What was coverage of the war like, and did it affect the image of the Vietnam veteran? Many Vietnam veterans feel that uncensored and overly negative television coverage helped turn the American public against the war and against the veterans themselves.
The horrors of war entered the living rooms of Americans for the first time during the Vietnam War. For almost a decade in between school, work, and dinners, the American public could watch villages being destroyed, Vietnamese children burning to death, and American body bags being sent home. Though initial coverage generally supported U.S involvement in the war, television news dramatically changed its frame of the war after the Tet Offensive. Images of the U.S led massacre at My Lai dominated the television, yet the daily atrocities committed by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong rarely made the evening news. Moreover, the anti-war movement at home gained increasing media attention while the U.S soldier was forgotten in Vietnam. Coverage of the war and its resulting impact on public opinion has been debated for decades by many intelligent media scholars and journalists, yet they are not the most qualified individuals to do so: the veterans are. Journalists based in Saigon daily reported facts about battles, casualties, and the morale of the troops, yet only a soldier could grasp the true reality of war. Veterans understand what really occurred in the jungles of Vietnam, and only they can compare the truth to what was portrayed on television. Furthermore, their homecoming stories most accurately reveal how the American public has cruelly mistreated the Vietnam veteran. Therefore, after having researched the power of television and its coverage of the war, I interviewed four Vietnam veterans in order to understand how they interpreted the coverage and how they feel it contributed to the image of the Vietnam Veteran.
Section 1: Television Power and the Vietnam War
By the mid-1960's, television was considered to be the most important source of news for the American public, and, possibly, the most powerful influence on public opinion itself. Throughout the Korean War, the television audience remained small. In 1950, only 9 percent of homes owned a television. By 1966, this figure rose to 93 percent (Bonior, Champlin, Kolly, 1984, p.18). As televisions became more popular in the home, more Americans began to get their news from television than from any other source. A series of surveys conducted by the Roper Organization for the Television Information Office from 1964 until 1972 demonstrates the growing power of television. With multiple answers allowed, respondents were asked from which medium they "got most of their news". In 1964, 58 percent said television; 56 percent, newspapers; 26 percent, radio; and 8 percent, magazines. By 1972, 64 percent said television while the number of respondents who primarily relied on newspapers dropped to 50 percent (Hallin, 1986, p.106). Thus, as the Vietnam War dragged on, more and more Americans turned to television as their primary source for news. While a large audience is crucial in influencing public opinion, credibility is a much more significant factor. The Roper surveys mentioned above also asked respondents which medium they would trust if the media gave conflicting accounts of a story. In 1972, 48 percent said television while only 21 percent said newspapers (Hallin, 1986, p.106). Television is "consistently evaluated as more attention-grabbing, interesting, personally relevant, emotionally involving, and surprising"(Neuman, Just, Crigler, 1992, p.56) because of two elements: visuals and personality. The visual element of television allows viewers to feel as if they are part of the action. When news programs aired images of battles and death, Americans at home felt as if they too were in the jungles of Vietnam. Additionally, intense visuals helped explain the complex nature of war to Americans who could...
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