When regional newspapers share photos of military veterans on Twitter, women and individuals who served during World War II are overrepresented, suggests a forthcoming study in Visual Communication Quarterly.
The first-of-its-kind study, led by researchers at the University of Alabama’s Veterans and Media Lab, offers a host of new insights into how news outlets portray veterans. That’s an important step toward understanding how the media shape public perception of the nation’s 18 million veterans — and how veterans see themselves, explains the paper’s lead author, Scott Parrott.
He says many Americans rely on the mass media — news reports, TV shows and movies — for information about veterans, but the picture presented is often incomplete or contradicts reality.
“There’s not much research at all concerning media representation of military veterans and that’s something we’re trying to change,” says Parrott, a former journalist who’s an associate professor in the University of Alabama department of journalism and creative media. “The media can be very powerful in influencing people’s attitudes and beliefs about different social groups, especially when people lack contact with those social groups.”
Parrott and his colleagues looked at news photos of veterans shared on Twitter. They collected a random sample representing 20% of the images that each state’s largest regional newspaper posted from early 2008 to June 2017. The researchers gathered data on 2,311 tweets with photos of veterans. Duplicate images were excluded, and the final sample was 740 images.
Of the photographs examined, 14% featured female veterans, who actually comprise 8% of living veterans nationwide. Images were more likely to spotlight veterans from World War II than from more recent conflicts, even though far greater numbers of living veterans served during the Vietnam, Korean and Gulf war eras.
About 20% of news photos focused on World War II veterans while 11% showed Gulf war veterans, 9% were of Vietnam veterans and 4% showed Korean war veterans. As of 2017, the largest living cohort of male veterans served during the Vietnam era, according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. The largest living cohort of female veterans served after 9/11.
Fewer Americans have served in the U.S. military
In 1973, the U.S. military eliminated the draft and transitioned to an all-volunteer force. Since then, the share of Americans who have served in the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force or Coast Guard has shrunk. That means fewer Americans have personal experience with the military or know someone who has, Parrott notes.
“When I ask my 20-year-old students what they picture when they picture who a veteran is, it’s a World War II veteran, and I’m asking, ‘Why does that happen when World War II veterans are a minority?’” Parrott says. “Why don’t they think about a 28-year-old who’s probably in their own classroom?”
He adds: “The question becomes ‘Where are people getting their information from if they’re not getting it from personal experience?’ Where are they getting their information from? We think the mass media is helping fill that information void.”
The researchers decided to examine photos from regional news outlets in hopes of generating a more diverse sample of images, they explain in the paper. Regional newspapers, they write, cover stories about veterans that might not draw interest from national publications such as The New York Times or The Washington Post — for example, parades or feature stories about local people who served in the military.
The analysis suggests that regional news photos offer a relatively accurate portrayal of veterans in terms of race and ethnicity. Eighteen percent of photos featured veterans who are racial or ethnic minorities. In reality, according to the study, 15% of veterans are racial or ethnic minorities. The federal government estimates that the proportion of veterans who are minorities will grow to 34% by 2040.
The study also finds that news photos don’t promote stereotypes of veterans as often as other forms of media, write Parrott and his fellow researchers, David L. Albright, director of the Office for Military Families and Veterans at the University of Alabama School of Social Work; Hailey Grace Steele, a graduate student at the University of Alabama; and Caitlin Dyche, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan.
News outlets tend to portray veterans in one of three ways in their written content: as victims, heroes or “charity cases,” concludes another study that Parrott led, published this year in the journal Armed Forces & Society.
For this study, researchers looked for images that promote stereotypes of veterans as physically injured, homeless or recipients of charity. What they found: 2% of regional newspaper images depict veterans as homeless, 9% portray them as physically wounded or missing limbs and 11% show them receiving some form of aid or charity.
They also discovered that nearly 40% of news photos of veterans appeared on Twitter in May and November, when Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day are celebrated.
Parrott stresses the need for journalists to present a more complete picture of veterans in stories and photos and to include veterans in news coverage year-round. He says when relevant, journalists should reference a person’s veteran status in stories. They should also include veterans in a wider range of stories.
In recent years, a lot of stories about veterans have focused on mental health issues.
“I worked as a journalist, so I understand and appreciate stories about serious issues facing veterans,” Parrott says. “PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] is an issue. Suicide is an issue. But the message [to journalists] is you can’t only write about those and you can’t just write about veterans around the major holidays.”
Parrott and his fellow researchers plan to continue researching media portrayals of veterans. He says he’s curious to examine the work of elite news outlets and international publications.
Looking for more research on veterans? Check out our write-ups on veteran political party affiliation, how combat deaths affect U.S. voter turnout and the effectiveness of a recent emergency room intervention created to help suicidal veterans.