americans could name the month the invasion began, let alone the day. In addition, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were discrete dates of cataclysmic milestones, while the war was an ongoing conflict. Given the nature of Internet news, with the constant demand for freshness and timeliness, not many online operations would have time to reflect or draw conclusions while battles were still being fought. Geography may also play a role. The Iraq War happened “over there,” not on our doorstep, as with Kennedy’s assassination and 9/11.

Another factor may be the relatively short time since the war began. Sontag wrote in 2004 that for at least 60 years, “photographs have laid down the tracks of how important conflicts are judged and remembered. The Western memory museum is now mostly a visual one. Photographs have an insuperable power to determine what we recall of events” (p. 25). Images of the Vietnam War were printed and televised over a long period from 1963 to 1972. Those that have become iconic—a Buddhist monk setting himself on fire, the point-blank execution of a suspected Viet Cong guerrilla, naked children fleeing a napalm attack—have been repeated over and over, illustrating stories and newscasts about the war for more than 30 years (Kobré, 2004).

Of the thousands of striking images shot by photojournalists worldwide every day, very few become icons (Perlmutter, 1998). News photographs can become icons, or defining image of past events in the public’s memory, because they are well known, are widely distributed, trigger powerful emotional feelings, and capture the drama of important events or crises (Hariman & Lucaites, 2004). Perlmutter (1998) also included metonymy (a picture’s representing a greater event) and primordiality (a theme embedded in a visual and literary culture) as reasons for a photograph becoming iconic. An iconic image can achieve longevity by continuing “to shape public understanding and action long after the immediate historical events it marks has passed or the crisis has been resolved pragmatically” (p. 5). In so doing, photojournalistic icons facilitate the public’s collective memory of an event (Perlmutter & Wagner, 2004). Care must be taken, however, not to ascribe too much power to iconic images. Although historians originally credited William Henry Jackson’s classic photographs of Yellowstone with shaping national policy, for example, Bossen (1982) showed that they were no more influential in passing the act that created Yellowstone National Park than other information presented to Congress.

Time is a factor as well in the generational cycle of memory. Pennebaker and Banasik (1997) noted a gap of 20 to 30 years between an event and both its official commemorations, such as war memorials, and its popular commemorations, such as movies. The authors attributed this delay to three factors: 1) those affected in early adulthood have aged and begun to reminisce about the past; 2) those affected have accumulated the power and resources to produce movies, memorials, and other remembrances; and 3) those affected have achieved sufficient psychological distance from the event, especially if it was a traumatic one.

Yet another reason for the scarcity of online anniversary remembrances may be the nature of the Internet itself, which is a young medium whose role is still being defined. Many already-small news operations (Harper, 1996) had reduced their staffs even further after the bust (Lasica, 2001). By the time the Iraq War started in March 2003, most online operations were the poor offspring of their newspaper, news magazine, and television parents—separate but not quite equal (Singer, Tharp, & Haruta, 1999). Many sites were staffed by skeleton crews who worked long hours shoveling content from the parent organization onto the website (E.S. Martin, 1998; Singer, 2001). Despite the attention-grabbing nature of photographs, Singer (2001) observed a “relative absence of substantive artwork among the online papers” she studied in Colorado, and most online news was shovelware that replicated the print edition (p. 76).

Arant and Anderson (2001) found that only 30% of online editors at U.S. daily newspapers changed the photographs that had appeared in the print edition. Some overworked staffers juggled duties and 24/7 deadlines in both the online and the parent newsroom (Singer, Tharp, & Haruta, 1999). Although the online operations of U.S. daily newspapers averaged six full-time workers in 1999, including management, advertising, and sales positions, 27% had no full-time staffers, and 19% had just one (Arant & Anderson, 2001). Even a few years later, online staffs may not have had enough time, resources, or personnel to scour the photo archives and produce independent anniversary coverage. Although wars have long been a staple of traditional newsrooms, Web operations did not have senior reporters with 30 years of experience at the time of the Iraq War. Many online staffers were young, so this was their first experience covering a major U.S. war.

Nor had online newsrooms developed the routines of traditional newsrooms that give structure and consistency to organizational culture. These established patterns of tasks, workflow, and responsibility (for selecting and processing photos, for example) make a newsroom run smoothly and efficiently (Tuchman, 1973). As journalists engage in professional tasks, their newsgathering and production routines shape coverage. “Routines are linked to content; they provide the underpinnings for ideological frames of reference. These routines structure reporting, impose their own logic, and work against alternative frameworks,” wrote Reese and Buckalew (1995, p. 42).

