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Post-Sep. 11 Reportage Adds to Divisions, Stereotypes
Published on Monday, July 1, 2002 by Inter Press Service
Post-Sep. 11 Reportage Adds to Divisions, Stereotypes
by Sonny Inbaraj

PERTH, Australia, July 1 - The media's failure to provide more perspectives to news consumers and ask critical questions, after the Sep. 11 attacks and Washington's subsequent declaration of its war against terrorism, is fueling a culture of fear and blame around the world, experts meeting here say.

Objectivity requires a full understanding of the issues and events and, most importantly, their contexts. This basically means a dispassionate and unbiased presentation of the many sides of the story. Sadly the media is failing miserably, particularly on the last point.

Carlos Conde
Filipino journalist
Senior journalists, policymakers, academics and government advisors, held a three-day meeting here last week to look at how the world has been portrayed in the news in the 10 months since the attacks, which have changed the international political environment.

''Symbolic pictures, used by the media, stirred public insecurity far more than one would have expected of this incident, when compared with the number of victims of other terrorist acts,'' said Dr Hans Giessmann from the University of Hamburg's Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy.

''Even months later, every airplane accident and house explosion added to the prolonged impact of the reporting on September 11, simply due to media-incited assumptions that it could be another terrorist attack,'' Giessmann told the conference 'Media, Terrorism and A Culture of Peace' organized by the Singapore-based Asian Media Information and Communication Center.

''The media accepted the side effects of a stigmatization of religion, cultures, states, people and minorities and this paved the way for prejudices,'' Giessmann added in his critique of how many among the media fully attributed blame for the September attacks on ''Muslim terrorists'' and stopped there.

Journalists at the conference agreed that the largest media failure, after the September attacks, was a lack of context that allowed readers, viewers and listeners to gain a clear understanding of the background issues and of the clash on interpretations in a war where the lines were blurred between reporting and propaganda in a controlled atmosphere.

''No question about it, the September 11 attacks against the United States has forced most of us to look into our hearts and wonder if are doing the right thing,'' asked Don Pathan, regional editor with the Bangkok-based English daily 'The Nation'.

''Are we selecting the right pictures to go with the stories? Are we presenting these stories accurately and fairly? Are our comments and analyses constructive enough?'' he said.

Added Pathan: ''Realities are created in the newsroom everyday. And reality differs from one newsroom to the next. The question is can we find a common ground? Is it possible to please all sides when covering sensitive issues such as war and violent conflicts? Is it our job to please our readers and viewers?''

But Bunn Nagara, associate editor of the Kuala Lumpur-based 'Star' daily, said media organizations were seldom, if ever, neutral.

''How the media respond to either the use or the abuse of media by governments also depends on their individual standing in relation to the government in question, to its political opposition, to their conception of public interest, to a sense of their own economic welfare and to the policy issue or media action in question,'' Nagara said in commenting on the so-called ''patriotism'' of the U.S. media in their post-Sep.11 coverage that disregarded objectivity.

In Australia, the fallout of the Sep.11 events was a major factor in the re-election of the federal government in last November's general election.

''Rather than focusing on traditional and domestic issues like taxation levels or spending on health and education, the campaign was largely fought on issues of national security and border protection - with the backdrop being the U.S.-led military offensive in Afghanistan which Australia volunteered troops,'' said the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Peter Mares.

The domestic context was an atmosphere of panic about the arrival of mostly Middle Eastern asylum seekers on Australian territory at the rate of a few hundred a month.

''Within 48 hours of the September 11 attacks, Australia's Defense Minister Peter Reith had drawn an explicit link between the two, warning that the unauthorized arrival of boats on Australian territory 'can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use the country as a staging post for terrorist activities','' added Mares.

Mares stressed that media reporting could shape public perceptions of refugees and asylum seekers and had the potential to influence policy.

''Compassionate and sympathetic coverage can help promote public understanding and encourage generous assistance to refugees and others in need. Negative reporting can generate and intensify feelings of fear,'' he pointed out.

He compared Australia's treatment of Kosovar and East Timorese refugees to that of the Afghan asylum seekers arriving by boats, citing how the Kosovars and East Timorese were portrayed as ''good'' refugees while the Afghans were ''bad''.

''The detailed and very immediate media reporting of the Kosovo conflict had given Australians some understanding of the reasons why people had been forced to seek refuge outside their home country,'' said Mares.

By comparison, he added, prior to Sep. 11, the conflict in Afghanistan - when it was reported at all - was generally portrayed as a long-running saga with no obvious beginning or end point.

''Even after September 11, when the barbarity of the Taliban regime received more detailed coverage - in particular the oppression of women - sympathy for Afghans was constrained by the identification of their country as enemy territory and the home of terrorists,'' said Mares.

The conference speakers agreed that the Sep. events and the response to them underlined the deep institutionalized failures in foreign policy, defense strategies, the work of intelligence agencies -- and the media.

Warned Carlos Conde, a Filipino journalist with the Mindanao News and Information Cooperative Center: ''In this time of so much war mongering, of so much attention to violence as a way to resolve our differences, our role as journalists is not to reduce the complexities of our society to such simplistic notions as either you are opposed to the campaign against terrorism or you are a supporter of terrorists.''

''Otherwise, we would be no different from the bigots and zealots that struck fear in the heart of humanity on that awful day in September,'' he argued.

''Objectivity requires a full understanding of the issues and events and, most importantly, their contexts,'' said Conde. ''This basically means a dispassionate and unbiased presentation of the many sides of the story. Sadly the media is failing miserably, particularly on the last point.''

Copyright 2002 Inter Press Service


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