Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction

by Susan D. Moeller

CISSM Monograph dated 03/09/2004

The executive summary for this monograph is available here.

The public relies on the media to separate facts and tangible realities from assumptions and spin. Media Coverage of Weapons of Mass Destruction evaluates how well the media has performed this task in regards to the issue of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The study assesses how the coverage of WMD has changed over time and across geographies--especially since the launch of the "War on Terror" and the positioning of Iraq as the "big" international story.

The events of the last year and a half in Iraq--the build-up to the war, the shock-and-awe campaign, the ground combat, the "post-victory" insurgency, the capture of Saddam Hussein, and the ongoing hunt for banned weapons--have dramatically demonstrated the need for greater public understanding of the role that WMD plays in the formulation of and rhetorical justifications for US security policy.

With that goal in mind, this study examines three time periods, each lasting three weeks, during which at least two major WMD-related stories were being covered. The specific beginning and ending dates were chosen to include coverage one week before and two weeks after the dates on which a major nuclear proliferation story appeared in the media: India's nuclear weapons tests in May 1998, the US announcement of evidence of a North Korean nuclear weapons program in October 2002, and revelations about Iran's nuclear program in May 2003. Iraq was purposely not chosen as one of these reference points because it was already overrepresented in the study relative to other significant countries. The three periods chosen cover major WMD issues during both the Clinton and Bush administrations and include important developments in Iraq and elsewhere:

  • May 5-26, 1998. This period spans several climactic events in South Asia, including India’s first overt nuclear weapons tests on May 11-13, declarations from Pakistan about its nuclear readiness, and the run-up to six Pakistani nuclear weapons tests on May 28-30. This period also witnessed a flare-up in concern and controversy over lax security for Russian nuclear weapons--the “loose nukes” issue.
  • October 11-31, 2002. This period starts the day after the US Congress approved military action in Iraq, if Iraq “does not disarm,” and includes the intense public debate over WMD as a justification for preventive war. It also includes the increased attention to the story of nuclear weapons development in North Korea, following the October 4 revelation by North Korean officials that the country has a nuclear weapons program using enriched uranium and the October 16 announcement by US officials that they had evidence of a nuclear weapons program in North Korea.
  • May 1-21, 2003. This period starts on the day of President George W. Bush’s declaration of “an end to major combat operations” in Iraq and covers the ensuing US hunt for Iraq’s purported WMD. It also includes revelations about Iran’s nuclear program and Russia’s connection to it, beginning in earnest on May 8, with the Bush administration’s demand that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) find Iran in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Dr. Susan D. Moeller is Associate Professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, College Park.