Scholars (e.g., Boczkowski, 2004; Gans, 1979; Scheufele, 1999; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996; Tuchman, 1978; Wanta & Roark, 1992/1993; Yang, 2003) have identified at least three sources that influence newsroom routines and therefore the way journalists frame a story: journalist-centered influences (such as attitudes, professional values, and ideological or political orientation), organizational pressures and constraints (such as the media outlet’s political orientation, the autonomy versus integration of the online operation with the parent newsroom, and national interest), and external influences (such as audience expectations and pressure from interest groups, politicians, and other elites). When choosing graphic images of the war in Afghanistan, for example, newspaper photojournalists and photo editors considered political sensitivity an important factor (Fahmy, 2005). As Iyengar and Kinder (1987) showed, news production reflects the government agenda and dominant cultural values and, therefore, is more likely to support than attack traditional values and institutions.

Pavlik (2001) suggested that digital media are “rapidly rewriting the traditional assumptions of newsroom organization and structure” (p. 108). Faced with constant deadlines by a news-hungry medium, online staffers may simply post images supplied by automated photo feeds from the wire services or already published or aired by the parent organization. Staffers may be hired for their computer skills rather than their journalism training. In fact, about half the online news editors surveyed by Arant and Anderson (2001) had not studied journalism and had little or no training in editing. They may be viewed as content providers rather than writers and editors, with a premium placed on multimedia experience, teamwork, and organizational skills (Singer, Tharp, & Haruta, 1999). Even if online operations have photo editors trained in the parent newsroom, they may rely on established routines when they select familiar, non-controversial images that have impact, illustrate the accompanying story, and do not upset readers or advertisers. The news outlet has the last word because it can fire those who do not follow acceptable practices (Shoemaker, 1996).

In addition, the Internet’s archival capability enables websites to create comprehensive sections with links to past coverage and multimedia presentations. MSNBC has such a special section, called “Conflict in Iraq.”USA Today’s “U.S. Casualties in Iraq” changes each month. Only one image linking to these roundups usually appears on the home page. Textual analysis might reveal more historical retrospectives in accompanying stories.

Yet another cause of the paucity of online anniversary coverage may be the selection of major news websites in this study. Since small newspapers focus on local coverage, their online counterparts may have posted retrospectives honoring troops from their areas.

Future studies

Much territory remains uncharted in the study of how the Internet frames ongoing news events, then later shapes collective memory through anniversary remembrances. This exploratory study suggests several areas that may lead to fruitful future research.

First, non-traditional and smaller news sites could be studied to see if they offer alternative visual perspectives. Local television coverage of the Gulf War, for example, differed significantly from national network coverage (Hallin & Gitlin, 1992). The sample could also be expanded by looking beyond the home pages to special sections on the Iraq War, such as MSNBC’s “Conflict in Iraq.” How did these visual digests recall the early weeks of the war? Do they confirm the framing trends noted in this study?

Second, it would be beneficial to examine the roles and routines emerging in online newsrooms in order to determine why some images are chosen and others are not. Since images “provide a strategically narrowed way of visualizing the battlefield…that only partly reflects the war being depicted” (Zelizer, 2004, p. 130), it is important to study how and why they are chosen, as well as who decides. What attributes, skills, experience, and training do online photo editors have? What are the effects of long hours, heavy workloads, the 24/7 news cycles, and the editorial chain of command on photo selection? Despite the unlimited space on the Internet, how are decisions affected by such constraints as the audience’s time and patience, the online newsroom’s resources, user feedback, and the nature of the online medium itself (Singer, 1998)? What are the organizational, social, and political constraints (Fahmy, 2005)? How do the different routines in print and television newsrooms, such as beats, deadlines, and updating, change when merged with an online operation (Dailey, Demo, & Spillman, 2005)?

Third, scholars could analyze the making and shaping of visual icons of the Iraq War, including aesthetic considerations, the “politically motivated process of manufacture and spin” (Perlmutter & Wagner, 2004, p. 94), and change over time (Hatley Major & Perlmutter, 2005). Also of interest would be an examination of how different groups used icons to support their perspectives and the effects of icons on target audiences. As Perlmutter and Wagner (2004) advised, “the study of modern news imagery must not only be part reception analysis and part general content analysis but also part icon analysis” (p. 104).

