The manner in which news media frame their coverage of Iran’s nuclear program is critically important to public understanding and to policy decisions that will determine whether the dispute can be resolved without war. News coverage of the lead-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and of the justifications of that invasion was found to have had a profound, distorting effect on public understanding and the decision to go to war. Is news media coverage having a similar effect on U.S. and international discussions about Iran’s nuclear program? If so, how exactly is the framing of the dispute and the broader approach of news media to covering this issue affecting the choices available to policy makers? And how is coverage likely to affect the dispute’s outcome?
To answer these and other questions, the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) analyzed a sample of the newspaper coverage from six influential, English-language newspapers—the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Financial Times, the Guardian, and the Independent—published during the past four years. By focusing on time periods in which significant events in the timeline of Iran’s nuclear program and the international response to it took place, this study identified several patterns in newspaper coverage. The study found that:
• Newspaper coverage focused on the “he said/she said” aspects of the policy debate, without adequately explaining the fundamental issues that should have been informing assessments—such as Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions, the influence of U.S., European, Iranian, and Israeli security strategies, and the impact of the nuclear nonproliferation regime.
• When newspaper coverage did address Iranian nuclear intentions and capabilities, it did so in a manner that lacked precision, was inconsistent over time, and failed to provide adequate sourcing and context for claims. This led to an inaccurate picture of the choices facing policy makers.
• Government officials, particularly U.S. government officials, were the most frequently quoted or relied-on sources in coverage of Iran’s nuclear program. This tendency focused attention on a narrow set of policy options and deemphasized other potential approaches to the dispute.
• Newspaper coverage generally adopted the tendency of U.S., European, and Israeli officials to place on Iran the burden to resolve the dispute over its nuclear program, failing to acknowledge the roles of these other countries in the dispute.
• A plurality of newspaper articles took the approach of examining the domestic political and international diplomatic angles of the larger story, contributing to the heavy reliance on official sources and a focus on official policy proscriptions. Commentary and opinion articles relating to Iran’s nuclear program made up a larger than typical share of the coverage, demonstrating the intense interest focused on the topic and opening the public debate to a range of viewpoints.
• Newspaper coverage paid insufficient attention to the broader context—particularly, the security concerns of the United States, Iran, Israel, and European states, and the effect of domestic politics within these same countries—that influences what specific actors say or do about Iran’s nuclear program at different times. This obscured the substantial confusion about national motivations and made it difficult to conceive of and debate consensual solutions to the dispute.
• Coverage of Iran’s nuclear program reflected and reinforced the negative sentiments about Iran that are broadly shared by U.S., European, and Israeli publics. This contributed to misunderstandings about the interests involved and narrowed the range of acceptable outcomes.
In general, these characteristics led newspapers to frame their coverage of Iran’s nuclear program in a manner that emphasized official narratives of the dispute and a relatively narrow range of policy choices available to officials. By not consistently describing the complex web of international relationships, security concerns, and intervening political factors in sufficient detail, newspaper coverage further privileged official narratives and policy preferences. This makes it likely that the policies enacted and under consideration by policy makers—coercive diplomacy and war—remain the most likely outcome of the dispute. In this way, news coverage of Iran’s nuclear program is reminiscent of news coverage of the run-up to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. News coverage has the potential to play a significant, constructive role in finding a lasting resolution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program, but journalists and editors first need to address the tendencies present in their current coverage of the topic.