Whose 'truth' is being reported?
EASTON, MASS. — 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.
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.
Al Jazeera's frequent focus on Iraqi civilian casualties has made US officials accuse the network of inflaming the Arab street and of serving as a propaganda tool for the Iraqi regime. However, viewed in context, Al Jazeera is not blatantly "out to get Americans," nor is its reporting any more inflammatory than that of the American networks. Moreover, Al Jazeera does not appear to be aiming to please the Iraqi government, which expelled two of the network's reporters from Baghdad last week. Al Jazeera plays to the general feelings of Arabs, who are angry over the war on Iraq and who want to see an end to the Iraqi civilians' suffering.
On the broadcasts I compared that evening, Al Jazeera showed gruesome images of a wounded child in a hospital in Basra. As disgusting as these gory images were, not showing them would have been a denial of the reality witnessed by Arab reporters. If Al Jazeera decided not to show these images, it would risk losing its audience to other Arab networks, such as the brand new Saudi satellite channel, Al Arabiya, which also shows close-up images of dead and wounded Iraqis.
Al Jazeera also focuses on US losses in this war, such as the crash of an American helicopter and captured and killed US soldiers. Most Arabs who followed these losses on TV have been pleasantly surprised, even exhilarated, to see the much weaker Iraqis resist an "occupying superpower." In a way, there is a desire in the Arab world to support the underdog, and Arab networks feed that desire.
While Arab media are accused by US officials of presenting biased war coverage, American networks are accused by Arabs of twisting reality and being "too patriotic" in their coverage. The focus in the first of MSNBC's headlines was the fact that an Iraqi missile escaped the US radar defenses - this reflected, as did all of MSNBC's headlines, a focused interest in the performance and well-being of US troops. The US network also showed repeated footage of American soldiers in training on a split screen with embedded reporters in combat gear. There is nothing wrong with that, but what did raise eyebrows was the blur between objectivity and bias when, for example, some American reporters used the word "we" to refer to the US troops.
Another striking pattern in the US coverage is that the casualties among Iraqi civilians aren't a headline priority. While there have been many more deaths and injuries of Iraqis, coverage of them is far outweighed by coverage of US casualties and POWs. The question that strikes Arabs in this context is: Is American blood more precious than Iraqi blood?
The business of reporting and interpreting this war is governed by how the media approach it and how the audience perceives it. Both Arab and American television networks try to cover all aspects of the war - the good, the bad, and the ugly. But the good, the bad, and the ugly are all in the eye of the beholder - the audience seeking "truth." Contextual objectivity is the reason we are watching two different televised versions of the same war - and it is something that both worlds could better understand if they're ever to coexist.
• Mohammed el-Nawawy is assistant professor of communication at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass., and coauthor of 'Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East.'