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March 12, 2004

Media Coverage of WMD

Susan Moeller has written an excellent paper about press coverage of weapons of mass destruction. (Short version; long version.) It's based on detailed analysis of major US and British news reporting during both the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations. Moeller finds: "Poor coverage of WMD resulted less from political bias on the part of journalists, editors, and producers than from tired journalistic conventions."

More specifically, she argues that:

  • In the "inverted pyramid" style, an announcement by a major figure is reported in the lead, and critics are quoted much lower down. This convention allows the administration to dominate news coverage, even when critics are more credible.
  • The White House has consistently set the agenda, determining what issues are prominent at any given time. When administration officials are not talking about WMDs, there is little coverage. Furthermore, heavy reliance on quotations allows officials to slip highly controversial and weighted terms (such as "terrorist state") into news stories.
  • National security issues involving highly technical matters are especially subject to distortion, because reporters have few well-informed sources other than political officials. Nevertheless, reporters need to rely less on off-the-record comments and be more alert to spin.
  • The press personalizes issues, treating Saddam or Osama bin Laden as the problem and speculating about their personal motives. This approach overlooks the role of scientists, bureaucrats, international rules, and popular opinion overseas.
  • Journalists are uncomfortable reporting uncertainty, e.g., that we don't know whether al Qaeda has chemical weapons. Instead, they often report statistics, even if those are irrelevant or uncertain. (This is also my experience in the much less important field of youth voting, where reporters always try to say how many young people voted, even though our only sources are polls, which are inaccurate.)
  • The US media covers the world from the US, with decreasing space and attention to foreign perspectives. This means that WMDs are described as potential threats to the US, when often the gravest dangers are in places like South Asia. Since neither administration wanted to emphasize the threat from WMD's stored in Russia, this story was underplayed, compared to stories about Iraq
  • The worst stories were filed by reporters who covered WMDs as part of US politics (e.g., as the subject of fights between Powell and Rumsfeld, or between the President and the Democrats); when reporters used anonymous sources; and when they signed "nondisclosure agreements" in order to get access to the Iraq battlefield.
  • (These are not necessarily the points that Moeller emphasizes most, but they struck me as especially insightful

    March 12, 2004 8:48 PM | category: Iraq and democratic theory , press criticism | Comments


    It's good to see that someone took the time and researched the paper... I just started reading it. 110 pages. Fun!

    March 21, 2004 10:42 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Taran

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