What happens after journalists leave the violence?

What happens after journalists leave the violence?

The news media have a responsibility to their readers to cover important events even after they drop off the front page.

Last Modified: 04 Oct 2013 14:01
Christian Christensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

Iraq is an example of the media’s short attention span [Getty Images]
March 19, 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Only four months later, in July, Iraq would experience the deadliest 30-day period since 2008, with more than 1,000 civilians killed and 2,100 injured.In fact, more Iraqi civilians were killed during the first half of 2013 than had been killed during any entire year between 2009 and 2012. While there was a degree of soul-searching on the part of (some) journalists, considering the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster that is contemporary Iraq, the day passed with relatively little fanfare or introspection. And, while the routine bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere are reported, the level of coverage given to Iraq is paltry.The lack of coverage of Iraq – particularly by the US media – over the past seven or eight years is by no means unusual, but is part of a clear pattern where news organisations cover a number of international events in bursts, but then drop them when the topic loses “heat”. This, I would argue, is what we have seen, and are seeing, in the cases of Iran in 2009, the anti-government protests in Brazil, and the Gezi movement in Turkey (and elsewhere).

This is not to say that the coverage of these events has disappeared, but rather that the flood has been replaced with an inconsistent drip. Nor is this to say that there has not been (and still is) good reporting from these areas. But the drop-off in coverage has been palpable.

Selective coverage

Of course, war sells, violence sells and scandal sells. The argument that news organisations focus on the sensational, the unusual and/or the bloody in order to attract readers and advertisers is well-worn and not really in need of re-hashing. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t also acknowledge the role of “hot and sexy” topics in academic research. For example, within my own discipline (Media and Communications) there is an absolute avalanche of research (my own included) on media coverage of the US-led attacks on Iraq in both 1991 and 2003. But, were I to ask a room full of my fellow scholars to name books or articles within our field addressing coverage of the US-led sanctions against Iraq between 1990-2003, you could probably hear crickets chirping in the background.

By choosing to focus on the violent, the tense and the bloody, news organisations have opened doors they must be willing to walk through, which in this case means letting news consumers know what the outcomes … might be.

Why? Because war and conflict make for rationalised research, just as it makes for stimulating journalism: there is lots of material, events are magnified, there is drama and national ideology tends to bubble to the surface. Sanctions, however, are far less dramatic on a short-term basis. On a long-term basis, however, and depending on which source you look at, the Iraq sanctions were estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 1 million Iraqis. On this issue, I must offer my own mea culpa.

So how do we link this to Iran, Turkey and Brazil? It is simplistic to argue that people simply believe that the only events that are “important” are those covered in the media. People undoubtedly are aware that news organisations cannot cover everything and, thus, editorial decisions must be made. In other words, people know that there are things happening in the world that are important that they simply do not hear about.

In the case of the Iranian elections of 2009, the Arab Spring uprisings in countries such as Tunisia and Libya, the anti-government protests in Brazil and the Gezi Park movement in Turkey, the international media did give these events coverage. There were powerful images: the streets of Istanbul shrouded in an eerie fog of tear-gas; pepper-sprayed protesters in Rio; the lifeless body of  Neda Agha Soltan in Tehran; the fallen statue of Saddam; and Bush “Top Gun” on an aircraft carrier with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him.

While these images remain in our heads, they were supplemented in news reports by rather broad presentations of their contexts, and not a great deal of follow-up. As a result, the protests and violence covered over short periods of time remain in a form of frozen animation, with no real understanding of what the longer-term implications might be. While stories of youthful protests on Twitter with good visuals are sexy, post-protest negotiations and long-term consolidation are not.

The Iraqi example

Iraq is perhaps the best example of this: While the world’s media zoomed in on the country following the invasion, the drop-off in coverage once the occupation had become “old news” made it extremely difficult for the average news consumer (in other words, not academics or think-tank members) to follow and understand the incredibly complex political environment in Iraq. I consider the lack of coverage of Iraq by the US media over the past seven to eight years to be particularly egregious, as the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was met with little critical analysis by the US media. In fact, it is fair to say that many media outlets actively cheered on the war, ignorant or uncaring of the implications of this support for millions of Iraqis and thousands of US troops.

