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.)