Heroes, Victims, Messiahs

About seven percent. 

That’s the number of Americans who, in 2017, said they believe that chocolate milk comes from brown cows.

That’s also roughly the number of Americans in 2018 who served on active duty in the military at some point in their lives. 

That means roughly 93 percent of Americans have never served in the armed forces. According to the Pew Research Center, almost 60 percent of veterans under the age 40 had an immediate family member who was also a veteran, and nearly one-third of new recruits had a parent who served in the military, further emphasizing the so-called ‘civilian-military divide’. 

For large portions of the country, the mainstream understanding of war, military service, and the veteran community comes from what the people see on the news and in the movies. 

That’s why nuanced deeply-reported news coverage of military and veteran issues is so important: that reporting sets the national agenda on and conversation around these issues.  

Unfortunately, veterans are vastly underrepresented in newsrooms. According to Military Veterans in Journalism, only about 2% of media workers have served in the military. Most journalists learn about veterans from other coverage about veterans. It leads to a vicious cycle of unconscious stereotyping and bias that ultimately harms the veteran community. 

How news stereotypes veterans

News stories about veterans typically fall into two categories. They’re either portrayed as heroic crusaders for American values, or as victims. “Victim” stories discuss veterans who are victimized by both institutional failures at organizations like the Department of Veterans Affairs, and members of the public who “disrespect” the troops, either through protesting military policy or by failing to perform patriotic duties like saluting the flag during the National Anthem.

Researchers analyzed four years of Veterans Day news stories produced by major mainstream news outlets from 2012- to 2015 and found that nearly all of the stories either framed military service as inherently heroic or showed veterans as victims of bureaucracy at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Coverage also significantly overrepresented visible disabilities like amputations and burns over the invisible disabilities that a majority of veterans have.

The problem with all of this? Most veterans don’t consider themselves heroes, nor do they consider military service inherently heroic. And although the VA is large, impersonal, and bureaucratic, nearly 90% of veterans indicated their overall satisfaction with the healthcare they receive. Veterans with invisible disabilities often feel inferior – like their disabilities don’t “count”. 

Worst of all, stories that employ these frames take the unique and valuable experiences of millions of Americans and distill those stories into two stereotypes – neither of which are particularly accurate. 

These stories play a role in what religious studies scholar Jonathan Ebel calls American Civil Religion. Much like Christianity, American Civil Religion has a God-figure who created the world (in America’s case, the Founding Fathers) and a Messiah figure who dies so that sins can be forgiven. In America’s case, that role falls to the soldiers. 

When a soldier is killed in service, Americans don’t say the soldier died. Instead, they tend to use euphemisms like laid their life down so that Americans could enjoy their freedoms. It’s strikingly similar to Christian language about how Jesus was crucified, laying his life down so that the sins of humanity would be forgiven. Within Christianity, Jesus is venerated through ritual prayer and ceremony, with holidays devoted to his birth and death. 

In American Civil Religion, veterans are venerated through cultural rituals, including holidays, ceremonies, songs, and observances. Look no further than a football field 20 minutes before kickoff: the National Anthem ceremony is full of veteran veneration. 

Writing an article that openly blasphemes Jesus Christ would likely be deeply offensive to many observant Christians. Writing an article that disparages, or even criticizes the military and veterans would similarly be deeply offensive to a large portion of American society. 

This cultural framework influences how veterans are reported on; that reporting, in turn, influences the culture. As reporters seeking truth, it’s incumbent upon us to ensure what we write is actually the truth, and not stereotypes. 

Here are three simple things you can do to avoid hero, victim, and messiah frames in your stories 

1) Reframe your questions about combat service

Instead of asking about combat, ask open-ended questions about what deployments were like. 

The legal definition of a combat veteran is fairly loose. But within the military, the cultural definition of a combat veteran is extremely narrow.  While the VA might consider someone a combat veteran, other servicemembers might not. There’s a strong possibility the person you’re interviewing fits the legal definition of a combat veteran but doesn’t feel like one themselves. 

On top of that, many combat veterans don’t necessarily want to talk at length about what might be the worst day of their lives, especially to someone who hasn’t had similar experiences. Chances are, unless you’re a combat veteran yourself, you likely haven’t earned their trust. 

Because the military conditions service members to be stoic and follow orders, they might oblige you and tell the story anyway.  In that case, you probably aren’t getting their authentic answer, and you might be making them deeply uncomfortable. 

When you reframe the question, you allow them to speak freely about their experience. They might tell a heroic tale. They might also give a great answer that talks about everyday life in the military. Maybe it’s a funny thing that happened on fire watch, a M*A*S*H-worthy anecdote about the absurdity of military life, or a story about a leader or buddy who inspired them somehow. 

