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Competing Messages: Mass Media Effects on Recruiting

Jason Bortz, Natalie Granger, Nathaniel Garcia, Brandan W. Schulze, Mark Mackowiak, Victoria Jennings, Jon McMillan, Debbie Allen

University of Oklahoma

This study examines how the mass media’s portrayal of the military, including the war in Iraq, affects U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps recruiting. A telephone survey of households in Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas was conducted to measure parents and young adults’ exposure to information about the military in various media sources and how much attention they paid to those sources of information for information about the military. This study was hampered by a small sample size (N=119) that limits the ability to claim significant findings for several hypotheses. However, the study did uncover a pattern that indicated that greater use of newspapers and entertainment television reduced chances of young adults joining the military, whereas use of movies depicting the military enhanced the likelihood of joining. Also, media use predicted people’s attitudes about the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq. The pattern was the same as above: Greater use of newspapers and television entertainment lowered support support for the war in Iraq, whereas more use of movies depicting the military enhanced support for the war. Taken together, these results suggest that news may undercut, and movies may bolster, recruitment efforts for both the Marines and Army. Recruiting has always been a challenge for the armed services and will continue to be a challenge the military will face. With today’s evolving technologies and wealth of media, it is important to understand where adolescents and parents gather their information and how and if this impacts the way in which they form their attitudes and opinions about the military. Although our research was not entirely significant due to our sample size, future research that is more powerful in that aspect could provide the U.S. military with the pertinent evidence needed to address this ongoing issue.

Competing Messages: Mass Media Effects on Recruiting


“Army, Marines miss recruiting goals again: More cash and appeals to parents, patriotism haven’t reversed trend.” This was the headline for NBC news correspondent Jim Miklaszewski’s story concerning the problems facing recruiting May 2005. Many similar headlines appeared during the third year of the war in Iraq. April 2005, the Army had missed its recruiting goal for the third month in a row. The recruiters were short by 2,800 recruits, missing their mark by 42%. And for the first time in 10 years, the Marine Corps was unable to meet their goal for four months in a row (Miklaszewski, 2005).

Miklaszewski (2005) reports part of the recruiting problem is related to fear from parents about sending their child into the military and the prospect they will be sent to war. This report is just one example illustrating how the media has managed to cultivate fear by making images of death and casualties resulting on both sides salient during their intense coverage of the war. “Journalism’s images of war disturb. Among the most powerful visuals known to humankind, they are haunted by the stubborn inevitability and proximity of death” (Zelizer, 2004, p. 115). After September 11, 2001, the number of war images nearly doubled the typical amount of published images (Zelizer, 2004). This increase in war images has the potenti34al to cultivate perceptions and feelings toward the military and also has the ability to directly impact recruiting.

Recruiting difficulties have been well documented over the course of the past two to three years dating back to the Army National Guard first missing its monthly goals in 2003 (Lumpkin, 2005). That trend led to the Army Guard missing their fiscal year 2004 goal for the first time in 10 years, falling 7,000 enlistees short of their goal of 56,000, and further causing the Guard to increase its recruiting force more than 50% (Moniz, 2004).

The New York Times first reported about Army Recruiting Command’s changes regarding lowering goals of recruiters and recruit standards in October 2004 (Schmitt, 2004). According to the report, one main reason was the Army’s inability to enter the 2005 fiscal year with 35% of its yearly goal already achieved. Instead the Army projected its goal as 25%, before officially achieving a goal of 18% – almost half of the original intended target.

Even with lower standards for enlistment, the Army fell 7,000 enlistees short of its target of 80,000 (Mazzetti, 2005). The difficulties of recruiting are also being felt within the Marine Corps, although they continue to meet yearly goals. General Michael W. Hagee, the Marine Corps commandant, has said that with the war in Iraq still raging, many parents were advising their children to wait before signing up for the Marines. "They're saying, 'It's not, maybe, a bad idea to join the Marine Corps, but why don't you consider it a year from now or two years from now,'" he said. "So the recruiters are having to work much harder out there right now” (Mazzetti, 2005, p. 1).

The war in Iraq made death and the inherent dangers of being in the military salient to the military’s audiences. The military was riding the wave of post-September 11th patriotism and seen as upholding a noble and patriotic duty to the country. As the war progressed into the summer of 2005, and more of the nation’s service members lives were lost, pressure came from members of both parties in Congress for the White House to create a strategy for withdrawal from Iraq (Klein, 2005).

