Syria and the Range of “Publishable” Opinion on War

As the Obama administration has aggressively pushed its case for military strikes against Syria, people have asked me why mainstream media organizations appear to reduce the debate to a question of either military strikes or doing nothing. This framing seems to help the administration’s argument: doing nothing is morally unacceptable, therefore the United States needs to engage in military strikes. Where are the more substantive anti-war arguments? Some sociologists have already written about the ethical case against bombing Syria. Can sociology help explain why we don’t see similar arguments in major American news organizations?

Sociologists have studied a wide range of news coverage, but tend to focus more on the conflict between states and non-state actors (i.e. political protests) than conflicts between states. News coverage of war and foreign policy tends to be the domain of political scientists who have crossed over in to communications departments. Scholars agree on three broad premises: American officials tend to dominate coverage, foreign officials are overwhelmingly excluded, and presidents have large advantages over other officials. But when will we see opposition to a president’s military plans in the mainstream American press?

Reporters’ deference to official sources has major implications for coverage of potential military interventions. News organizations will only publish opposition if that opposition comes from official sources. Anti-war protesters sitting behind John Kerry during Wednesday’s Senate testimony did not get quoted in the news, but New York Republican Michael Grimm got his own story for turning against Obama’s planned military action. As Congress debates options over the next week, I would expect to continue seeing Congressional opinion appear in major news outlets.

If anything, I would expect to see more Congressional critiques in the next week, if some Democrats take a stand against President Obama. Members of Congress tend to receive considerable attention when criticizing a president of the same party (See Groeling 2010). Journalists were wary of labeling the incidents at Abu Ghraib “torture” when they were first revealed. However, the same journalists paid close attention when John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Colin Powell turned against the Bush administration’s policy regarding the treatment of detainees. Unlike most issues in this Congress, Syria cuts across partisan lines, which should attract more journalists to the Congressional debate. Current and former military officials have also been in demand. These officials are among the first to oppose the Commander In Chief. They could also do a better job at explaining who the sides are in Syria, a long-raging conflict that is still unfamiliar to most American readers.

In the case of Syria, news coverage includes a fairly wide range of officials, but it is unlikely to include a strong normative stance against war. After Vietnam, a range of critical media scholars asked why the news media wasn’t opposed to the war from the start. As the Iraq War dragged in to 2007, critical scholars again asked why the news media wasn’t opposed to war from the start. These critiques are rarely based in political economy. Instead, the critical approach to coverage of war takes on a moral dimension. In this critique, journalists have a normative obligation to speak truth to power, opposing war and condemning torture. Deference to sources is seen as a moral failing. Why won’t journalists take a stand?

Sociology is particularly well equipped to explain these issues of morality and what is “right” in journalism, because our discipline includes both macro-scale theories of news content and micro theories of how individual journalists behave. How do broad normative structures like deference in war affect journalistic behavior? For starters, Clayman et al (2007) found  journalists ask presidents more deferential questions when it comes to war than other topics. In one part of my dissertation, I find that newspaper reporters were significantly more likely to quote criticisms of foreign leaders than critiques of any other target (both were significantly more quotable that statements which did not include critiques, based on looking at every statement from a sample of press conferences). These studies help explain how journalistic deference works on a day-by-day basis, but they don’t fully explain why journalists tend to avoid taking moral stands.

Setting aside war for a minute, journalists’ daily experience involves listening to competing viewpoints and not being fully sure which side is right. For example, imagine that a local television station here in Los Angeles wanted to do a story on the city’s murder rate. People in different neighborhoods may have different explanations, based on the socioeconomic and racial demographics of their neighborhood. Criminologists could pose competing theories as well. How could a journalist figure out which theory is the best, if they only have six hours to complete their story? As Mark Fishman explained in an underrated classic of early newsroom ethnography, journalists face these dilemmas of who to trust every day. There is rarely a good answer, but journalists cannot afford to be paralyzed by uncertainty. The best available heuristic, Fishman argues, in deferring to well-placed official sources.

Once we understand the ambiguities that reporters face with mundane stories, we can begin to understand the difficulties in reporting on a proposed military strike in Syria. Military experts aren’t quite sure how much bombing Syria would cost. How can journalists form their own answer to the much more complex question of what effect a bombing would have on Syrian politics? They can’t. Reporters have to rely on sources and hope those sources actually know something. Journalists want to get as much information as possible, so they are keenly aware of any gaps in their reporting. (And skeptical editors will point these gaps out). Since news organizations have to keep producing new material, they can’t wait and collect more data like academics can when faced with ambiguous results.

It’s difficult for a journalist to know which side is “right,” and it is almost impossible to prove that one side is “right” to a skeptical audience. Journalists will face considerable criticism for saying that someone is right. Inevitably, some readers will favor the other side and accuse the journalist of bias. It’s worth bearing in mind that even in investigative stories, journalists don’t label a “right” side, they label a “wrong” side, painstakingly building a case that can withstand scrutiny. There are, of course, other standards for making moral claims when writing about politics. Plenty of people see one side of partisan debates as the “right side” and have grown increasingly frustrated with journalists who also pay attention to the other side. Since American journalists face considerable risks and few rewards for publishing their own moral judgments, it is easy to see why they would avoid waging their own moral campaign against bombing Syria.

It’s more or less impossible for news coverage to prove to a skeptical audience that someone is doing the right thing, or doing the best job they can. Maybe this is why people are so hard on journalists. It is easy to point out the faults and imperfections in news coverage, blaming journalists for a “moral failing.” It takes nuanced academic research to understand the day-to-day complexities of the newsroom, and how these complexities shape the range of news content we read every day. This posting is the first of what I hope will be many where I use the insights of social science research to help explain patterns in the news.

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About Noah Grand

PhD in Sociology. I use statistics to predict news coverage. And home runs. View all posts by Noah Grand

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