Media Bias in Reporting on September 11th and Effects on International Perception

When the Twin Towers fell, Americans saw their fellow citizens running to safety, emergency workers disappearing into clouds of smoke, and a reassuring still shot of the American flag displayed on news channels across America. American media focused on the response of emergency teams, the plight of people exposed to the tragedy, and the shock felt all over the country that America had been hit. Very little attention in the first few hours was paid to the perpetrators or the reason for their attack; sources hinted at a connection with the Middle East. “One additionally powerful and arousing series of images was shown during the first 12 hours of coverage on CNN –Palestinians celebrating in the streets of East Jerusalem (Barnett & Reynolds, 2009).” To compare the headlines of September 12th between the Middle Eastern media and the Western media; is to see radically different forecasts for the predicament of the world and most alarmingly, a framed view of the “other’.

On September 12th, The New York Times was filled with quotes from American citizens commenting on the attacks. “As soon as Mr. Slater stepped outside, he saw and smelled something uncomfortably familiar. ‘’I saw a mass of oily smoke and thought of the oil fields of Kuwait,” he said. ‘’There were 3,000 Americans killed in Pearl Harbor, this will be at least that many, if not more, and I hope Congress has the guts to do something about it (Van Natta & Alvarez, 2001).’”  The paper picked up the scent in the air for retaliation and framed their stories to show an America getting geared up for a fight. “For Major Dopheide, fear was quickly surpassed by rage. ‘’They tried to kill me,’’ he said. ‘’We’ve got to go get them (Van Natta & Alvarez, 2001).” The media’s unusual use of emotion didn’t go unnoticed. My penpal, Chinwei Wong, a citizen of Singapore, recalled surprise at the emotion expressed through American media. “That wasn’t typical of what I expected from a news report, but then again it must have been a really painful experience to many Americans. It was emotionally charged, to say the least” (Wong, 2010).

Another Western Media outlet, the British newspaper, The Guardian, ran a special report about terrorism in the US filled with gruesome, emotional descriptions of the event. “New Yorkers were strolling to work in the pristine early autumn sunshine when disaster struck… The last words he heard were: ‘Help, we are all dying. Get us out.’… The explosion caused by the impact sent a huge, debris-laden fireball cascading down the building on to the streets below. There was worse to come (Borger, 2001).” The paper continued to link the event to Pearl Harbor and detail the American reaction.

Deeper within the folds of The New York Times that day, there was an article titled “Spilled Blood Is Seen as Bond That Draws 2 Nations Closer.” Quotes within the article from both Israeli leaders and citizens reflected a sense of comfort that America would be more sympathetic and aware of terrorism in the Middle East (James, 2001). The New York Times also ran quotes from two Palestinian citizens; one passing out sweets on the street in celebration of the downfall of, “”The Americans [who] give the Israelis Apache helicopters to bomb our houses (James, 2001).” Another saying he was worried about his American Visa going through now that his citizenship would deem him a terrorist (James, 2001).”

            Media outlets in the Middle East confirmed their citizens conflicting reactions. In Iran, “While in general the reformist press made sure to immediately condemn the attacks on the U.S., the conservative press, and conservatives themselves, went so far as to proclaim the end of the United States (The Middle East Research Institute, 2001).” The Tehran Times, railed against the US Media’s repeat offense to the Muslim community, “…after the Oklahoma City bombing…the U.S. media at that time were promoting anti-Islamic hatred…Muslims were attacked…the media stopped its anti-Muslim rhetoric but offered no apologies, although their actions could be regarded as hate crimes (The Middle East Research Institute, 2001).” The Tehran Times, along with another Iranian newspaper, Kayhan, maintained that the perpetrators of the attack were likely Israelis or Americans and that this was a constructed plot to “demonize the Islamic movement” by linking the attacks to Osama Bin Laden (The Middle East Research Institute, 2001).”

            While Western outlets ignored coverage of the reasoning behind the attacks, Middle Eastern outlets consistently linked 9-11 to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the unique struggles within the Muslim community. The Palestine Chronicle, featured an article by an American writer titled, “Worthy and Unworthy Victims.” Examples of ‘worthy victims’ are the victims of 9/11, kidnapped Western journalists, and soldiers taken as Iranian hostages (Lendman, 2007). Their worth is prominently displayed with celebrity coverage and an outpouring of public sympathy. ‘Unworthy’ victims are the ‘unpeople’ whose mass deaths are glaringly ignored (Lendman, 2007). Examples of these ‘unpeople’ include Palestinians in Gaza and Iraqi civilian casualties with minority American groups: Native Americans, Black captives of slavery, and the high ratio of minorities incarcerated in the American Justice System (Lendman, 2007). “’It is unconscionable that the Palestinian government has not done more to secure Alan’s release.’  Try imagining that kind of statement if Johnston were Muslim and worked for an Arab publication or news service, especially one “unfriendly” to western imperial interests (Lendman, 2007).”

