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The Media & Iran’s Nuclear Program: An analysis of U.S. and U.K. coverage, 2009-2012

How does news coverage of Iran’s nuclear program affect public understanding and policy outcomes? News media traditionally play an important role in communicating about foreign policy—is this the case with coverage of Iran’s nuclear program? How specifically are news media framing the relevant issues? To answer these questions, researchers from the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) undertook a topical analysis of English-language newspaper coverage from 2009 through 2012, a period in which there was considerable public discussion about how the United States and others could and should resolve the dispute.

Date & Time

Apr. 29, 2013
9:00am – 10:30am ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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On April 29, the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center and the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) hosted a presentation of the report, “The Media & Iran’s Nuclear Program: An analysis of U.S. and U.K. coverage, 2009-2012” by Jonas Siegel, Project Manager at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and Saranaz Barforoush, Ph.D. student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. The presentation was followed by a panel discussion with John Steinbruner, Director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland; Susan Moeller, Director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland; Reza Marashi, Research Director at the National Iranian American Council; and Walter Pincus, national security journalist for the Washington Post. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, provided opening remarks.

In their report, study authors Siegel and Barforoush analyzed a sample of over 1200 articles published during four three-week time periods between 2009 and 2012 from six influential, English language newspapers. The study found that newspaper coverage has primarily focused on the “he said/she said” aspects of the policy debate, without assessing more critical dimensions of the crisis, such as Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions, the security strategies shaping American, Israeli, Iranian, and European decision-making, or the impact of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. The report also found that newspaper coverage of Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities has often been imprecise, inconsistent over time, and inadequate in its sourcing and context, pointing out a heightened usage of terms such as “nuclear weapon(s)” and “nuclear program.” Siegel also noted that newspaper coverage in the last four years has emphasized the policy prescriptions and narratives put forth by government officials while deemphasizing other voices and alternative policy approaches that could be used to resolve the dispute, such as that of international organizations like the IAEA. Finally, the report concluded that newspaper coverage has generally adopted the inclination of American, European, and Israeli officials to place the burden on Iran to resolve the crisis, without acknowledging the role of other countries in sustaining the conflict.

In the panel discussion that followed, Marashi argued further that there has not been an honest and thorough discussion in the media about the economic and political viability of war with Iran, taking into account the potential costs and benefits associated with military action. As for Moeller, she suggested the media could improve their coverage of the Iran nuclear crisis if they included a series of articles providing broader assessments of the issues at hand, a more diverse array of sources, and more comparative analyses between diplomatic approaches. Steinbruner also mentioned three critical yet underreported aspects of the conflict: that there is an “obvious” diplomatic solution to the crisis, that Iran has legitimate reasons to feel threatened, and that for both moral and strategic reasons, a military strike on Iran would be unacceptable. Pincus concluded the panel by offering his insight as a seasoned journalist, arguing that it is not the responsibility of the journalist to provide comprehensive coverage every time on every subject; instead, it is the obligation of the reader to explore these issues in greater depth and draw their own conclusions.

By: Darya Razavi, Middle East Program


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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform US foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more

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