The Ukraine Crisis Through the Media Lens
When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the West was of one mind: a unified, resolute message needed to be sent to Moscow – but what kind? Increased diplomatic pressure or a military presence? At that time, a majority segment of the German population voiced a clear rejection of military action. A recent study by Fabian Gebauer, Marius Raab and Professor Claus-Christian Carbon of the University of Bamberg’s Department of General Psychology suggests that media coverage significantly influences such attitudes. “We were surprised by the dramatic effects that confrontational and seemingly threatening media reports can have,” says lead author Fabian Gebauer.
The study’s starting point was a 2014 article from the German news magazine DER SPIEGEL titled “Nato-Alarm”. The article was focused on the military manoeuvres of both the Western defence alliance and Russia. Accompanied by an image of a political map, the respective strengths of the NATO and Russian militaries, including numbers of troops, artillery strength and the number of available combat tanks and aircraft, were displayed in detail.
A portion of the altogether 112 study participants received the original version of this article. A second test group received an abridged article from which passages containing military vocabulary had been removed. Instead, references to NATO members’ diplomatic efforts were increased. Additionally, the researchers removed all troop numbers and military symbols from the map illustration. After reading their respective versions of the article, participants completed a questionnaire that included a question concerning the number of troops, if any, they believed Germany should send to NATO’s eastern border.
A comparison of the two groups revealed significant differences in point of view. Approximately 70% of the readers who received the original version of the article were of the opinion that Germany should become actively involved, and, on average, they estimated that 15,000 troops with tanks, artillery and fighter planes would be an ideal military force. The members of the control group who read the abridged version focusing on diplomatic efforts came to a very different conclusion: only around 30 % of this group were prepared to send troops to NATO’s eastern border. The few in support of sending German forces considered a contingent of only a few hundred soldiers to be adequate. “30% versus 70% approval of military escalation with German involvement – we certainly hadn’t anticipated such a drastic effect,” says Fabian Gebauer.
Such strong effects regarding the radicalisation of psychological defence strategies usually only emerge when people perceive a threat to their own existence. For this reason, the Bamberg psychologists set about reviewing their findings in further experimental arrangements. These have confirmed the initial study’s findings. Gebauer explains that in this way “the original SPIEGEL article produces effects on a scale that is only comparable to explicit, existential threats like a person’s confrontation with his own mortality.”
Claus-Christian Carbon, chair of the University of Bamberg’s Department of General Psychology tresses how important it is that media be aware of this influence. “Our findings underscore the significance of media responsibility. On the one hand, the volatility of such conflicts must be addressed, but it is also vitally important that alternative solutions are presented and discussed – that should be the objective of informative journalism!”
Further information for media representatives:
The complete study, “Imagine All the Forces – The Impact of Threatening News Coverage on the Willingness to Militarily Engage in the Resurgence of the East Versus West Conflict”, can be found at econtent.hogrefe.com/doi/pdf/10.1027/1864-1105/a000180
Contact for further enquiries concerning the study:
Project Staff Member, Department of General Psychology
Chair of the Department of General Psychology
Tel.: 0951 / 863-1860
Tel.: 0951 / 863-1861 (secretary)
Communication and Alumni Division
Tel.: 0951 / 863-1146
This press release was translated by Benjamin Wilson.