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American Journalism Review
Follow the Leader  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2004

Follow the Leader   

In reporting on weapons of mass destruction, the media too often take their cues from the president.

By Susan D. Moeller
Susan D. Moeller teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

I showed "All the President's Men" in my journalism ethics class the other day, and the lesson that most students took away from the movie and the related Watergate case study was that good journalism is another name for dogged persistence, that ferreting out the facts is the essential journalistic challenge. There is that scene, in the beginning of the movie, where Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein grabs Robert Redford/Bob Woodward's copy to rewrite it--because Woodward garbled his prose and buried the lead.

The movie's--and my students'--assumption about writing news stories was that with practice the process becomes well-nigh automatic: Start with the most important fact and work down from there. That approach is the most efficient and the most objective.

Efficient it may be. Objective it is not. A recent study I conducted on how the American and British media covered the issue of weapons of mass destruction documented just how much writing matters and how adherence to certain journalistic conventions can lead to unbalanced coverage.

The study evaluated both the number and qualitative aspects of stories during three periods of intensive WMD coverage: May 2003, when combat operations in Iraq were officially said to have ended and the hunt for WMDs escalated; October 2002, when Congress approved military action to disarm Iraq and when revelations about North Korea's nuclear weapons program surfaced; and May 1998, when nuclear tests escalated the tensions between India and Pakistan. The study examined the reporting of four U.S. newspapers (the Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post) and two London papers (the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian), as well as three newsweeklies (Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and The Economist) and National Public Radio's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."

Again and again, breaking-news conventions caused journalists to lead with the most "important" news--which often in the case of WMD meant reporting what the president had to say. Following a major speech by President George W. Bush on October 7, 2002, for example, the New York Times' front-page story led with a lengthy reiteration of Bush's warning to the country: "President Bush declared tonight that Saddam Hussein could attack the United States or its allies 'on any given day' with chemical or biological weapons. In a forceful argument for disarming Iraq or going to war with that country, he argued that 'we have an urgent duty to prevent the worst from occurring.'... [H]e said, 'confronting the threat posed by Iraq is crucial to winning the war on terror.' "

A British paper, the Daily Telegraph, also led its next-day paper with Bush's charges: "Saddam Hussein is considering using unmanned aircraft to attack the United States with chemical or biological weapons and has worked hand-in-glove with al-Qa'eda, President George W. Bush said last night."

The media amplified the administration's voice through their coverage of the president and by leading with what he had to say. When Bush told the country that Americans were vulnerable to WMD in the hands of Saddam Hussein, the media effectively magnified those fears. The "job" of reporting White House, Pentagon or other official administration statements had the effect of further validating those messages.

Such reportage would have been less problematic if conspicuous attention had been given to fact-checking the administration's assertions or to voices offering alternative evaluations or policy options. But those stories, when they existed, were often buried, or their criticism was more implicit than explicit. Prominent critical articles, such as an October 22, 2002, page-one Washington Post story by reporter Dana Milbank, headlined "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable," were rare.

Yet the dilemmas inherent in covering the president went beyond the question of how to report Bush's messages without de facto endorsing them. In the three time periods of the study, the level of recognition that each administration gave to WMD issues received a comparable level of recognition from the media--even if, on certain occasions, the journalists were criticizing the administration's spin. If the White House acted like a WMD story was important, so too did the media. If the White House ignored a story (or an angle on a story), the media were likely to do so as well. There was little independent prioritization of WMD problems--little interest in the military and technology industry's concern for biosecurity or control of nuclear explosive materials or even "loose nukes" in Russia, for example. And in May 2003, the dominance of the Iraq story led to significantly less coverage of North Korea than the previous October--even though the North Korean crisis had actually reached a more advanced state.

Coverage of weapons of mass destruction could also have been more balanced had the media paid more attention to the language the administration used. Terrorists have long been identified as security threats, but their cohesion into a monolithic national menace occurred with President Bush's pronouncement of a "War on Terror" following the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center in September 2001. Soon thereafter, and certainly by the fall of 2002 (the second period looked at in the study), the Bush administration had merged its campaign against Iraq and weapons of mass destruction into that "War on Terror."

Lumped in with the al Qaeda terrorists were disparate other "terrors"--the "terrorism" of Saddam Hussein and the "terrorist regime" of North Korea, for example--and lumped in with those were weapons of mass destruction, presented as a single, blurred hazard. Few in the media challenged the notion that nuclear, biological and chemical weapons were part of a global terrorism matrix, despite the fact that the most devastating terrorist attacks to date had not used WMD, or even involved Iraqis for that matter.

Although journalists have become more aware of the pitfalls associated with the use of the politically charged terms "terrorism" and "terrorist" when reporting on regional security issues, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the same sensitivity is not in evidence in the reporting on the "War on Terror." The Washington Post, for example, has explicit guidelines that instruct reporters to use those terms cautiously, to emphasize specific facts over vague characterizations and to look independently at the applicability of the labels. But those cautions were rarely followed in the coverage of purported terrorism-WMD connections.

To a tremendous degree, language shapes the WMD issue--but the study documents that most terms of the discussion go unexamined in the media. Saddam's various purported WMD, for example, were reflexively characterized as offensive weapons, as were North Korea's, while U.S. and Israeli nuclear weapons systems were commonly characterized as "deterrents."

And there was little coverage of the differences in magnitude and type of threat posed by various agents and weapons systems. Stories referenced terms such as "strategic nuclear weapons," "tactical nuclear weapons" and "low-yield nuclear weapons" without clarifying the differences (if any were meant) among them. The casual political meaning of terms such as "small nuclear weapons" or "battlefield nuclear weapons" may differ from specific scientific or military usage, but without the reporter explaining the differences the audience is left clueless.

Covering WMD is an admittedly difficult challenge, but as CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour said about the limitations in covering Iraq in an interview with Tina Brown on CNBC in September 2003: "It's not a question of couldn't do it, it's a question of tone. It's a question of being rigorous. It's really a question of really asking the questions. All of the entire body politic in my view, whether it's the administration, the intelligence, the journalists, whoever, did not ask enough questions, for instance, about weapons of mass destruction."

Part of the reason for journalists' failures and/or reticence, she said, was that they had to contend with "disinformation at the highest levels."

So, how can journalists better report on WMD? My study recommends the following:

* Understand that reporting on the president's policies and using administration sources--even critically--validates the president's prioritization and framing of issues and events.

* Be alert to changes in tone of administration assessments--especially if the statements become less qualified and more alarmist (or vice versa)--and examine whether there has been a concomitant reason for that change.

* Think critically about the language of WMD and whether it serves an other-than-descriptive purpose.

* Challenge the assumption that WMD is an integral element in a global terrorism matrix.

* Distinguish between acts of terrorism and the acquisition or use of WMD.

* Clarify distinctions in the degree of threat posed by chemical, biological and nuclear weapons and clarify distinctions between civilian nuclear programs and military use of nuclear technology, rather than portraying WMD as a monolith.

* Evaluate and distinguish among the elements that would make a situation a "serious" or "imminent" security threat--nationally, regionally and internationally.

As the almost daily revelations about the failures of U.S. intelligence gathering and analysis in Iraq have made evident, unearthing secrets remains the sine qua non of journalists. But hidden "facts"--of Iraqi weapons programs or Watergate burglars--don't just need to be exposed, they need to be prioritized and framed in the proper context.

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