Are Mainstream Media Stories about Veterans Having a Negative Impact?

The Unintended Consequences of Focusing on PTSD and Instability

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Many veterans returning from the Middle East and Afghanistan have unique skills, experience and wisdom — all great assets for a wide range of corporate and public sector jobs. But from the way the media covers veterans, you would never know it.

News outlets typically focus on broken and disoriented veterans, overwhelmed families and their financial hardships. This focus has distracted from a whole different side of the story, the untapped potential of the men and women who have returned in good shape, mentally and physically (even if missing a limb), emotionally stable, and ready to contribute to their communities and society at large.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman talks to Douglas Wilbur, a former combat veteran and now a doctoral student at the Missouri University School of Journalism. He has done a detailed study of the ways the media looks at veterans, and his insights  should inform all further discussion of veterans during this noisy campaign season.


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Full Text Transcript:

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman.

Although never mentioned in the debate on Monday night, the country has to its credit shown real concern for issues surrounding veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately our concern and our compassion to those veterans has, like most things, unintended consequences. By focusing on vets who were broken, disoriented, overwhelmed, and facing hardship — all important concerns — we are detracting from the need to emphasize that so many returning veterans have uniquely employable skills, stability and wisdom, that would be a great asset for any company or any effort. So how do we square the circle? How do we focus on needs and opportunities for veterans? That’s what we’re going to talk about today with my guest Douglas Wilbur. Douglas Wilbur’s a doctoral student at Missouri University School of Journalism. He’s done a study recently on the way the media looks at veterans, and it is my pleasure to welcome him here to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Doug, thanks so much for joining us.

Douglas Wilbur: Glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about what motivated you to begin to look at this issue the way the media has been portraying veterans and both the concern that is shown – which is very real – but really the dangers of the opportunities that it takes away?

Douglas: I’m a combat veteran, three years in Iraq, and I am also a member of a number of veterans groups and when I was querying people who do communications for these organizations, you know, what are they basing their PR campaigns on? What assumptions are they using? What’s the foundation of this? I mean they have a pretty clear idea of where they want to go and they have a pretty clear idea of what they want to accomplish. But they don’t really seem to have a firm understanding of why they plan the way they do, the assumptions that they’re planning on. So, just engaging them through dialogue I kind of got the sense that one, they didn’t really know, but it was basically that veterans are being framed as psychotic or in a really bad manner.

For instance you had up there in California the police officer, who was a veteran, Dorner, he went and shot some people. So there is some negative coverage of veterans. And I kind of assumed that this was what they were combating. I ask myself, well, is this true? Is it an actual fact or is it an incorrect assumption? So I went out and did research to solve this problem.

Jeff:  And as you went out there to start to do this research, what did you find in terms of the way veterans were viewing this, and in the way they were perceiving the way they were being covered by the media?

Douglas:  Generally they were perceived that they were being covered hostilely, basically in the same manner. Although that’s not necessarily based on any in-depth thoughtful analysis on their part. They’re doing this sticking along with the assumption, they’re reading the headlines of this and that… and kind of inferring, they think that we’re all nuts. That’s kind of what they seem to assume.

Jeff:  The veterans that were out there looking for jobs trying to get their lives back together after coming back from Iraq and/or Afghanistan, to what extent did they see this perception as an impediment to what they were trying to accomplish?

Douglas: I can’t speak for all veterans. I only know what my circle of friends have told me. They’ve had some instances of discrimination. And they’ve also had some opportunities made to them because people were willing to overcome those stereotypes. So for instance some veterans, who did not have PTSD, believed that they were not capable of becoming police officers for instance because they were told that this or that department wouldn’t hire vets because they’re afraid of PTSD, when in actuality that’s not the case.

A lot of police departments were actively recruiting vets because as it turned out they were making better police officers than the civilian recruits. And they were actually less likely to use – and I got this from police officers – they were less likely to use force because they had been in situations where they had to make a decision, shoot or not shoot, so it wasn’t a novel thing to them. This is a kind of stereotype that hurts them, and there are others. The stereotypes in their minds might be prohibiting them from work, discouraging them from pursuing certain career paths they might want to take.

Jeff:  Did they have concerns that in fact part of what they were arguing was to take the focus away from the veterans that had problems or that were disoriented or were suffering from extreme PTSD, that they also understood that there was a real need to focus on the needs of those that had issues, but that they didn’t want to impact their lives?

Douglas: I would say generally that that’s a correct assumption.

Jeff: As you looked at the way the media has portrayed this, talk a little bit about what you found in terms of the stories, and the focus.