An exception to the pattern I am discussing would be Egypt, which has remained in the headlines for an extended period. I would wager, however, that Egypt’s place in the global news consciousness is likely a function of the repeated large-scale public protests and violent crackdowns that have taken place since Mubarak’s fall, rather than a general interest in Egyptian domestic politics. The reduction of coverage of the protests in Iran, Turkey and Brazil after a period of engagement, on the other hand, might be considered more understandable, given limited resources and world events.

Yet I would argue that – like Iraq – coverage of Tehran, Gezi and Rio is part of a much larger pattern of quick-hit journalism with relatively little follow-up, which in turn re-enforces stereotypical images of certain nations – almost always non-Western – as existing in a perpetual state of crisis. Importantly, it is precisely the juxtaposition between supposed Western “calm” and non-Western “crisis” that has been used – at least partially – as an underpinning for various military and/or economic actions. Or, to put it another way, public support for military or other forms of punitive action is undoubtedly boosted by both the perception that certain parts of the world are inherently violent, and a lack of knowledge of the complexities of domestic politics in those regions.

News organisations face certain political economic realities, and it is impossible to cover everything. Yet, by choosing to focus on the violent, the tense and the bloody, news organisations have opened doors they must be willing to walk through, which in this case means letting news consumers know what the outcomes of that violence, tension and blood-letting might be. Sometimes, the protests continue. Sometimes, the protests result in political change. Sometimes both. Sometimes neither. Without these longer-term details, however, we relegate important geo-political occurrences to the level of ephemeral events lost in a sea of ever-flowing stories. That is a disservice with potentially serious consequences.

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

You can follow him on Twitter @ChrChristensen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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Six questions journalists should ask Barack Obama when he visits (enter your country name)

President Obama will be visiting Sweden in early September. These are a list of questions I would hope journalists in Sweden (and elsewhere) would ask Obama when he comes. Hope…but I doubt they will. I also know that if asked, his answers would tell us nothing. But, they must be asked. Repeatedly. Apologies for the writing, but this was a quick post!

Six Questions Journalists Should ask Barack Obama When he Visits (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY NAME)

by Christian Christensen

1. Mr. President, one of your election promises in 2008 was to close Guantanamo. It is still open, housing inmates who have not been charged with a crime and denied the basic right of habeas corpus. A large number of those inmates have been on a lengthy hunger strike in protest at their inhumane treatment. Can you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) how this prison, which you have failed to close, stands in relation to US claims to be a country which respects human rights and the rule of law?

2. Mr. President, you will accept, I hope, that a fundamental element of a functioning democracy is the presence of vibrant, critical journalism. That journalism is often fueled by whistle-blowers who release information they feel shows illegal or unethical behavior. Given the aggressive prosecution of Bradley Manning, Barrett Brown and Edward Snowden in the US, as well as the Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, can you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) why the US is going to such lengths to stifle the work of journalists, as well as prosecute individuals who engage in an act that is fundamental to keeping an eye on those in power, namely whistle-blowing?

3. Mr. President, the US is ranked 5th globally in the number of executions behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and ahead of North Korea, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. The US is also the only country amongst nations with advanced economies to still have the death penalty. How can the US lecture other nations on human rights when it engages in an act so many countries consider barbaric?

4. Mr. President, citizens of (ENTER COUNTRY NAME) might be confused as to how the US can justify the killing of its own citizens via the use of drones without judicial oversight, as well as the well-documented killing of scores of innocent civilians globally via the use of the same technology. Could you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) how drones, like Guantanamo and the death penalty, square with a US commitment to the right of fair trials, basic human rights and the rule of law?

5. Mr. President, do you feel it is appropriate for a person to be held for 9 hours, without access to a lawyer, under counter-terrorism laws simply because he is the partner of a journalist who broke the NSA story? Was the US involved in any way with his detention? Should journalists throughout the world who report on US national security now be worried when they travel, in case they are questioned at the request of the US government at random international borders?

