Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Framing Iran: Media Coverage Echoes Some Iraq Problems

LobeLog

Few observers would question that news coverage prior to the 2003 U.S.- led invasion of Iraq affected public perceptions about the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. Are news media making the same mistakes in covering Iran’s nuclear program? In short, yes and no.

Post-war studies of news coverage leading up to the Iraq War found an over-reliance on White House sources, the use of imprecise language to describe the threat from various types of weapons of mass destruction, a focus on the agenda and policy prescriptions of senior U.S. officials, and the news coverage’s relatively narrow framing of events.

In a review of six leading American and British newspapers’ coverage of Iran’s nuclear program over the past four years, we found many of the same tendencies. Reporters and editors overwhelmingly relied on government officials to inform their reporting. As a result, officials’ framing of the threat posed by Iran and of the policy choices they considered set the tone for coverage: Would sanctions force Iranian concessions or would military strikes be necessary to slow Iranian nuclear advances? Little attention was paid to policy alternatives proposed by others, including more sustained diplomacy or deterrence. (The complete study of media coverage of Iran’s nuclear program can be found here.)

Newspaper coverage of Iranian nuclear intentions and capabilities also lacked precision, was inconsistent over time, and failed to provide adequate sourcing and context for claims. With a muddled understanding of the technical and political issues at the root of the dispute between Iran, the United States, European states (the so-called EU-3 – Britain, France, and German), and Israel, the discussion of policy options facilitated by the newspaper coverage was adrift and at times, misleading.

For example, when the U.N. Security Council debated an additional round of punitive economic sanctions against Iran in the first part of 2010, news coverage predominantly adopted the assumptions of U.S. and European officials that Iran’s nuclear behavior was sufficiently aberrant to warrant such a punitive response. A June 10, 2010 Washington Post article on the passage of the sanctions made no mention of what Iran did or didn’t do to warrant the additional sanctions, referring only to the “future of [Iran’s] nuclear program.” A June 9, 2010 New York Times article discussing the impending sanctions noted only that, “Despite the sanctions already in place, Iran is enriching uranium at ever-higher levels and building new centrifuges to create larger stockpiles.”

These limited references to Iran’s nuclear activities made no mention of the fact that Iran’s nuclear activities were under strict international monitoring, that they conformed to widely accepted nuclear nonproliferation requirements, and that national intelligence agencies differed in important ways in their estimates of Iranian nuclear capabilities and intentions. While the articles occasionally noted that Iran’s enrichment activities violated U.N. Security Council resolutions calling upon it to stop, they never mentioned concerns raised about the legality of these resolutions, including by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Nor did they question the legality or morality of military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a policy option to which they gave extensive coverage.

Additional examples of the media’s failure to provide adequate context and detail abound in coverage of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany), of IAEA reports on Iranian nuclear advances, of the effect of punitive economic sanctions on Iranian behavior, and of the factors affecting U.S., Iranian, and European security strategies in the Middle East.

Reporters and editors sometimes did provide the necessary context and include voices from outside of official circles when examining events and the broader policy discussion. Some also took care to carefully parse estimates of Iranian capabilities and intentions. These, however, were the exceptions not the rule.

While these patterns in news coverage haven’t yet contributed to an ill-considered war against Iran, war is still one of the more likely outcomes of the international policy response to Iran’s nuclear program. This should not be the case, and news media have an important role to play to ensure the best policy outcome.

By examining the assumptions that they routinely make about Iranian intentions and capabilities, by exploring the security and domestic political context in which officials are operating, by consistently including a broad range of informed viewpoints about the possible outcomes, news media can ensure a more informed public discussion. Iran’s presidential election this spring and the current impasse in Iran-P5+1 talks are prime opportunities for reporters and editors to inject a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the security and political dynamics at play.

A robust and thorough public discussion about Iran’s nuclear program and the best possible outcome of the dispute for international security would not be guaranteed to influence official decision making, but not having this discussion certainly won’t help.

Jonas Siegel is a project manager at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM). He was formerly the editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Saranaz Barforoush is a doctoral student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. She has worked as a journalist for a number of Iranian newspapers and weekly magazines, including Hamshahri Daily, Asr-e-ertebat, Zanan, and Hayat-e-no. Siegel and Barforoush co-authored “Media Coverage of Iran’s Nuclear Program,” a report published by CISSM last month.

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

The millionaire pastor of the Cornerstone Church in Texas, John Hagee argues that U.S. support for Israel will play a “a pivotal role in the second coming” of Jesus. He has also risen to new prominence during the Trump administration.


Michael Gerson, an evangelical Christian who served as a chief aide and speechwriter in the George W. Bush White House, is a conservative columnist for the Washington Post and one of Donald Trump’s harshest critics on the right, calling him an “unhinged president.”


Robert Kagan, a cofounder of the Project for the New American Century, is a neoconservative policy pundit and historian based at the Brookings Institution.


Mira Ricardel, former weapons marketer for Boeing, is the deputy national security adviser under John Bolton. She is a well-known foreign policy hawk who has served in key positions in the administration of George W. Bush and, earlier, in the office of former Senator Robert Dole (R-KS).


Fred Fleitz left his role as chief of staff at the National Security Council under John Bolton to succeed notorious Islamophobe Frank Gaffney as president and CEO of the Center for Security Policy.


Brian Hook is the director of policy planning and senior policy advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and is the head of the Iran Action Group.


Haim Saban is a media mogul and major donor to the Democratic Party known for his hardline stance on Israel and opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

U.S. supporters of Israel are in a bind: public opinion is changing; there are more actors publicly challenging Israel; and the crude, heavy-handed tactics they have successfully used in the past to silence criticism now only aggravate the situation.


As the civilian death toll from Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen grows and the backlash against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in Khashoggi’s murder escalates, former Sen. Norm Coleman’s control of Republican Party campaign purse strings positions him as a key influencer of Republican congressional action, or inaction, in curtailing the increasingly aggressive and reckless actions of Saudi Arabia.


Increasingly, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are positioned as rivals, each with pretensions to Middle Eastern influence or even hegemony. It’s not clear whether they can continue to coexist without one or the other—or both—backing down. This has made it more difficult for the United States to maintain its ties with both countries.


What does President Trump’s recent nomination of retired Army General John Abizaid to become the next U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia signify? Next to nothing — and arguably quite a lot.


The Donald Trump administration’s handling of nuclear negotiations with Saudi Arabia promises to lay bare some realities about security issues and nuclear programs in that part of the world that the administration has refused to acknowledge.


Eminent U.S. foreign policy expert Stephen Walt’s new book critique’s the “liberal hegemony” grand strategy that has dominated U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.


(Lobelog)  Retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz told LobeLog he will remain on the board of the Gatestone Institute, a right-wing think tank that receives money from Trump megadonors Robert and Rebekah Mercer and disseminates anti-Muslim and anti-refugee conspiracy theories. Last week, LobeLog reported that Dershowitz received $120,000 from the Gatestone Institute in 2017 and…


RightWeb
share