Douglas: My essential question was, does the mainstream media frame veterans as crazy? Is that true or not? And it’s not true. They don’t miss… they don’t do that. However, they do frame veterans in a manner that’s not always beneficial to the veterans but it’s not really necessarily always bad. For instance, when I was in Iraq, I dealt with a lot of reporters. And while they were often very hostile to the Bush administration, in my personal experience they were always very cordial and friendly with the soldiers and I don’t think that they had personal animosity toward the soldiers. A lot of them had great respect. So I kind of sensed… I kind of picked that sense up when I was doing my research here. So for instance, one of the dominant frames was the broken veteran frame. And the broken veteran frame basically says that the veterans who come back from the trauma, they’re overwhelmed by physical and psychological injuries and they really can’t function, which is fundamentally different than saying that they’re going full psycho and they’re living under bridges and they’re doing all these heinous activities. It’s more like, Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall and he can’t be put back together again, which is not as negative as a psycho frame. But it’s not completely helpful.

Another one, another frame that I found was kind of the disoriented veteran frame. In this frame where the media portrayed veterans who are just kind of cast out of the military and once they entered the civilian world, they were kind of disoriented, they really didn’t know what they wanted to do. They’re kind of lost and adrift, floating around and there’s some truth to this, because after you’ve been in a highly structured environment where you’re serving a purpose that’s greater than yourself, everything you do is very important because when you’re in combat, even the smallest actions on your part can get somebody killed or can help you win the mission. If you mess up on guard duty somebody could get killed, and so on and so forth.

The military also gives low-ranking soldiers a lot of power and a lot of responsibility, much more than their civilian counterparts have. And of course there’s the sense of teamwork, a tight-knit team, they have a sense of purpose. And when they get out of the military, they tend to lose this sense of purpose and that’s kind of a psychological shock I would have to say. And it takes time for a veteran to readjust to that. So they frame them in that manner and while that’s not the most helpful frame for veterans  I would say that one’s probably a bit true, but not of all veterans.

Jeff:  When you talk about this framing within the context of the media, to what extent are you talking about the media? Are we talking about just news? Are we talking about news and entertainment? Because certainly with the movies or television there were also many of these portrayals that really represent these frames that you’re talking about.

Douglas: This study focuses specifically on what you would call elite newspapers and regional-elite newspapers. The reason why I chose that was because congressmen and state legislatures and people who set policy will read The New York Times, a congressman from Texas will read the Dallas Morning News more than likely, and state legislators, governors, read newspapers. So I focused specifically on news, on newspapers, because that research shows that that’s the best way to analyze what information is getting directly to the decision-makers. There are other texts, sources that I could have analyzed, but for the sake of this study I just focused on newspapers.

Jeff:  Is it your sense, having looked at this and outside the scope of the specific study that you’ve done, is it your sense that this problem is being contributed to by kind of mainstream entertainment, by television, movies etc.

Douglas: It could be, yes. I would say it could be. Some of the movies that I’ve seen, depictions of veterans, are good, and some of them are actually quite bad. For instance, something on The Blacklist where former soldiers were recruited as mercenaries and they’re doing bad things. I personally don’t know of any veteran who has served in a criminal enterprise. It depends on the TV show, who’s writing it. There is some, yes.

Jeff:  Are any efforts that you’ve seen that are efforts to create counter-frames to this? To emphasize the stability and employability of veterans?

Douglas: There are, yes, identified three. However when you have a counter-frame you want the counter-frame to be of similar strength to the frame, and you want to have strong counter-frames. And the problem is, well, I’ve identified six main frames. There are only three counter-frames, and they weren’t as strong as they could have been. So for instance, one of the frames, the counter-frame, was the healing frame. And basically the healing frame invites audiences to perceive veterans: Yes, they’re broken they’ve got all these psychological issues, but they’re healing. And healing implies that there’s hope. It’s positive in the sense that they can get better. So it doesn’t necessarily counter the broken veteran frame. It just kind of mitigates it, and makes it less bad. Another frame was the not abnormal or perfectly normal frame. The fact is that many veterans are perfectly healthy and normal, but this frame was frankly very weak. It barely met the minimum number of times for me to even include it in the study. And it’s not just being pushed aggressively enough, even though it’s actually the truth. One instance of this, after Ferguson or one these riots, somebody was saying that, “Well, these cops, they’re getting off the streets of Iraq and they’re coming back here and they’re waging war on our streets.” That’s kind of an ignorant way to look at it. My interactions with police officers who are not veterans, tell me that the veteran police officers are actually very good and they don’t have PTSD. And there’s not really anything that would cause them to be bad police officers, and quite good.  So that’s kind of like a failure of that stereotype. That’s a stereotype and the counter-frame was ineffective in challenging that.

