The night the 7th Cavalry began rolling across the desert toward Baghdad - with CNN's cameras along for the ride - Matthew Nesbitt watched TV until 4 o'clock in the morning.
A sports agent from Columbia, Md., with an 8-month-old baby at home, he knew he needed to get to sleep. But he couldn't turn it off. "You couldn't believe what you were watching - the fact that you were seeing what the marines were seeing," he recalls in amazement. "Anything could have happened. It was crazy to have that perspective."
By contrast, the first time Tracy Linderholm saw her favorite NBC News reporter on a Humvee in Iraq, her primary reaction was "fear and worry." Since then, she's been trying to avoid most war reporting, limiting her news intake to the Today Show in the morning, and a half hour of news at night. "I don't think it's serving a purpose other than creating additional anxiety," the University of Florida professor says of the saturation coverage. "I don't need to see battles as they happen."
As the war unfolds in real time on TV sets across the nation, Americans have been alternately riveted and repelled. To some viewers, the mixture of live reports from embedded journalists, with running commentary from retired generals, is uncomfortably voyeuristic and one-sided. To others, it's a fascinating window into the workings of war.
Most media critics say the 24/7 coverage, while uneven, has generally succeeded in creating a sense of immediacy - and intimacy - that brings the war closer to average citizens and provides them with valuable knowledge. But they caution that without a sense of context, the stream of information can be confusing and even numbing. At times, it has made it harder for people to put events in perspective - with relatively minor incidents sometimes being magnified on the small screen, while more important maneuvers out of the cameras' range remain unreported.
"Seeing it live makes us think that everything we're seeing is vastly important - when it might just be a pinprick on the map," says David Perlmutter, a Louisiana State University communications professor, who specializes in images of warfare. "While the American public is getting a good view of what it's like to fight a battle, I don't know if they're getting a good view of what it's like to fight a war."
This magnifying effect has made public opinion about the war far more volatile. Already, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who think the war is going "very well" plummeted from 71 percent on Saturday to 38 percent on Monday - after the first "shock and awe" images of bombing and tanks rolling across the desert were replaced by reports of US casualties and pictures of captured US soldiers.
In addition, the up-close reporting - much of which has focused on accounts of service members and their families - may have a more emotional impact. According to the Pew survey, 59 percent of Americans say they "feel sad" when watching war coverage, and slightly fewer - 48 percent - said they find it "frightening" to watch.
While some Americans have responded by turning off their TVs, 40 percent said they "can't stop watching" news. For many, staying tuned is a patriotic duty.
Gloria Rayon, who owns a small Cuban market in Hollywood, Fla., keeps the TV on in her shop from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., and falls asleep watching the war coverage at night. She even has a TV in her car, so as not miss any news on the drive home. "Sometimes I set my alarm for 2 a.m. to check in on the war," she says. "I am hardly getting any sleep - but I love my country, and this war is real."
But Audrey Green, a retired dry cleaner, also from Hollywood, says she can't bear to watch the coverage and plans to stick to movies from now on. "I've watched so much of the war that it has gotten in my heart and it makes me depressed," she says.
Many Americans, both critics and fans of the war coverage, suspect that much of what they are seeing may be an incomplete or biased view. "Instead of focusing so much on the movement of troops and the explosions, the media should focus on the real human costs on both sides," says David Twitchell, a high school science teacher from Miami.
Likewise, Mr. Nesbitt switches throughout the day from CNN to the BBC and Univision, which have focused more on Iraqi casualties. Even the most avid war-watchers acknowledge that the nonstop coverage is often repetitive. To get the most out of the wall-to-wall broadcasts, viewers need to be their own editors, flipping channels and taking time to absorb what they learn, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
The key test for viewers, says Mr. Rosenstiel, is whether the information conveyed tells them something new and important. Otherwise, he says, it can seem exploitative. Still, there isn't necessarily anything wrong with viewers finding the war coverage engaging - or even entertaining, says Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. "It's real life-and-death drama," he says. "It's mesmerizing."
• Jennifer LeClaire contributed to this report from Hollywood, Fla.