The Innocence of the Media? Media and political violence

July 30, 2013 • Ethics and Quality • by

The release of the anti-Islamic movie trailer “The Innocence of Muslims” triggered widespread outrage throughout the Muslim world and attracted much media attention, but a recent study asks whether incomplete and incorrect reporting by the media played a role in inflaming the issue and exacerbating violence.

A report by the Ethical Journalism Network  (EJN), an international organization supported by the Global Editors Network, published in association with UNESCO argues that media coverage of the issue was too polarized and concludes that “In the case of “Innocence of Muslims”, editorial failings, albeit inadvertently, may have reinforced prejudice and misunderstanding.”

The report’s authors drew their conclusions after a series of interviews with journalists and others working in and on the media in the U.S., Britain, Pakistan, and Turkey.

According to the report, the media printed and broadcast inadequate, insufficient and at times incorrect information on the  background of the video. The actual causes of violent protests across many Islamic countries weren’t analysed and adequate importance wasn’t given to moderate actors calling for peaceful protest and a dialogue between the cultures. The report says these moderate voices in fact most accurately represent the general public opinion in Egypt and many other predominantly Islamic countries.

The fourteen minute long trailer which sparked protests on 11 September, 2012, features a young man and his companions traveling through the desert committing violent crimes, making sexist comments and connecting this in a irresponsible way with islamic believe. The video is evidently a low budget production. Actors who participated in the film claim it was originally entitled “Desert Warrior” and that the producer added the controversial passages  about Islam and the prophet Mohammed post-production.

The dubbed, manipulated version of the video was distributed in Arabic and provoked the rage of certain Muslim groups in Egypt, Libya, Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries. In the aftermath of the video’s release, US ambassador John Christopher Stevens and three of his co-workers were killed in what was believed to be a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya while elsewhere Muslim clerics issued fatwas against the producer and all the film’s participants.  Pakistani minister Ghulam Ahmad Bilour offered a bounty to anyone who handed the producer over to the Pakistani government.

The EJN report criticizes the way international media highlighted extremist reactions to the video during the crisis, and says the mass media exacerbated tensions between Muslims and other religious groups either by intentionally disseminating incorrect or insufficiently researched information or by not providing a complete, two-sided report.

On 12 September the Associated Press falsely reported that the film was financed by one hundred Jewish investors who spent a total of five million dollars after an interview with the film’s producer Mark Basseley Youssef (formerly known as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula) who at the time gave an interview to the AP under the false, Jewish name of Sam Bacile. The news agency sent the interview out on the wire, but retracted the information two days later heavily regretting their mistake and the religious tensions it sparked.

The EJN draws attention to much non-reporting committed by the US media which failed to reveal the producer’s real, non-Jewish identity, the fact that he was based in America and the real motives behind the video’s production. They focused instead on the violent reactions in the Muslim world, describing the demonstrations and escalations in violence as widespread riots that involved the majority of the population when in reality one of the larger demonstrations in Cairo consisted of a mere 3,000 of the city’s 16 million inhabitants. The Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) organization has criticized Newsweek reporter Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for propagating her personal prejudices about Islam, “The Muslim men and women (and yes, there are plenty of women) who support – whether actively or passively – the idea that blasphemers deserve to suffer punishment are not a fringe group. On the contrary, they represent the mainstream of contemporary Islam.”

The report also claims the US media gave too much space to minority, extremist opinions. American broadcaster CNN for example described the Pakistani minister’s bounty offering as an official statement from the Pakistani administration, despite the fact that the Pakistani government had  immediately distanced itself from the minister.

Some media did attempt to bring some clarity to the situation. National Public Radio network (NPR) and Bloomberg news agency were singled out for praise.  NPR 1 reporters  tried to evaluate the media’ s role in possibly encouraging the violence and Bloomberg provided contextual analysis on other possible reasons for  the exploding violence in the Middle East – which included a growing mistrust over the USA’s motives, after several citizens were hurt during a series of unmanned drone attacks  in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Some British reporters interviewed for the report said they had problems keeping up the quality of their reporting while while trying to process and  understand online users comments, and make sense of the  footage of the violence circulating on social media. Chris Elliot, a reporter at the Guardian, said, “It is hard not to report on something that everyone is talking about, like in the case of the alleged chemical attack in Syria.” He continued, “One of the problems .. is that (editors) don’t have the courage to say – we are not reporting on something while we don’t investigate the story and while we don’t check all the facts.”

Journalists have to make difficult decisions, on whether to report unverified content or not report the story at all and risk losing audiences to social media sites that are less regulated. A Guardian-led survey conducted shortly after the “Innocence of Muslims” affair shows just how important calm, balanced reporting is. The survey showed that 43 percent of the people questioned approved of the statement: “There are fundamental conflicts between Muslim and western states.”, while only 41 percent agreed with the statement: “Muslim and western societies can live peaceful side by side.” The EJN believes that relations between Muslims and other communities have worsened since the whole affair.

The British media and the BBC in particular, recognized the media had in many cases made the post-video violence worse,  but they tended to not refer to their own behavior but instead to the reporting of the media in the Arab world and the Middle East. The EJN report criticizes this lack of self-reflection but agrees with parts of BBC’s analysis; for example the Urdu-speaking newspapers in Pakistan published images of aggressive demonstrators on their front-pages. Experts assume the Pakistani newspapers used the images to send a message that Pakistanis will rebel against western slander and won´t give in to US control.

The Turkish media was also at fault. Reporters failed to criticize the government’s response to the situation, even as it proposed that countries should adopt international blasphemy laws. Doğan Tiliç, a journalist and Middle Eastern media and communications professor at Technical University Ankara, Turkey, says that the Turkish media often reflects the opinions of  either the government, media-owning families or the public opinion. According to Faruk Bildirici, ombudsman at the Hürriyet, Turkey, no religious issues raised by the government are ever discussed in Turkish media, “It becomes harder every day to talk about Islam in the Muslim world, it´s always seen as criticism. Every day we move away a bit from secularity in Turkey,” he said. The Turkish media will also report on religion-based hate speeches, as long as they are not critical of the government.

The EJN sees the reporting of hate speeches in Western, Arab and Middle-Eastern media as a conflict driver. It recommends setting up a a globally managed database that collects phrases that are likely to fuel violence, along with editorial guidelines on how to avoid reporting on and spreading hate speech.

The EJN  also suggests establishing a body that looks at the ethical and sensitive issues in the media of key nations such as USA or Great Britain. The reports should highlight examples of good and bad reporting so journalists all over the world can use them as guidelines for their future work.

The report recommends international media invest more time, money and manpower in adequate research and  communication, and on analyzing the impact their reports can have. It believes there has to be a structural framework that checks whether any content published may spark violence. It should also ensure that the news agenda is not dominated by extreme and polarized minorities would no longer drive news agendas.

This article is translated by the author from the German Die (Un-)Schuld der Medien

Photo credit: Marco Hazard / Flickr CC

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