Jeff: Have there been a sufficient amount of stories, or an insufficient amount, that really look at what PTSD is, particularly as it relates to veterans and what it really means for those that are returning?

Douglas: The research that other people have done on mental illness in general… Basically, people who have mental illnesses are framed very negatively in the news, and in TV, and in the movies. As for PTSD, I would say that there’s not, I haven’t seen very many that discuss PTSD in an honest manner.

Jeff: Talk a little bit about your own personal emotional reactions and those of other veterans that you talk to when they see these stories.

Douglas: Well, it varies. For instance these two shooters that we recently had, the police shooters, the one in Dallas and then the one in Arkansas, they were both combat veterans, and that caused a lot of hurt in the veterans community. One, because they’re making us look bad and then it also ranges from, “Well, the VA failed them, the country failed them, these kids were radicalized somehow, by somebody. One of them might have had PTSD and he should’ve been taken care of properly by the VA. And if that had happened then he probably wouldn’t have gone on this rampage.” So it can hurt. I guess it can hurt your self-esteem a little bit, but by and large veterans, combat veterans, have been through a lot. They’re generally very tough minded. It pisses them off, it makes them mad, but they’ll just march through their day and it’s not really going to affect their lives that much.

Jeff:  What about their families?

Douglas: Families, that’s interesting. I did find a family hardship frame in this. The journalists, and I didn’t expect to find this, but basically the journalists were very sympathetic towards the families of wounded veterans. They wrote about it, they wrote about the hardships the veterans had faced and these stories were very often human interest stories. They were very personal and they’re very accurate. Because if a wounded veteran, a guy who has lost his arms and his legs, he has a very limited ability to do things. He certainly can’t vacuum the house, he can’t do chores. He can play with his kids but he’s going to have a hard time. So the family, the burden of his care is placed upon the family to the most extent. The VA will give him medical care but they often don’t provide enough support to the actual families themselves.

So if you have a very severely injured veteran and he has a choice, you either put in a nursing home or he could stay home with his family. Nursing home will probably end up killing him early, so it’s better to keep him with his family and children where he’s more likely to live longer, have a happier life.

But on the other hand someone still has to take care of him if he can’t get to the toilet. hat person is usually the wife, in some cases, it’s the mother. For instance, I actually live in San Antonio, Texas, my permanent residency. I have a house down there and there are a large number of veterans in my community and there’s this one guy, he’s very young and he is severely burned, horrible third-degree burns all over his body. And his 50-year-old mother is primarily responsible for taking care of him. Granted, it’s not like taking care of an infant, but still, a 50-year-old woman has a hard time dealing with that. And then of course she spends so much time taking care of him, she really can’t go out and get a full-time job. So there is a sense that with severe veterans,  the wives… there’s a lot of sacrifices, because the wife can’t have a full-time job and it creates financial hardships and a whole variety of other hardships.

Jeff: Is there a difference in these stories in these frames we’ve been talking about with respect to physical damage versus mental damage, physical limitations versus mental limitations, in the way these stories are reported, in the way they play out in the public consciousness?

Douglas:  There is but it’s a lot of times they’re not separated out in a sufficient manner, they don’t delineate, they kind of just lump. He has PTSD, but he also has this or that. A lot of times they don’t disentangle the physical stuff from the mental stuff. And the times that they do discuss solely the mental part is usually associated because he’s an alcoholic, because he has PTSD, he’s living under a bridge. And in many cases veterans were portrayed better when the reporter packaged all the problems into one, rather than just talking about the mental which then included a whole list of bad things, trouble he might’ve gotten in.

Jeff:  Talk a little bit about whether you see any change in this over time. Has it gotten better? Has it gotten worse? Does the narrative just continue the same? What do you see in terms of trends?

Douglas: Well, I see differences in different types of news outlets. So for instance I only studied newspapers because I was concerned about what are the policymakers, where are they getting information from when they make decisions about the VA.  But magazines actually seem to have an overall better depiction of veterans. For instance I think there was one guy who works at Time who has written a number of stories on veterans and the great things that they’ve done like The Mission Continues, founded by Eric Greitens who is now running for governor of Missouri. And I am a former member of that group, the charity that he started, and then Team Rubicon which goes out to disaster areas. So I tend to see more positive stories in news magazines than I do in newspapers.

Jeff: Douglas Wilbur, I thank you so much for spending time with us. I appreciate it.

Douglas: Thank you! Thank you for having me on.

Jeff: Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Battling PTSD (Marines / Flickr)

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