Fourth, further examination is needed of the role the Internet plays in constructing and reconstructing collective memory. Like cyberspace itself, collective memory is transitory, unpredictable, fluid, and changeable as new events replace old ones (Schuman & Rodgers, 2004). Which events do online journalists choose to commemorate in words as well as images, and why? What are the implications of mass-mediated remembering?


In today’s age of cyber-information and globalization, the Internet will undoubtedly become one of the forces shaping collective memory. At the end of the 20th century, Huyssen (2000) wrote that collective memory practices “express a society’s need for temporal anchoring when, in the wake of the information revolution and an ever increasing time-space compression, the relationship between past, present, and future is being transformed beyond recognition” (p. 37). Edy (1999) reinforced the importance of connection: “[O]ur collective memory binds us together, because our past is an important ingredient in our future, and because our social remembrance is a critical element in our social identity” (p. 83).

By increasing our exposure to the “new heavily-mediated landscape of memory” (Hoskins, 2001, p. 344), the Internet will eventually play a major role in shaping the shared remembrances that strengthen the collective identity of groups, communities, and nations. For the Iraq War, however, that day has not yet come. As we look back at this conflict 20 or 30 years later, however, photographs will no doubt play a key role in shaping our collective memory as certain images are repeated over and over in online stories and anniversary commemorations.

This study has shown that the visual coverage by U.S. news websites tended to reinforce the master war narrative within which the mainstream media typically function, conditioned by journalists’ routine choices about what to show (Allen, 2004). Although the Internet has the potential to bring alternative perspectives, diversity, and critical examination to war coverage, the images studied reinforced the patriotic, government-friendly master war narrative—U.S. military might, efficient troops with technologically superior weapons, heroic rescue, victory, and control—rather than the unpredictable or unexpected, such as the trauma of war, global economics, or environmental damage. The five main frames that emerged not only mirror the master war narrative but also could be a standard set of frames for future studies of the visual coverage of war in any medium: conflict, conquest, rescue, victory, and control.

News frames are often derived from—and reflective of—shared cultural myths and narratives (Iyengar, 1987). Like photography itself, this template can hold great power. As Perlmutter (1999) observed, war images “are not unfiltered reality that show us all the truth; their representativeness should always be questioned, probed, and explored, if possible, through contrasting angles and alternative voices” (p. 202). In 1994, Hackett and Zhao urged “open, ongoing, critical examination of dominant assumptions…before a president again feels compelled to bomb another Third World country back into the pre-industrial age” (p. 539). How prophetic were their words.


I thank my colleagues Marianne Barrett, Steve Doig, Susan Keith, Bill Silcock, and George Watson for their assistance and feedback. Thanks also go to Beth Baldacchino for her help with coding the images. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Association of Internet Researchers conference, Chicago, October 2005.


  • 1

    The numbers do not add up to 100%, because participants could give two answers.

  • 2

    The Chicago Tribune, the Daily News of New York, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsday, USA Today, and The Washington Post.

  • 3

    The Arizona Republic (Gannett), The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Cox), the Dallas Morning News (Belo), The Miami Herald (Knight Ridder), The Oregonian (Newhouse), The Rocky Mountain News (Scripps Howard), the Sacramento Bee (McClatchy), The Tampa Tribune (Media General), and The Virginian-Pilot of Norfork (Landmark).

  • 4

    The 28 coding categories were George Bush, Saddam Hussein, representation of Saddam Hussein (statue, posters, etc.), ordnance (planes, weapons, tanks, etc.), ordnance and U.S. troops, map of Iraq, map of Kuwait, map of Iraq and Kuwait or entire Middle East, network/newspaper/Web correspondent or anchor, city scene in Baghdad, Iraq outside Baghdad, anti-war protesters in United States, home front, U.S. military official(s), U.S. civilian official(s), U.S. troops, non-U.S. allied military official(s), allied troops, U.S. troops and Iraqi prisoners or civilians, allied troops and Iraqi prisoners or civilians, Iraqi civilians, Iraqi troops (loyal to Saddam Hussein), Iraqi militia (splinter groups, vigilantes), Iraqi official(s), terrorists (Al Qaeda, Abu Abbas, etc.), humanitarian relief, destruction (explosions, bombed-out buildings and vehicles, etc.), and flags.

About the authors

  1. Carol B. Schwalbe is an assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on the role of images in shaping ideas and public opinion during the early years of the Cold War, ethical concerns about publishing violent images, and the visual framing of the Iraq War on the Internet.Address: Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Arizona State University, P.O. Box 871305, Tempe, AZ 85287-1305 USA