News portrayal of veterans less bleak than feared

Members of Iran and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) march in the 2015 Americas Parade up 5th Avenue on Veterans Day in Manhattan. (Credit: Glynnis Jones /

Many American military veterans’ advocacy groups believe that the media portray veterans as mentally unstable or violent.

However, a new study finds that while media often do perpetuate negative stereotypes of veterans, it is rare that they portray veterans as mentally unstable.

“Many veterans advocacy groups are spending time and money fighting negative stigmas that simply don’t persist in the media,” says Douglas Wilbur, a doctoral student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

“In reality, the media are more sympathetic toward veteran issues than many believe; they just need guidance in the best ways to present these issues. By understanding how these issues actually are being portrayed, advocacy groups can better advise media and promote positive veterans stories.”

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Wilbur, a combat veteran, conducted his study by examining articles written about Iraq and Afghanistan veteran issues in major US newspapers between 2011 and 2013. He found that these articles focused on three primary “frames,” or ways in which the stories are told.

These frames include:

  • “bureaucratic enemy” frames, which portray veterans as fighting a war overseas and then returning home to fight a war against the federal government bureaucracies;
  • “family hardship” frames, which portray families of veterans as casualties of the wars, as well as discussing the lack of support for families from government; and
  • “financial hardship” frames, which portray veterans as undercompensated financially as well as struggling to find employment when they return home.

Wilbur also identified three “counter frames,” which he says are more positive portrayals of veteran issues. These frames are:

  • the “healing” frame, which acknowledges veterans have problems but they are healing and overcoming those problems;
  • the “no problem” frame, which portrays veterans as being able to transition back into society well and without problems; and
  • the “moral obligation to help” frame, which encourages the American public to do what they can to help veterans return home and live productive lives.

“Veterans advocacy groups can make a big difference if they were to shift their focus to fighting the negative frames that do exist, such as bureaucratic enemy and financial hardship frames, rather than mentally unstable frames that are much rarer,” Wilbur says. “Also, if these groups can further promote healing frames and no problem frames to the media and the public, it will be much more effective in creating more positive sentiment about veterans across the country.”

Wilbur’s study appears in the journal Sociology Study.

Source: University of Missouri