Within the last hour, United States intelligence officials have publicly confirmed an assessment that a Malaysia Airlines plane carrying 295 people crashed in eastern Ukraine this morning after being shot down by an antiaircraft missile. As of writing this post, no one knows for sure what happened and who may have fired a missile.
As we might expect, politicians on both sides of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine are denying involvement, while placing blame on the other side. Ukrainian officials blame pro-Russian separatists, claiming separatists also fired on Ukrainian military planes earlier this week. Putin went on television to blame Ukraine , saying “This tragedy would not have happened if there was peace in this land.” NATO’s secretary general released a statement saying “the instability in the region, caused by Russian-backed separatists, has created an increasingly dangerous situation.”
Obviously, there are no independent sources who can give a clear and unbiased account of what happened earlier today. The passengers and crew of the Malaysia Airlines flight are dead. If anyone fired a missile at the plane, they have a good reason not to take responsibility. Historically, militaries almost always deny responsibility, at least initially. Shooting at a civilian passenger airline is considered a heinous act that tends to bring strong condemnation from the rest of the world, even when the incident is accidental. It’s easy to imagine that if either Russia or Ukraine is proven to have fired the missile, the United States and other European powers may shift their stance against whoever took down the passenger jet.
For a reporter, covering this situation is extremely difficult. Everyone has an incentive to lie. To make it worse, there is no way for reporters to independently know who is lying and who is not. Some Associated Press reports indicate that one or more AP reporters saw an antiaircraft missile battery in separatist controlled parts of eastern Ukraine earlier this week. However, that evidence is far from knowing who hit the fire button and why they may have done it. Reporters in these situations are faced with two bad options:
- Shrug your shoulders and print everything. When reporters do not know who is credible, they often default to a stance of assuming everyone is credible. This is what we would expect under journalistic norms of objectivity, where the burden is normally on the journalist to find some reason to reject a nation’s claims.
- Reject one nation’s claims as being self-serving. Several nations that have adversarial relationships with the United States rarely get news coverage by US outlets. American news agencies rarely quoted the Soviets during the Cold War, or Iraqi leaders claims about weapons of mass destruction in 2003-03.
A wide range of studies have shown that news coverage (at least American news coverage) is less objective when it comes to foreign policy. When writing a story, reporters have to make a guess of who to trust, so they typically the officials from their home country more than other officials. Drawing from Entman’s 2004 studies of framing and foreign policy, American news outlets may be more likely to feature the story over the plane being shot down because it involves the Russians, while they may be less likely to feature Israel sending ground troops in to Gaza today. (It will be interesting to see how these two international crises are covered on television news tonight, since TV news cannot broadcast on both at the same time.)
Eventually, we would expect coverage to become somewhat more objective over time. Nations often begin to drop their denials. Reporters may have more of an opportunity to piece things together over time. Drawing on the case of the Iraq War of 2003, Baum and Groeling (2009) argue that policymakers will always have some advantage in framing foreign policy because other reporters and the public have less direct interaction with foreign affairs. These advantages diminish over time. However, it is unlikely that they would go away completely. Clayman et al (2007) found that journalists tend to be less aggressive when asking questions in press conferences when asking about foreign policy.
Now that Joe Biden has said the plane was “shot down, not an accident, blown out of the sky,” we would expect most American news agencies to go along with his assessment. We’d expect to see fewer doubts or hypotheticals. If American officials publicly say someone is at fault, expect to see that nation’s denials start to disappear from mainstream U.S. based reporting.
Update (10 AM PST, 7/18): The United States has issued a preliminary intelligence assessment that the plane was shot down by pro-Russia separatists. The latest Washington Post story puts Russian denials in the 13th paragraph, after quoted from Obama, Samantha Power (US ambassador to the UN) and two leading Ukrainian officials. It’s a way to publish the denial, but only after the deck is stacked to the side endorsed by the President of the United States.