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What is a Living Room War?

Dan Cavallari
Updated May 23, 2024
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A living room war is a term that refers to the reporting of a war on television and other media, and how that reporting shapes public perception of that war. The term came to be during the Vietnam War, which was the first war in the United States that was televised and showed clips of what was happening in Vietnam, essentially bringing the war into American living rooms. Previous wars took place before television, so broadcasts of war stories took place either on radio or in print, which did not give the same views of real war. The living room war was, for many, the first real insight as to what real war was like.

Critics of the war coverage contended that television news reporting turned the American public against the war effort, further compounding the difficulties the U.S. was already facing during that era. Many researchers, however, discovered that the reporting done during that era was rarely based on opinion, with news reporters sticking to traditional reporting techniques employed during World War II. Much of the criticism of the war came from coverage of politicians, and some from public opinion pieces focusing on everyday Americans.

Until the mid- to later part of the Vietnam war, the living room war coverage did not include much actual live fighting. This was due to a few important factors: first, much of the fighting in Vietnam was done in remote parts of the country, making it difficult for film crews to be close to the battles. Second, network executives had little desire to show fighting, and especially casualties, fearing such footage would be too graphic for the average viewer, thus resulting in a decline in ratings.

The idea of a living room war persists even today, as current wars around the world are covered more thoroughly and with more scrutinizing eyes. Critics argue that such inundation of war coverage desensitizes the average viewer to the reality of war and encourages the notion that the war is simply a television spot rather than reality. Others criticize the media for not being thorough enough, citing the lack of actual battle footage and reporting on casualties. Either way, the living room war mentality has changed the way the public perceives war, the justifications for war, and the means by which wars are fought. This is due to both the accessibility of information as well as the constant barrage of both objective reporting and opinion pieces being presented on television daily.

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Dan Cavallari
By Dan Cavallari , Former Writer
Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.

Discussion Comments

By anon985326 — On Jan 14, 2015

I was born in 1964, and one of my very first memories was saying goodbye to my cousin, who was going away to Vietnam. I remember watching the CBS news with Walter Cronkite a few years later, and seeing footage of American soldiers jumping out of helicopters and getting into firefights in the jungle. I could handle watching those images, because they looked just like the scenes from World War II movies. Soldiers got pinned down and then attacked, but no one ever seemed to get injured or killed.

But one night they showed an actual execution of some Viet Cong fighters on the news. It didn't look anything like the firing squad scenes in movies. These people weren't standing bravely while a firing squad shot at them. They were flailing around and bleeding and didn't die right away. It was gruesome for a 6 year old kid to watch.

From that point on, I didn't want to watch any more stories about the war. They were showing soldiers, like my cousin, with bloody bandages on their heads and missing arms and all that gross stuff.

By starrynight — On Feb 21, 2012

@SZapper - Yeah, I think media coverage can be suspect too. Sometimes I try to get my US news from international sources that might be less biased.

Either way though, I try to avoid television and Internet coverage that is too graphic. I would personally rather read about it in print than watch it unfold.

By SZapper — On Feb 20, 2012

@strawCake - That's a great point. With new technology comes new ways to bring war to the living room and new controversies. I remember the news coverage during the Arab Spring (although not technically a war, definitely a potentially graphic conflict) that started in December 2010. A lot of the news was broadcast live, and they would edit as they went.

I remember one day my boyfriend and I were watching the protests being broadcast life on television. They showed a particularly graphic attack on civilians with a government tank, but a few minutes later when they re-aired the clip, the most violent part was edited out, making it look like civilians were attacking the tank for no reason.

I think we need to be mindful of forming opinions based on living room way coverage, because clips can be edited to influence opinion.

By strawCake — On Feb 20, 2012

I'm not surprised that there were critics of the living room war during the Vietnam era. After all, public opinion wasn't exactly on the side of the ware. And also, media coverage of war has always been very controversial.

I was a photography major in college, and I had to take a history of photography class. We discussed war time photos a little bit. The first example of war time photography took place during the Crimean war, and it was controversial then too. And of course, photographing the caskets of soldiers was controversial during the Iraq war after 9/11.

I think any kind of coverage of war (television, Internet, photography) is always going to be controversial. There are always people out there who want to shape public perception of war activities and control public opinion.

By backdraft — On Feb 19, 2012

The first time I became aware of the phrase living room war was during the first gulf war. Many people will probably remember that that was the first war to feature extensive battlefield footage broadcast on national television.

It was a weird and unpleasant feeling to sit in my own home and to watch missiles and rockets rain down on a city. It makes it seems so cold and distant and bloodless but the reality is that each one of those missiles brought with it death and destruction for untold numbers of people. You feel like you are getting a deeper look at the war but in fact it has been abstracted to obscure the real human toll

By kylee07drg — On Feb 19, 2012

I'm glad that the media don't show gruesome scenes from war zones, both for my sake and the sake of my children. It would be absolutely terrible to see something like that and know it wasn't fake.

Seeing blood and gore on a movie is not all that bad, since you know it is probably just ketchup and makeup. I don't think I would ever turn on my TV if the news started showing injured soldiers lying there all messed up.

I think it's out of respect for the soldiers and their families that the media shows restraint in this department. It would do no one any good to see the intense reality of what war does to people.

By StarJo — On Feb 19, 2012

I can just imagine how scary it must have been for all the families watching the coverage of the Vietnam War at home. I don't think that people were really used to seeing such sad news on a continual basis.

