Overwrought coverage stoked by alarmist officials and pundits can both shape and ratify bad policy decisions. We’ve seen it before.

By Daniel Larison, Responsible Statecraft

Thursday was roiling with headlines—thanks to remarks from U.S. government officials, including President Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Ambassador to the UN Linda Greenfield—that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was “imminent.” As a result, social media was crackling with the speculation that war might break out any moment.

Media coverage of the Ukraine crisis for the last several months has been increasingly sensationalist and overwrought. Many of the worst features of Western media reporting on foreign policy issues have been on display from the mostly uncritical acceptance of government claims at face value to the worst-case alarmism about what is going to happen.

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Some of the analysis of the dynamics behind the crisis has been no better, as pundits and think tankers have spun far-fetched theories that the Russian buildup is happening now because of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan last year. Ostensibly straight news reports have also repeated these bogus credibility arguments without evidence. Despite the many significant differences between Ukraine and Taiwan, the public has also been treated to speculation about how the crisis in Europe could lead to a conflict in East Asia. All of this is harmful to an accurate understanding of the crisis, and insofar as it contributes to ratcheting up tensions it makes de-escalation more difficult.

Many Western news reports have dutifully relayed worst-case scenarios, including claims that a Russian advance could take Kyiv in a matter of days for the purpose of regime change. Some publications have seized on specific dates and times when an invasion is supposed to begin. Blaring these alarmist headlines have served mostly to damage Ukraine’s economy and spook its stock market, much to the Ukrainian government’s dismay. Davyd Arakhamia, the head of President Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party in Ukraine’s parliament, recently complained about the economic damage done by what he called Western media hysteria and estimated that it was costing the country $2-3 billion every month.

Sometimes media outlets have made more significant mistakes in how they report the information they are getting from the government. PBS ran with a story that the U.S. believed the Russian government had decided on an invasion, requiring National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to clarify his own statements about the Russians readying for an attack on Friday Feb. 11. But not before major news organizations had tweeted out his original comments.

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