In regard to the recruiting difficulty, the military branches say they have no way to directly measure the effect that war injuries and deaths are having on each service's recruiting (Moniz, 2005). “There is no way to quantify it, no block on an application that you can check for that,” says Maj. Dave Griesmer, a Marine Corps spokesman (Moniz, 2005, p. 1).

However, there are numbers that show the desirability of military service has not necessarily dropped – just the desirability of serving in the Army and Marine Corps. The Navy and Air Force are reportedly turning away thousands of recruits, and the Air Force has a backlog of nearly 9,000 enlistees (Moniz, 2005). According to the Department of Defense military casualty information (2006), nearly 96% of the deaths during Operation Iraqi Freedom have been members of the Army or Marine Corps making a strong case for the correlation between media messages and the desirability to serve in either of these two services.

Shah, McLeod, and Yoon (2001) conclude “people seek information from whatever media sources are most accessible and normative in their social networks” (p.496) with older generations using print and broadcast media supplemented by the Internet and the reverse being the case for younger generations. Because the effectiveness of the variety of media messages is not known, the purpose of this study is to examine which, and to what extent, of various communication forms cultivate and affect perception and/or beliefs about the military in high school youth and their parents. In regard to recruiting, the military can use this information to add to, correct, or even influence attitudes of those audiences.

Literature Review

Images in media can be powerful, and for those who know how to use images in mass media have the ability to shape the perception of the masses (Zelizer, 2004). Media provide audiences a chance to view situations and events that they would otherwise never be able to experience. The media are able to do this through detailed and dramatic storytelling, photography, video, film and much more. However, those images relayed to audiences only portray a narrow view of a specific viewpoint (Zelizer, 2004). According to cultivation theory, perceptions are affected through cumulative exposure to media images (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).

In the age of “new media,” television still dominates the other forms of media. As of 2003, the television and the telephone were the only two media devices utilized by nearly every household in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). The average person will spend more than 1,800 hours this year alone watching television programming – greater than the use of radio, Internet, video games, newspapers, books, and magazines combined (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). Throughout an entire year, more than 20% of an average person’s time is spent watching television. Compare that to eight hours of sleep a night taking up another 33% of the entire year and that leaves slightly less than 50% of the year for work and any other activities. This information provides a profound look into the viewing habits of the average American.

The notion that media images and television viewing are related to people’s perceptions of social reality is virtually undisputed in the social sciences (Shrum, 2001), which is normally demonstrated by a positive correlation between the amount of television a person watches and the extent to which that person’s real-world perceptions are congruent with the world as it appears in the media.

Using the cultivation theory to direct the study of media effects on parents’ and young adults’ regarding the desirability of military service, it would be expected that those parents who have a positive attitude about the military cultivated through media will be more likely to support their child entering the military. Correspondingly, those young adults with a positive attitude about the military cultivated through media will also be more likely to consider military service.


According to Gerbner and Gross’ (1976) study on cultural indicators, common rituals and mythologies are methods of symbolic socialization and control. They demonstrate how society works by dramatizing its norms and values (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). They are the necessary parts of interaction that influence our outlook on society, our culture, and help to regulate social relationships. In essence, these stories helped to define past cultures through symbolic means, and today we use a variety of media forms such as television, movies, and books as opposed to basic story telling in the past.

Gerbner and his colleagues began to see a pattern emerge confirming their ideas that television was a much different medium from others at the time and required a new approach to study (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). Printed media require literacy for utilization, radio only tells information and requires an auditory comprehension to create a picture in a person’s mind, and prior to the television any sort of visual media required a person to actually travel some sort of distance to become consumed in that visual experience. Because its accessibility is relatively unlimited, television has the ability to be with us throughout our lives, from even before we are able to read until our older years where it can be used to keep us company (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). However, this does not dismiss the effects of other forms of mass media as related to cultivation.

Cultivation is not easily understood. Two different types of effects are considered when using cultivation theory, first-order effects and second-order effects. First-order effects refer to estimations of frequency and probability of aspects of social reality that are empirically observable and verifiable in the real world, while second-order effects refer to opinions, beliefs, and attitudes toward an aspect of social reality (Van Mierlo & Van den Bulck, 2003; Shanahan & Morgan, 1999). In the case of violence, the first-order effect would be for a heavy viewer of television to overstate the amount of crime in the world compared to a light viewer, and the second-order effect would be the heavier viewer believing the world is a scarier place. Gerbner (1998) refers to this as “mean world syndrome.”