I have seen several movies about this time period, and they always feature a concerned family gathered in the living room. They are sitting on the sofa with horrified looks on their faces, listening to the reporter talk about the war.

It must have been quite a new experience for everyone. If you owned a TV, you probably couldn't have gotten away from it if you tried.

By Perdido — On Feb 18, 2012

@shell4life – My sister is just the opposite of your friend. She watches war coverage like a hawk, hoping for any bit of information about the situation.

She doesn't get to hear from her husband very often. He is so busy serving that he doesn't get many opportunities to call her, and she worries constantly.

The news is her only source of information. She can't stand not knowing what is up over there, and even if it's bad, she doesn't want to remain in the dark about it.

Like your friend, she gets nervous and anxious when the news is bad, and she worries until she gets a call from her husband. However, she would rather be prepared for the worst than be caught off guard, not having any idea that anyone had been harmed.

By shell4life — On Feb 17, 2012

My best friend and I hate watching war coverage. Her husband is currently serving overseas, and she is always on edge.

Every time that we hear that an American or group of Americans has just died in combat, we fear that he is among them. My friend knows that she would be notified if her husband died before the news revealed his name on TV, but she isn't certain that the media would wait until she had been notified to mention that a soldier had died.

We watch the news to hear about local occurrences and the weather. We don't want to hear any bad news about what's going on overseas.

By ysmina — On Feb 17, 2012

@myharley-- I think you touched on a important point that didn't occur to me before. I just realized that the power of living room war goes only so far. If people watch it (or read it or hear it) than it's effective. If they don't, it's not.

Living room war is probably much more important and impacting for people who have friends and family in the war because they are more likely to follow war news. But those who don't might not pay attention to it.

So information on war doesn't reach people equally.

By serenesurface — On Feb 16, 2012

@alisha--I think living room war now also includes the internet. I don't know about other people, but I get most of my news online from various news sources. And even though I agree with your thoughts to some extent, I think that there is a lot more information available about wars online which everyone has access to.

During the Vietnam war, this was not possible. All of the conceptions that Americans had about war were shaped by what they heard and watched on TV and radio. Today, these conceptions are also shaped by what we read online and there is little to no filtering that takes place there. So I have no reason to believe that living room war gives the public 'wrong assumptions about war', as you have implied.

By discographer — On Feb 16, 2012

I'm of the opinion that in this era, the media doesn't really report on war that much. They do report on war, but everything first goes through a government filter. So the information that we get is not sufficient nor does it portray the entire reality.

This has been voiced a lot with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have read about and heard many times that the number of American casualties which were reported in the media were far fewer than the actual numbers.

Clearly, living room war has changed. It does still impact public opinion about wars, but in a way that is beneficial for the government. Anything which might cause the public to criticize the war is not relayed.

I understand that for security issues, not everything can be disclosed to the public. But the media still has the responsibility to be as objective and unbiased as possible which is unfortunately missing when it comes to living room wars today.

By myharley — On Feb 15, 2012

@andee - I certainly understand how you feel when you mention how overwhelming it can be when we have so much information available to us.

When you have loved ones who are fighting in the war, it really makes you sensitive to how the war is being reported.

On one hand, you want to see and hear as much information as you can, just because you want to know what is going on. On the other hand, it can seem depressing and overwhelming because you feel like you have no control over what is happening.

I have found it is best for me to watch the war reporting in very small dosages. Otherwise I find myself worrying too much when there is nothing I can do about it.

By andee — On Feb 14, 2012

With the large number of sources that are now available to receive our information, I try to seek out sources that are objective when it comes to war reporting.

I remember my grandparents telling stories of their whole family huddled around the radio listening to updates on the war.

The information available to them was so limited, I think it would have been very frustrating. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like we have too much information thrown at us.

I find it interesting that politicians were some of the first ones to criticize how the war was being reported. This can't help make me wonder what their motives were for this.

Then when I realize how important the television rating factor plays a part in the war reporting, it can be hard to know who to trust and believe.

That is why I tend to seek out sources that I feel are professional, thorough and objective at the same time.

By sunshined — On Feb 14, 2012

@honeybees - I agree that much has changed since the reporting days of the Vietnam War. Sometimes it still amazes me that I can know what is going on all around the world at any time.

Sometimes I have a hard time watching the actual fighting scenes that are happening during war events. Between these and the explosions and pictures of the faces of the people who are directly involved, this can be hard to watch.

I think these reporting events do influence the perception we have of the war. Even though we have access to this information at any time of the day, we still only see a very small part of what is really happening.

It is very easy to form our opinions on the information we see. Many times there is a much bigger picture of what is happening, and we have no idea because we don't see it being reported by the news media.

By honeybees — On Feb 13, 2012

No matter where you stand on this issue, you can't argue the fact that the war reporting has gone through major changes through the years.

I was young when the Vietnam War was being fought, but I still remember how my parents would perk up their ears when this war was being reported on television.

There was a young man in our community who was missing in action, and this brought a personal involvement to what was happening so many thousand miles away.

Between the information they heard on the three television stations they had, and what they read in the newspaper, that was the extent of the information that was available to them regarding the war.

How different it is today when we can read about, or see war events being reported through many avenues and at any time of the day.

Dan Cavallari

Dan Cavallari

Former Writer

Dan Cavallari, a talented writer, editor, and project manager, crafts high-quality, engaging, and informative content for various outlets and brands. With a degree in English and certifications in project management, he brings his passion for storytelling and project management expertise to his work, launching and growing successful media projects. His ability to understand and communicate complex topics effectively makes him a valuable asset to any content creation team.
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