            Coverage of 9/11 fundamentally varied between Western and Middle Eastern media but they shared the similarity of having a huge influence on the perceptions of their audience. Sympathy was doled out to both Americans and Palestinians that day, and blame was assigned to Muslims, Americans, and Israelis. Public opinion worldwide was being formed by media text and images, and the political ramifications of that were enormous. “The fact that that the majority’s perception of terrorism is of audiovisual origin, where clichés predominate alongside of simplifications and shallowness has an enormous influence in the way in which public opinion presents its demands to the public officials (Torres, 2008).” The risk of enhancing clichés and simplifications was fully realized when American media outlets failed to represent the “other” or the typical Middle Eastern citizen in an informative, unbiased fashion. Both Middle Eastern and American outlets framed the political environment of a post 9/11 world in their respective regions; unfortunately, both frames fit an “us” vs. “them” world. American networks predicted retaliation while Middle Eastern outlets interpreted the attacks as a result of ignoring Palestinian casualties.

            A specific example of the media’s power in creating the “other” is expressed by Walter Lipmann, a Pulitzer Price reporter, who often told a story of an island in the Atlantic filled with English, French, and German citizens during World War I (Center for Security Studies, 2007). News was delivered by Steamer every sixty days; life went on as usual on the island during the interval where the French and English were unaware that their nations were fighting the Germans (Center for Security Studies, 2007). In shaping our political idea of the ‘other’ and our political environment, the media is crucially important, abuse of the press leads to a vulnerable public. “Whatever we believe to be a true picture, we treat as if it were the environment itself (Center for Security Studies, 2007).”

            International events are shaped by the media’s coverage. With 9/11, American outlets prepared the nation for war, while Middle Eastern media acknowledged that 9/11 was the result of American policies concerning Palestine. To improve global understanding, media must portray each party’s stake and viewpoint accurately. In a global environment, to present only one nation’s side leaves citizens completely unaware of what lies at the roots of the problems they’re facing. “In this formulation, the sacred work of journalism is to provide the intelligence needed for self-government (Nerone, 2009).” People can’t see reality from the other side of the world; they rely on media outlets to map out the terrain so they can navigate.


 

Bibliography

Barnett, Brooke, and Reynolds, Amy. Terrorism and the Press: An Uneasy Relationship. New York         City: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009. Print.

Borger, Julian, Duncan Campbell, Charlie Porter, and Stuart Miller. “Special Report: Terrorism in the US.” The Guardian [United Kingdom] 12 Sept. 2001. Print.

Conservatives and Reformists in Iran: Divided in condemning the attacks. Special Dispatch No. 286. The Middle East Media Research Institute, 15 Oct. 2001. Web. 1 Feb. 2010. <http://www.memri.org/>.

“Different View of Things: Comparison: Al Jazeera International vs Al Jazeera Arabic.” Media Tenor (2007): 34-40. International Relations and Security Network. Center for Security Studies, 26 May 2007. Web. 1 Feb. 2010. <http://www.isn.ethz.ch>.

James, Bennet. “A DAY OF TERROR: THE ISRAELIS; Spilled Blood Is Seen as Bond That Draws 2 Nations Closer.” The New York Times. Print.

Lendman, Stephen. “Worthy and Unworthy Victims.” The Palestine Chronicle 03 May 2007. Web. 1 Feb. 2010. <http://palestinechronicle.com>.

Nerone, John. “To Rescue Journalism from the Media.” Cultural Studies 23.2 (2009): 243-58. EBSCOHost. Web. 1 Feb. 2010. <http://dx.doi.org>.

Torres Soriano, Manuel R. “Terrorism and the Mass Media after Al Qaeda.” Athena Intelligence Journal 3.2 (2008): 1-20. EBSCO. Web. 1 Feb. 2010. <http://www.isn.ethz.ch>.

Wong, Chinwei. “Re: Hi.” Email to Melissa Silva.  2 Feb. 2010

Van Natta, Don, and Lizette Alvarez. “A DAY OF TERROR: ATTACK ON MILITARY; A Hijacked Boeing 757 Slams Into the Pentagon, Halting the Government.” The New York Times 12 Sept. 2001. Print.