They could also tell a depressing tale of abuse, hazing, or harassment. When the question allows your source to tell their story the way they want to, they’ll feel more comfortable. But most importantly, the response is more likely to be an authentic telling of their experience, rather than something that relies on stereotypical hero framing. 

2) Ask about the little universal experiences that define military life

Overall, about 10% of people in the military actively engage in combat, according to various statistics gathered by veterans organizations. Even fewer will fire their weapons, save a life, or actually do anything inherently heroic. These actions define a tiny subset of military veterans, despite making up the majority of news coverage. 

Every veteran has one thing in common, though: they all served in the military. There are certain universal experiences that define military life, regardless of the era the veteran served in, or whether or not they deployed to a war zone. A lot of these typically haven’t been reported on, but offer an interesting look into the process that turns civilians into veterans. 

Everybody who has served can tell a story about getting yelled at, mopping floors and scrubbing toilets, performing hours of mind-numbing drill exercises, and having their entire lives controlled by random people who outrank them. All of these experiences are part of the process that the military uses to transform civilians into competent warfighters. They’re astoundingly effective. They’re also often incompatible with civilian life, and can lead to some of the problems veterans deal with when they transition out of service. 

Here’s an example from my own experience. When I was a seaman in the Navy, I was sitting down and talking on my phone while a petty officer who outranked me was mopping the floor (sorry…swabbing the deck) a few feet away. A chief petty officer walked by and screamed at me for what felt like ten minutes over the fact that I was sitting down “skating off” while someone who outranked me was working. To this day, I get extremely anxious when someone who I feel outranks me might even be perceived to be working harder than me. It’s completely irrational, I know. And although it’s gotten better over time, it was extremely difficult for me to adapt to a more relaxed civilian job. 

It’s little moments like this which define military service and contribute to some of the struggles veterans face when they are discharged. Adding more of these little stories to the conversation about veterans’ issues will give the public a better idea of what military service is actually like, and why veterans who weren’t exposed to combat still sometimes struggle to transition to civilian life. 

3) Consider whether someone’s veteran identity is important to the story

Less than a week after federal agents raided Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago estate looking for classified documents, a man who called for civil war and violence on social media tried to shoot up the FBI field office in Cincinnati, before being killed in an hours-long standoff in a corn field with FBI agents. 

Back in 2017, a gunman killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. 

Both of these shooters served in the military. Their military experience was framed front-and-center in the bulk of the news coverage surrounding these acts of domestic terror.

Any time a veteran commits a mass shooting or other atrocity, their status as a veteran becomes central to the story, even if it’s only tangentially related to the criminal acts. This information might be relevant to the story, but oftentimes, the individual’s military service has minimal bearing on the story. 

Including it, though, is harmful to the veteran community. It perpetuates the stereotypes that veterans can be mentally ill and unpredictable. These stereotypes can not only make it difficult for veterans to find gainful employment in society; they also stigmatize mental health disorders and discourage some veterans from seeking the help they actually need. 

Always balance the public’s need to know about an infamous individual’s veteran status, with the potential harm that disclosing that status could have on the veteran community. If someone’s military service can be directly tied to a crime or act of terror, disclose it. But it might be helpful to include perspectives from other veterans who disavow that behavior, and from mental health experts who can explain that veterans are not more predisposed to violence. 

Putting it all together

Veterans represent a small subset of American society. The Veteran community is insular: an all-volunteer force and the proliferation of multigenerational service families has turned the civilian-military divide from a creek into a river.

That’s why it’s so important for journalists to get their coverage of this community right. Veterans need the support of mainstream society – but that support too often descends into lip service platitudes, when veterans really need political advocacy behind them.  

By avoiding the hero/victim/messiah stereotypes and making an effort to humanize, rather than tokenize veterans, journalists can do a lot of good for a community that is underrepresented and over-reported. 

Watch the video below for a more in-depth explanation on this topic

Scott Bourque

Scott Bourque is an associate faculty member at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. A Phoenix native, Scott got his start in journalism in 2009, working as a U.S. Navy combat correspondent in Japan and Afghanistan. After leaving the military in 2014, he attended Northern Arizona University and earned a Master's degree in Mass Communication from the Cronkite School in 2018.

Professionally, Scott works as a senior podcast producer for HearArizona Podcasts, the solutions journalism podcast affiliated with Phoenix public radio station KJZZ. He teaches courses on radio and audio journalism, as well as digital journalism and basic reporting. His research interests include analyzing news media representation of war, the military, and veterans, as well as stories about first responders, homelessness, and criminality through a critical-cultural lens.