SALT LAKE CITY — Ever since President Donald Trump authorized the targeting killing of Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, last week, the media began predicting the potential for a war between the United States and Iran.

Then, as the conflict escalated — Iran fired missiles Tuesday at two air bases in Iraq that house American troops — so did the intensity of the media’s coverage and the public’s reaction.

The Washington Post declared that the U.S. and Iran were on “the brink of war.” At a rally in Miami, Trump’s boast “we got him!” earned him cheers and whistles from the crowd, while anti-war protests erupted in states across the country — including in Utah. The threat of World War III became a meme on Twitter

The Washington Post’s Politics page displayed a headline asking the question “How did the U.S. get to the brink of war with Iran” on Friday, Jan. 3, 2020. | Screen shot

On Wednesday, Trump spoke from the White House, appearing intent on deescalating the crisis. “Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world,” Trump said. Iran’s limited strike also indicated that the country was uninterested in a wider clash with the United States, The Associated Press reported. Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that the country had “concluded proportionate measures in self-defense.”

Even so, media coverage of the potential conflict continues to be vigorous, with headlines indicating that tensions remain high and the potential for conflict was still in the air.

Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute. | Poynter Institute

But journalists should be cautious about the way they cover a potential conflict, said Al Tompkins, senior faculty at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school and research organization in St. Petersburg, Florida. Media coverage can have a significant impact on the way the public perceives the events that unfold — and can influence the support for or opposition to a possible war.

“The more tense the situation, the more careful we should be about what we do and how we do it as reporters,” said Tompkins.

Don’t shoot the messenger 

Research shows that more coverage of a potential conflict doesn’t make that conflict more likely to occur, said Danny Hayes, associate professor of political science at George Washington University.  

Furthermore, blaming the media for the escalation of a conflict can be problematic, as the media has an obligation to inform the public as important, high-stakes developments unfold, he said.

“It is extremely dangerous to suggest that the messenger is the problem,” said

Peter Laufer, professor of journalism at the University of Oregon and a former Washington correspondent for NBC News.  | Peter Laufer

What matters more than the amount of media coverage, said Hayes, are the messages that Americans get from their political leaders about the conflict through the media.

In Hayes’ research, he argues that in the lead-up to the Iraq War, Republicans made a strong case arguing for an invasion of Iraq, and the Democrats were “strategically silent” — some Democrats were supportive of the effort, and some were not but felt it politically difficult to speak against war in the post-9/11 climate.

“Lots of news reporting about the possibility of the invasion was sending signals to Americans that domestic political leaders were united behind this idea, and that contributed to the relatively high levels of support for the invasion,” said Hayes. “It wasn’t because there was a lot of media coverage, it was because the messages that Americans were getting from both Republicans and Democrats were at least tacitly pro-war.”

Fast-forward to today, and the circumstances are different, said Hayes. Trump’s hard-line approach to foreign policy is likely to resonate with his base and with Republican voters more broadly, but the Democrats have been much more skeptical of the president’s rationale for war with Iran, said Hayes, and have criticized the Trump’s actions as hasty, ill-advised and unilateral, as he did not consult Congress before the initial strike that killed Soleimani.

“The media reporting is reflecting that divide, and so the consequence is that you’ve got polarized public opinion, where most Democrats think that the president made a mistake and most Republicans think he did the right thing,” said Hayes.

‘Our job is not that of a stenographer’

Journalists, however, are obligated to do more than simply present the information given to them by official sources, said Peter Laufer, professor of journalism at the University of Oregon and a former Washington correspondent for NBC News.

“Our job is not that of a stenographer, the job is not to just pass along noise from politicians,” said Laufer. “Our job is to figure out what’s going on and then to analyze it and present it to our audiences.”

An important part of that job is to place news events into historical context, said Tompkins.

“We as journalists are so ‘right now’ addicted,” he said. “I think we sometimes fall short in providing a historic perspective. We’re so urgent to get the news out that we sometimes do so at the expense of providing context that helps us to understand how what’s happening came to be.”

For example, many Americans may not know that the United States has a long and complicated history with Iran — and that this isn’t the first time that America has been involved in the killing of an Iranian public figure. In 1953, the U.S. and British helped overthrow the democratically elected prime minister of Iran. In the vacuum of power created by this intervention, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a ruthless dictator, was restored to power.

And it’s not just historical context, but political context, said Laufer. Journalists, he said, should not forget that this conflict escalated at a time when a series of political realities existed: impeachment, an upcoming election, dropping approval ratings of the president.

“Maintaining a balance that reports the breaking news, but does not diminish the ongoing realities of the White House is critical to to the function of the news media,” said Laufer. “We certainly have a de facto impeachment distraction, whether that’s by design or whether the White House actually believed that this was critically important to do at this time.”

The cable TV 24-hour-news cycle contributes to this problem, said Tompkins. In an effort to keep viewers entertained, more time is air spent on panels of experts sparring with one another than on educating viewers by providing them with the historical and political context they need to truly understand the conflict at hand, he said.

In Tompkins’ view, Americans are more inward-focused than people in other nations, hyper-focused on what’s happening in our country but not very educated or aware of what’s happening in the rest of the world.

“Americans don’t have much of a grasp of how the rest of the world sees us,” he said. “How many Americans could actually point to Iran on a map?”

But many Americans’ ignorance about global affairs makes the media’s job even more vital, Tompkins said: the information the media is presenting to the public can have enormous influence on public perception and opinion about a potential conflict.

For that reason, he said journalists should focus on presenting information in context, rather than making dire predictions about the future, as few journalists have the adequate expertise or direct access to the information — such as national security information, strategy and defense tactics — to make such predictions beyond guesswork.

“Predicting what might happen is, in the end, a disservice to our public because we’re leading them to believe we know something that we actually don’t,” said Tompkins. “When everything is at stake, including people’s very safety and their own sense of well-being, dial it down and report very carefully.”