6. Mr. President, one of the hallmarks of the former Soviet Union and current authoritarian regimes is the use of widespread surveillance under the guise of protecting “national security.” Can you explain how secret, widespread surveillance of the US population, done in cooperation with private corporations, can be justified in a nation that proclaims to be “the freest in the world”? Should Americans not be able to send an email without fear of it being read by the government?

WikiLeaks and Anonymous as Responses to Status Quo Journalism

WikiLeaks and Anonymous as Responses to Status Quo Journalism 

Christian Christensen

Professor, Department of Media Studies, Stockholm University

(Note: The following is a shortened, updated version of the professorial installation speech I gave at Stockholm University in April 2013.)

The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play). – Michel Foucault, “The Concern for Truth”

The real political task in a society such as ours is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that the political violence that has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them. – Michel Foucault, “Human Nature: Justice Versus Power”

So, what does this have to do with journalism? A lot, I would argue. Many of the issues with which we (should) associate academia – freedom of speech, freedom of expression, critical thinking, keeping an eye on authority, education – are issues historically linked to journalism. Thus, just as it is important to ask to what extent we as academics have investigated, questioned and challenged the distribution and use of social, economic and military power in society, so, of course, should we ask the same of the news organizations described as ”watchdogs” and ”guardians.”

My point is that the mainstream press in countries such as Sweden, the United States and the United Kingdom, have (more often than not) failed to engage in critical investigations into, and analyses of, the accumulation and utilization of power. And, it is this failure that has created a vacuum filled, at least in part, by WikiLeaks and Anonymous. If we are looking for an obvious example of such a failure of critical analysis, one need only look to the attacks by a number of US journalists upon fellow journalist Glenn Greenwald – for a particularly devastating exchange, see Greenwald’s response to Washington Post columnist Walter Pincus – and source Edward Snowden following their revelations of domestic and international surveillance by the US government. In Sweden, the Swedish vetoing (together with the UK) of EU discussions with the US over those same NSA revelations has been met by relative silence in the Swedish media.

There is, however, a second premise to this post, and that is that in our discussion of groups such as WikiLeaks or Anonymous, emphasis is often placed squarely upon their use of technology, rather than the socio-political and cultural reasons behind their evolution. This techno-centrism, I would argue, deflects a measure of critique away from mainstream journalism, and ”explains” the rise of groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous as predominantly technological phenomena. In other words, they exist because the technology allows them to exist.

To get back to Foucault: his suggestion that we need to ”criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent” is vital; in particular, his choice of the word ”workings”, because it points to a central idea, namely the importance of process. Where contemporary journalism has failed, I would argue, is in the lack of exposure and lack of analysis of the mechanisms of power that Foucault discusses. These are mechanisms that are neither sexy nor exciting, and can be mind-numbing in terms of the minutiae of political, legal, diplomatic or technological details. These details are, however, the building blocks of real power: blocks mostly obscured from public view under a veneer of PR, spin, infotainment and ”event”-based news coverage. Over the past few years, and to varied levels of success and impact, groups such as Anonymous and WikiLeaks have peeled back this veneer, exposing activities that are both shocking and banal.

In his powerful testimony of July 10, 2013 at the Bradley Manning trial, Harvard Law Professor Yochai Benkler outlined precisely why he feels that WikiLeaks is not only a compliment to journalism, but part of journalism itself, “shining a light” on processes otherwise hidden from the general public (from the unofficial court transcript):

Q: Is WikiLeaks a member of the network Fourth Estate?

A (Benkler): Absolutely.

Q: Why do you believe that?