Quantitative studies on the cultivation effect have shown effects are generally found to be small, but longitudinal studies have shown there are consistent effects, and the fact there are effects, no matter how minute, is significant when dealing with our perceptions (Gerbner, 1998).

Although Gerbner (1998) states the cultivation theory should only be used in the case of television, using the theory with other media is not unprecedented. Lubbers and Scheepers (2000) used cultivation and found significant effects in newspaper readers, Van Mierlo and Van de Bulck (2003) found significant cultivation effects in the video game arena, and Hawkins and Pingree (1981) found significant evidence showing differential cultivation effects based upon television genres viewed. Additionally, Pfau, Moy, and Kahlor (1999) used a modified version of the cultivation theory which combined the use of a variety of media and their effects on confidence of democratic institutions. It is upon Hawkins and Pingree’s (1981) implications of genre-specific cultivation effects, as well as Pfau and colleagues’ (1999) uses of different media, that we base our study upon and categorize various media into the area of news, entertainment, advertising, and conversation.

Because market research has shown our country’s youth to constantly change what messages they will be most susceptible to (Goodman & Dretzin, 2001) and the generational difference of dominant media use between adults and adolescents (Shah, McLeod, & Yoon, 2001), military recruiting must constantly look for new, inventive ways to deliver their message to their target audiences. The ability to provide more information for the military’s recruitment campaign on where teenagers receive the strongest influence would allow for a better concentration of assets and resources.

Each of the aforementioned may be considered by both young adults and their parents before a decision can be made to enlist in military service. However, the direct importance of each media form and the direct affect those forms have on either parents or young adults are not known. To study the cultivation effects of information regarding the military, the only way to know where they are receiving their information is by recognizing where and to what frequency young adults go to actively seek knowledge about the military. Knowledge of where young adults seek their information and being able to further predict the impact on attitudes of the target audience, would be vital to military recruiting efforts. However, with today’s technology, ways in which both teenagers and parents gather information has become increasingly more diverse due to the Internet, video games, and satellite news coverage.

Use of News and Perception of the Military

The effect that concerns this research is the perception of the military and in this section – how news effects that perception. News can be delivered through television, print, radio, and the Internet. In news, an example of cultivation effects showing statistical significance with heavy exposure to newspaper stories containing negative reports about ethnic crimes leads people to perceive ethnic minorities as being more of a threat than they would if they had read newspapers without negative ethnic reports (Lubbers & Scheepers, 2000). The perception or belief about the ethnic group stems from cumulative exposure to the same thoughts and ideas are expressed in those articles.

When measuring cultivation effects from the news, it is important to know that news or “real” media, especially programs containing violence, have a greater influence upon beliefs than fictional media (Geen, 1975; Atkin, 1983). An example of this was depicted by embedded media during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Due to unprecedented access by embedded media in bringing the public direct imagery from Iraq, the public’s perceptions about the daily life of a soldier in war have become “real” to the audience. News images allow the public to see what is real but in a way that only partly reflects what is actually happening (Zelizer, 2004). Images from the war in Iraq may show how horrible life is only through pictures that extremely exaggerate the quality of life during war time and the time frame in which hardship must be endured. Those images are not formed in a vacuum (Zelizer, 2004).

The link between negative media and shortfalls in recruiting has been made by several Senators as they denounced other lawmakers and the news media for unfavorable depictions of the Iraq war (Allen, 2005). At a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, said families are discouraging young men and women from enlisting "because of all the negative media that's out there” (Allen, 2005, p. 1). According to the theory of cultivation, constantly portraying news of death in Iraq could change audiences’ perceptions of the actual amount of death occurring. This leads to the following prediction:

H1: Those who rely more on the news for information about the military will have negative attitudes about a) the military and about b) serving in the military.

Use of Entertainment and Perception of the Military

For most viewers, new types of delivery systems (e.g., cable, satellite, and cassette) represent even further penetration and integration of established viewing patterns into everyday life (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan & Signorielli, 1986). Teenagers, as well as adults, now have more sources, such as the Internet, video games, and talk radio, to gather information on the world around them to supplement television use. Depictions or assumptions based on television programming and genres can be applied to genres of video games and where interests lie when searching the Internet.

