Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations

Isolated Incidents or Deliberate Policy? Media Framing of U.S. Abu Ghraib and British Detainee Abuse Scandals During the Iraq War

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Communication Studies

First Advisor

Catherine Cassara (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Timothy Pogacar (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Oliver Boyd-Barrett (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Nancy Brendlinger (Committee Member)

Fifth Advisor

Matthew Heinz (Committee Member)


In order to examine how the detainee abuse by American and British forces tested not only the media's ability to report on human rights abuses but also their professed ability to serve as watchdogs for their respective governments, this dissertation used the constructionist framing approach to compare news stories about abuse in Iraq that appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian and the Times (London), from April 29, 2004 to May 14, 2004.

Findings showed that abuse conducted by the American troops was covered extensively by the newspapers in both countries while the American newspapers tended to ignore revelations of abuse by British troops. However, volume is not the only significant measure of coverage quality. Reporting on human rights abuses is a complex process demanding both resources to investigate abuse as well as careful consideration about when and how to disclose them to the public. While Abu Ghraib photographs were the strongest impetus for disclosing the abuse by American soldiers, news coverage of British abuse was complicated by initial publication of what turned out to be photos of staged reenactment of abuse.

The study found noteworthy differences in how the four newspapers defined, interpreted, evaluated, and treated abuse by both armies. Contrary to findings suggested by previous research, the newspapers examined in this study favored attribution of responsibility to the system rather than individuals in their coverage of U.S. events. However, the newspapers blamed individuals for the abuse by British forces. The four newspapers were similar in how they depersonalized and dehumanized Iraqi victims by utilizing the “them versus us” dichotomy to frame the people who appeared in the coverage. Reliance on official sources was noted as another significant commonality. The differences, however, were reflected in how the four newspapers utilized labels to portray the severity of abuse. These and the other findings from the study point to how valuable framing analysis is as an approach to exploring how the media function to constrict, manipulate or simply form readers' attitudes, values and knowledge of topics of such vital importance as torture and abuse.