A (Benkler): It is — journalism is made up of many things. WikiLeaks doesn’t do interviews and pound the pavement. Again, when we say WikiLeaks, we’re really talking about before the severe degradation that followed the attack on the organization that we described just before. WikiLeaks was a solution to a very particular and critical component of the way in which investigative journalism, muck-raking confine instances of corruption. It’s — we don’t only live from Pentagon papers or Watergate or the NSA wire tapping scandals of 2005 and the more recent months. But it’s a clear, distinct component of what in the history of journalism we see as high points, where journalists are able to come in and say, here’s a system operating in a way that is obscure to the public and now we’re able to shine the light. That’s what WikiLeaks showed how to do for the network public sphere. WikiLeaks may fail in the future because of all these events, but the model of some form of decentralized leaking, that is secure technologically and allows for collaboration among different media in different countries, that’s going to survive and somebody else will build it. But WikiLeaks played that critical role of that particular critical component of what muck-raking and investigative journalism has always done.

While it would be a stretch to say that September 11, 2001 was the genesis date for groups such as WikiLeaks and Anonymous, it would nevertheless be fair to suggest that the range of domestic (US) and geo-political events that followed those attacks 12 years ago had a profound effect upon global activism: from the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the occupations of those two countries, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the Bush presidency, the London and Madrid bombings, the global War on Terror, The Patriot Act, to PRISM.  In all of these cases, from the attacks themselves to the passage of restrictive censorship and privacy legislation, an understanding of ”workings” and ”process” was (and remains) fundamental.

As the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, it became clear that citizens also had little understanding of the mechanisms of the politics of war or the US legal system. As hundreds of billions of dollars were spent by the Bush and Obama administrations on the war effort, media still focused on surges and attacks, not corrupt no-bid contracts offered to former business partners of Vice-President Dick Cheney. And, as the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay Prison have passed their 150th day of hunger striking, the limited amount of time spent by the media addressing the very legality of the prison, and the treatment of the prisoners, has become painfully apparent.

For both WikiLeaks and Anonymous, there is a commitment to expose corporate and state abuses of power, often by exposing the very mechanisms by which such power is exercised. The leak/hacking/publication of emails, internal documents and memos, military videos, diplomatic cables, bank accounts in the service of increased transparency, as well as the protesting surveillance or censorship, has caused concern for corporations and state institutions.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous are an expression, a crystallization of a dissatisfaction with the extent to which primarily commercial, but also public service, news organizations have willingly absorbed elite discourses in relation to socio-economic, legal and military issues. Stories which expose political or corporate misconduct should not to be seen as the antithesis to these discourses. Often, such instances are simply defined as ”the exceptions that prove the rule” while the greater meta-story of capitalism and western power remain unchallenged. For example, the rhetoric of Sweden as a neutral country with a primary interest in diplomacy hides, to a certain extent, the economic and political power held by large corporations in this country: corporations involved in business activities antithetical to both democratic development and peaceful resolutions of disputes.  The cloudy role of the Swedish government in protecting Ericsson’s interests in Syria, for example, while covered by Dagens Nyheter and Swedish Radio, received relatively little press coverage, given how it clashed with so much of the political discourse coming out of Stockholm regarding a commitment to freedom of speech and the rule of law.

Again, while stories on surveillance and weapons manufacture are broken, deeper analyses of how the stories relate to power remain, for the most part, unwritten.

But, this post is not about the ”death” of journalism, but rather a particular failure: the failure to address process and context. Yet, the work of both Anonymous and WikiLeaks should be seen as positive developments for journalism, as they introduce new elements into the informational and democratic landscape. Ultimately, what is challenged by WikiLeaks and Anonymous is not so much the mode of news and information production and distribution, but rather the relationship between mass media and those holding political-economic power.

WikiLeaks and Anonymous force us to rethink a number of core democratic relationships: the one between citizens and the state (impacted by providing access to sensitive intelligence previously hidden from view); the one between citizens and the media (impacted by exposure of the shortcomings of an uncritical commercial media system); and, the one between media and governments (impacted by challenging the mantle of “watchdog” proudly trumpeted by major mainstream news outlets). This is not to say that these relationships have altered dramatically, but rather that WikiLeaks and Anonymous, through an determination to challenge global hegemonies, have thrown down the gauntlet in front of those in power by laying bare (some of) the practices of authority hidden from public view.

