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.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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US Television News and Tragic Events: What They Say vs. Mean

US Television News and Tragic Events: What They Say vs. Mean

What  they say…

What they hope you think…

What it really means…

”Reports are coming in of a shooting/bombing…”

”This news organization is connected to all major news sources…”

”An intern happened to be on Twitter…”
”As yet, there are no indications that this is a terrorist act…” ”These guys are really being careful not to draw any conclusions…”

”As yet. But we can hope…”

”There are reports that this could, we repeat could, be an act of terror…” ”This is a complex story with potentially deep geo-political implications…” ”The suspect isn’t white…”
”The assailant is reported to have links to a possible terrorist cell…” ”These terrorists are far more organized in the US than we imagined…” ”The suspect has friends with weird names on Facebook…”
”We now turn to our Senior Domestic Security Analyst…” ”Wow! This channel has some knowledgeable people…” ”Only person in newsroom with degree in Political Science…”
”It seems possible that this is not, repeat not, an act or terror…” ”Thank God…” ”Despite what we suggested, it would appear that not all non-whites are Muslim…”
“Sources now confirm that they are now not treating this as an act of terror…” “Good. Now that is confirmed…” “We can confirm that the suspect is white…”
”This would appear to be a domestic incident…” ”So, this is just the work of a deranged nut…” ”Shit. Now we have to talk about gun control again…”
“Of course, we can never entirely rule out the possibility of home-grown terror…” “We must be vigilant when it comes to far-right extremists…” “Didn’t CNN say something once about a Norwegian Al Qaeda…?”
”The situation is fluid…” ”These guys are covering a fast-moving story…” ”We really don’t have a clue what’s going on…”

Nuance, Depth and the Relative Islamophobia of Homeland

Nuance, Depth and the Relative Islamophobia of Homeland

by Christian Christensen

Several years ago the highly-acclaimed – and supposedly über-liberal – television series The West Wing aired an episode in which President Bartlet had to address a diplomatic crisis involving Turkey. The story was that a woman in Turkey, found guilty of having sex with her fiancée before marriage, had been sentenced to death by beheading under religious laws implemented by a newly-elected Turkish government. The crisis for Bartlet was that he supported Turkish efforts to join the EU, but, naturally, opposed the beheading of women by rabid Muslim lunatics. In the end, Bartlet, while condemning the execution, maintained his support for Turkish EU membership. The sheer idiocy of this episode prompted me to publish a commentary in which I pointed out that, in reality, not only is Sharia Law a non-factor in the Turkish legal system, but Turkey – unlike the United States that President Bartlet presides over – does not even have the death penalty.

In broad strokes, conservatives hated the show because of a perceived liberal bias; liberals loved the show because it had a Democratic president with backbone, intelligence and ethics. The West Wing undoubtedly provided a kind of political pacifier to US liberals suffering through the darkest days of the George W. Bush administration. What made The West Wing Turkish story so egregious was the fact that the show was hailed as some kind of benchmark for “thoughtful” scriptwriting on behalf of the political left (US left, that is). The injection of a blatantly ill-informed, Islamophobic storyline into what was spun as an intelligent program only highlighted the extent to which, once one cracks the veneer of enlightenment encasing shows like The West Wing, what lies beneath is often little better than cheap xenophobia.

And this brings us to Homeland. Winner of back-to-back Golden Globes for “Best Television Series – Drama” the show has garnered positive feedback, including the following in a December 2012 Guardian editorial entitled, “In Praise of…Homeland”:

The presentation of good and evil is far more nuanced than in a conventional political thriller. One minute, the war on terror is depicted as a sad necessity; the next, terrorists show their human side. Herein lies Homeland’s strength: it is difficult to know where one’s sympathies should lie. The truth, as in life, hovers in the grey areas in between.    

Similarly, Emily Nussbaum of the New Yorker lauded the show for being the “antidote” to superficial shows about terrorism such as 24 (in fact, Homeland creators Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa were both writers on 24), finding Homeland to be, “surprisingly grounded in the world we live in.”

Therein, I would argue, we find the heart of the problem. The West Wing and Homeland may very well do a better (but not necessarily good) job of reflecting the nuances of politics or counter-terrorism in the United States than blunt fare such as 24, but these are, as Nussbaum put it, reflections of the world “we live in.” And which “we” is that, exactly? As Laila Al Arian noted, Homeland repeats so many Muslim stereotypes, and contains so many errors in fact and detail about Muslim and/or Arab culture, that she labels the program “TV’s most Islamophobic show.” (Reading Al Arian’s piece provides many excellent examples.)

Yes, The West Wing and Homeland contain dialog about the US political process and the War on Terror seldom, if ever, heard on US television. But if that dialog contains basic factual errors or crude stereotypes, then it is worth asking what, precisely, the show contributes to broader understanding of the issues in question? If the writers of The West Wing tell viewers that Turkey has a system of quasi-Sharia Law in place where women are beheaded for adultery, then no amount of sharp, intelligent writing can overcome the damage done by the use of that dramatic vehicle. Similarly, and as Al Arian points out in her Salon article, Homeland is based upon a single, overarching premise: that it is Brody’s conversion to Islam which enables his planned attacks against the United States. There are other factors (such as the death of the boy Issa), of course, but the core of the show revolves around his conversion.

And this is where Nussbaum’s notion of Homeland being “grounded in the world we live in” returns. The program is grounded, yes, but it is grounded in the America Americans live in: an America where an understanding of the nuances of Islam and countries with predominantly Muslim populations remains at a fairly elemental level. What makes programs such as Homeland dangerous is the idea that they represent a deeper, more mature analysis of these geo-politics, when, in fact, they represent a deeper analysis of a particular, limited understanding of geo-politics. Similarly, when critics hail programs like The West Wing and Homeland for their depth, intelligence and grounding in reality, the impact of Islamophobic content is all the more damaging. No-one expected 24 to be culturally-aware in relation to Islam, so when Islamophobic content emerged in the show, it was hardly a surprise. But, when Islamophobic material crops up in Homeland, it is easier to deflect critique of this material by pointing out the relative depth and relative broad-mindedness of the show. That is the problem with relativity in this context: when 24 or Jerry Bruckheimer are your bias benchmarks, then all is takes is content that is a bit less ethnocentric and a bit less xenophobic to make yourself look enlightened.

When critics hail Homeland, they would do well to ask themselves how they would react to a program where a Muslim captive at Guantanamo Bay succumbs to Stockholm Syndrome, converts to Christianity, returns to Kabul/Tehran/Riyadh, rises through the political ranks to a position of authority, and, with the help of a radical Christian CNN journalist, plots a campaign of terror in his home country at the behest of a Christian extremist. I think I can guess some of the words used to describe such a program, but “nuanced” and “grounded” would not be among them.

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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