Whose 'truth' is being reported?
I follow news about the war in Iraq on Arab and American television - and it feels as if I'm watching two entirely different wars.Skip to next paragraph
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When an Iraqi cab driver blew up his taxi, killing four US soldiers at a checkpoint in Iraq last week, he was described as a "terrorist" by US networks and a "freedom fighter" by most Arab networks. From the American media point of view, he was a suicide bomber who killed innocent soldiers in an insidious way. From the Arab media point of view, he was resisting invading troops and he is a martyr who sacrificed himself to reduce the suffering of fellow Iraqis.
In this war of images and words, each side accuses the other of bias, of hiding the truth, and of using loaded terms. But bias is a matter of perception. Arguably, most networks aim to cover the news objectively - but they end up coloring it with a certain context or perspective that suits audience concerns. I call it contextual objectivity - and it is one of the great dilemmas for news networks, especially during times of war.
While the American media showcase US military power and the high morale of the American troops in what is described as a "war of liberation," the Arab media focus on Iraqi civilian casualties and damage to Iraqi cities in a "war of occupation."
For one evening last week, I compared coverage headline for headline between the Al Jazeera satellite network and MSNBC. It was a striking reminder of the networks' struggle to find a balance that provides their audiences the "truth" that will fit their different contexts.
Al Jazeera presents climactic, Hollywood-style promos that dramatize the war to attract the viewers' attention. One opens with President Bush warning Saddam Hussein of imminent war, followed by a montage of a crying Iraqi child with a bandage on his head, burning oil fields, and missiles dropping on buildings. This moving promo segues to a news anchor at Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha, Qatar, reading headlines. In the background are US and Iraqi flags juxtaposed.
MSNBC's dramatic war promos take a different approach. It closes its news segments with images of US soldiers under a setting sun, helicopters in flight, and the American flag flapping in the breeze - then the screen fades to black with the phrase "Our hearts go with them" printed in white.
The headlines on Al Jazeera were: More Iraqi civilian casualties result from the US and British troops' bombing of civilian targets in Baghdad and Basra; Iraqi information minister announces the destruction of US tanks by Iraqi resistance; and 120,000 additional US soldiers are sent to the Persian Gulf.
MSNBC's headlines during the same news cycle were: Giant explosion from an Iraqi missile rocks Kuwait City; Iraqi guns halt civilian flight from Basra; and more casualties reported from US bombing on Baghdad.
The headlines reflect sensitivity to different audience sensibilities.