As academics, such challenges are worthy of deeper examination, as they are at the heart of the democratic ideals both academia and journalism profess to uphold.

Two New Journal Articles on Nation-Branding & US 2012 Elections

Two articles I have written have just come out.

The first, @Sweden: Curating a Nation on Twitter is a critical analysis of the Twitter-based @Sweden nation-branding project published in Popular Communication. This paper is OPEN ACCESS UNTIL THE END OF JUNE 2013. You can access it by clicking on the link above. Here is the abstract:

On December 10, 2011, the first tweet was sent out from the @Sweden Twitter account, a nation-branding project financed by the Swedish government through the Swedish Institute and VisitSweden. Trumpeted by the media both in Sweden and internationally as an exercise in “transparent” and “democratic” nation-branding via the use of Twitter, the @Sweden account is “given” to a new Swede every week, and, supposedly, these curators are given free rein to tweet what they like, when they like. The use of a popular communication channel by the Swedish government—in this case, Twitter—provides an illuminating example of the carefully planned and managed promotion and nation-branding of Sweden, presented under the guise of a “transparent” and “democratic” selection and editorial processes. The @Sweden project will be addressed in light of “liberation technology” (Diamond, 2010) and “technology discourse” (Fisher, 2010) perspectives, within which a correlation between access to, and use of, technology and proactive change is postulated. These theoretical perspectives are particularly valuable when heeding Kaneva’s (2011) call for a more critical, communications-based understanding of nation-branding.

The second paper, Wave-Riding and Hashtag-Jumping: Twitter, Minority “Third Parties” and the 2012 US Elections is a study on the use of Twitter by smaller political parties in the run-up to the 2012 elections published in Information, Communication & Society. The abstract:

With the description of the 2012 election as the ‘most tweeted’ political event in US history in mind, considering the relative media invisibility of the so-called ‘third-party’ presidential candidates in the US election process, and utilizing the understanding of retweeting as conversational practice, the purpose of this paper is to examine the use of Twitter by the four main ‘third-party’ US presidential candidates in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election in order to better understand (1) the volume of tweets produced by the candidates; (2) the level of interaction by followers in the form of retweeting candidate/party tweets; and, (3), the subject and content of the tweets most retweeted by followers of the respective parties. The ultimate goal of the paper is to generate a broader picture of how Twitter was utilized by minority party candidates, as well as identifying the issues which led followers (and their respective followers) to engage in the ‘conversational’ act of retweeting.

 

 

 

300 words on 9/11

There were moments on that day 11 years ago when the United States was seen as something other than a military or economic superpower. It was seen as a nation of vulnerable citizens: Americans were at one and the same time confused, brave, scared and generous, defying simplistic Hollywood stereotypes of what is a complex, multi-faceted country. As I sat in my apartment in Austin, Texas and watched the buildings burn and collapse, it seemed that a threshold had been crossed, and that claims that “things would never be the same,” while painfully clichéd, contained a grain of truth. It is (and was) naïve to think that the events of September 11, 2001 would convert the United States from military bully to benevolent protector, but that is not what most people I knew thought. Not even close. What did seem possible, at least, was that an element of reflexivity would be injected into the American psyche and, in turn, US geo-politics.  The US had global goodwill on its side (a rare commodity), and the question was how the US might utilize that goodwill.

It is both tragic and ironic, therefore, that state violence and a curtailment of fundamental freedoms at home and abroad has been the Bush/Obama response to the violent “attacks on freedom” of September 11, 2001. From Abu Ghraib, to Guantamamo, to the Patriot Act, to Afghanistan, to “extraordinary rendition”, to waterboarding, to drone killings, to Bradley Manning to surveillance, the America of September 11, 2012 is a less free, more violent country than it was 11 years ago. The unselfish, collectivist mentality of the people of New York that so impressed the world was quickly, predictably usurped by all-too-familiar US global realpolitik based on economics, individualism and repression.  This is a sad anniversary, for lots of reasons.

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