Entertainment media is just another form for audiences to gather information. Although it may seem as though what is watched, read, or heard may be done so purely for entertainment, serious and real life situations are being depicted to audiences (Baum, 2003). Examples of these would be entertainment news, talk shows, and movies. Most television shows and movies regarding the military portray the military in a glamorous light by selecting attractive and popular stars to play the leads and stamping them with the label of the hero that saves the day.

In the past year, movies like Jarhead, Annapolis, and Stealth have been released depicting and glamorizing life in the military. On their opening weekends alone these movies grossed nearly $50 million. The popularity of military portrayal in film has also spread to television shows such as Over There, a show depicting current life of war in the Middle East. Even through popular television soap operas like Days of our Lives include a plotline of a Marine deployed to fight in the war on terrorism (Soriano & Oldenburg, 2005).

In video games such as SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs, a player is allowed to become immersed in the military experience by speaking commands to your fellow “teammates” through a headset and giving a person of the actual sense of what it is like to be on a military mission. Whether it is in video games, movies, or television, entertainment media glamorize service in the military in contrast to what a viewer would see in on the news. While entertainment may also deal with the reality of death in military service, we must take into account the way in which the two genres regard death. News rarely demonstrates the ability for valiant efforts of service members to be encapsulated into an entertaining story; instead, it focuses mainly on numbers of dead rather than heroic circumstances behind their sacrifice. Through the entertainment media, death of a service member is rarely in vain. Therefore this study posits that:

H2: Those who rely more on entertainment for information about the military will have positive attitudes about a) the military and about b) serving in the military.

Video gaming systems with the ability to produce extremely lifelike images are a relatively recent addition to the media environment. Like movies, these games offer new and often times quite realistic worlds that have the ability to depict violence, sexuality, and other real life situations (Van Mierlo & Van de Bulck, 2003). As technology grows and these games become more and more prevalent in the daily lives of teenagers who have never been without the influences of these alternate forms of entertainment, it is likely cultivation will have an impact similar to that of television (Van Mierlo & Van de Bulck, 2003). Due to the fact even perceived realism has shown to play a role in linking exposure to social perceptions (Potter, 1986), it may be that these alternative media could soon prove to be just as effective upon perception as real television images.

One study found nearly a third of boys and girls reported playing video games at home for one to two hours per week (Beasley & Standley, 2002). Video games are also the most popular form of entertainment for boys and men between 12 and 25 years of age (Beasley & Standley, 2002) and are increasingly popular for parents of children. According to a recent survey of more than 500 households in 2005 regarding video game use, nearly 35% of parents play video games, 80% of which play video games with their children and 66% reportedly do so to bring their family closer together (Woodbury, 2006). However the number of parents playing games is relatively small when compared to the 81% of 15-18 year olds who have a video game player in the home, and another half has one in their own room (Roberts et al., 2005), accessible at any time of the day.

Van Mierlo and Van de Bulck (2003) found players of violent video games predicted higher estimates of the prevalence of violent crime as well as the number of policemen in the total workforce, an indication of the influence the cultivation effect has through video games.

In the past year, at least 10 video games on Microsoft’s Xbox video game console have been released portraying depictions of life in the military as a “tactical shooter.” The most notable is the release of America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier, a game originally released via computer download and was further refined for release on the Xbox due to a response of 17 million online downloads (Soriano & Oldenburg, 2005). This game was actually developed by the Army to attempt to portray life as a soldier in Iraq as realistically as possible. On the video game website, users have the ability to give their own rating of the game and more than 70% have given it a rating of 8 or higher on a 10-point scale.

Today, With the Armed Forces clearly recognizing the importance of providing an entertaining experience of life in the military through video games, and with gaming proving to be a much larger role in the lives of adolescents than parents, it only widens the gap between the importance of entertainment in the lives of children in comparison to the significance of news for adults.

Entertainment shows like The Daily Show with John Stewart are talking about serious issues through humor, and the effects of these shows on public perception should not be taken lightly, especially for adolescents. For children 15-18 years old, only 10% of their television time is spent watching news, a mere seven minutes reading the newspaper, and the rest dedicated to entertainment media (Roberts, Foehr, & Rideout, 2005). Those slightly older, in the 18-24 year old category, report they devote 35 minutes per day to news; the attention given to news on a given day nearly doubles for those 35 and older (Pew Research Center, 2004). Because more audiences are tuning in to get the news from different avenues, such as entertainment (Kurtz, 1999), these findings could be very important in understanding how little youth rely on news while learning more from entertainment. Therefore this gives parents the ability to have cultivated more beliefs about negative repercussions of military service through hard news.

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