American news reporters on the morning of September 11th, 2001 found themselves in a context that most, if not all of them had never experienced before. Some unknown, evil force was attacking their nation, targeting iconic symbols of America’s towering capitalistic power, along with all of the innocent civilians inside. In that environment of extreme stress, grief, and even anger, it becomes clear that external factors can greatly influence the media’s ability to present an objective report of the news. Examining the coverage of 9/11 and the U.S. retaliation in Afghanistan in October 2001 further shows that the relevant context does not only include human emotions. Factors such as geography, ideology, history, and public expectation must also be considered.

In Terrorism and the Press: an uneasy relationship authors Brooke Barnett and Amy Reynolds present an excellent analysis of American news media coverage of 9/11. Understanding the coverage allows for a stronger idea of what role context played in shaping that coverage. One key fact to note is that reporting on the attack started as live, breaking news. This “breaking news model” led to a change in the typical news routine and was visible in the coverage. Barnett and Reynolds point out that journalists reporting on 9/11 “performed a role other than that of the traditional disseminator” over 20% of the time (104). In addition, the media tended to rally around the ideas of national unity and patriotism rather than fulfill their duties as a political watchdog (Barnett & Reynolds, 116). Lastly, the attacks were framed in such a way that portrayed the U.S. as a “morally powerful victim” and “made political debate over state action unnecessary and even immoral” (Barnett & Reynolds, 118). Retaliation against the attackers was not questioned nor cautioned against.

Compared to in the U.S., coverage of 9/11 in Britain was “far more critical in every aspect” (Barnett & Reynolds, 126). As Barnett and Reynolds point out, by analyzing the implications of retaliation and looking back to previous U.S. foreign policies, “the British media provided a deeper perspective that put the attacks into a political context” (126). Arab news channel Al Jazeera went even further to present both sides of the story by airing videos made by the accused 9/11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden. Also, a study of how a major international English-language newspaper, The International Herald Tribune, and a major international Arabic-language newspaper, Al Hayat, used images to cover 9/11 and the Afghan war showed interesting results. Both newspapers pulled their images from essentially the same set of Western news sources, but analysis showed that the English-language paper used images that were “more sympathetic to the U.S., e.g. extensive pictures of 9/11 victims” while the Arabic-language paper used images that were “more sympathetic to the Arab and Muslim world, e.g. extensive images of Afghan casualties” (Fahmy, 13).

Recognizing that these kinds of disparities in coverage exist across different news media requires us to ask why they exist. The explanation can be found in context. For example, the fact that American news media failed to provide a dissenting viewpoint to retaliation in the aftermath of 9/11 while the British media did dissent, does not necessarily prove that British journalists are superior. Rather, it illuminates the strong effect that the American context of unity and nationalism had on the reporting process. Even Tim Russert, one of America’s most respected journalists was quoted as saying, “Yes, I am a journalist, but first, I’m an American. Our country is at war with terrorists, and as an American, I support that effort wholeheartedly” (El-Nawawy & Iskandar). This suggests that despite the importance of objectivity, in times of war and terrorism, nationalism can strongly influence journalist’s decisions. This comes as little surprise recognizing that anyone willing to publicly question the government’s response to 9/11 soon experienced scathing criticism from the public for being “un-American.” Walter Isaacson, then Chairman and CEO of CNN described the pressures as “almost a patriotism police” in an interview with Bill Moyers.

Walter Isaacson

He went on to also describe how, through pressure from “big people in corporations” and advertisers, he felt coerced into advising his staff not “to focus too much on the casualties or hardships in Afghanistan” (“Buying the War”). In contrast to that, Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Afghan and Iraq Wars focused heavily on how civilian populations were traumatized by war. These reports included graphic images, for example, of “a boy with blood streaming down his head” after a U.S. missile struck a marketplace (Poniewozik et al.).

This dichotomy illustrates how public expectations can influence how news outlets frame stories and use images. In the words of Poniewezik et al. of Time Magazine, “Western and Arab media are driven by the same imperative–to feed the hunger for human interest. Their interests are simply in different humans.” This is not to say that those in the West and those in the Middle East have some inherent difference in their human-ness, but rather to emphasize that we view the world from different contexts. For example, many Arab’s initial reactions to 9/11 were likely influenced by their strong opposition toward American foreign policy, particularly regarding Palestine. The following quote from my pen pal, Aladin Jacobian (a university student from Tunisia, a primarily Arab country, though he happens to be Black African), demonstrates this perfectly,

“I think that the 9/11 was a big massacre and that it shouldn’t have happened. To be honest, the period when 9/11 happened before this black event it was the Gulf War and American and British troops bombarding on Iraq and America is supporting the Israeli policies in Palestine. So, to be honest my friend everyone here was so happy the moment where news showing the Airplanes hitting the two towers. Me-myself personally I was so happy about it, but the fact is that happiness translated by anger and hate to the Americans and to the British but that period me-myself or my entourage we couldn’t make difference between citizens, civilians, and politicians, head of states and militants [sic].”

Understanding this, it makes sense that an Arab news source will be more sympathetic to Arab interests. Much like American media sources were facing the “patriotism police,” Arab news sources faced similar pressures from their audience. In fact, “some Arabs have accused [Al Jazeera] of being a CIA agent because it has crossed all the government’s red lines in discussing sensitive political, social, and economic issues” (El-Nawawy & Iskandar). Interestingly, it seems that while the media plays a role in setting an agenda for the public, the public is not without influence. Especially in times of crisis, the media becomes very sensitive to its audiences sensibilities.

Considering the evidence, it seems clear that an organization’s coverage of international news events, particularly crises, is guided by the context within which it operates. This raises serious questions regarding how objectively a story can be presented by a single news outlet. Should the standard of objectivity be replaced with the less lofty goal of contextual objectivity, or the media’s “best shot” considering the circumstances? Well—yes and no. Yes, we need to realize that the “objective” news product is inherently skewed by a context. And no, we should not stop striving to present the fairest story possible by being aware of what our context is and rising above it. 9/11 and the events that followed can help us to realize our context, how it can blind us, and why that matters. The learning process has already started with respected journalists like Dan Rather, who admitted that “there’s no question that we [the press] didn’t do a good job” (“Buying the War”). Consider also Aladin Jacobian, who said,

“after the black event news were showing damages and casualties of infrastructure, civilians and the terror on American nation. Here I was thinking if I was an American citizen and if I was in that street the day the airplanes did hit buildings and if I was the American citizen sitting on his desk in those buildings or if I was a father or a brother or one of the relatives of someone working in those buildings, the firemen or just an American citizen from any state away from the incident place I would feel unsecure and I would be suffering… and if I don’t like that the same thing happens in my country to my people or to my family so the same I do hate this incident.”

Despite his initial reaction to the news, he was able to not only look beyond his own context, he was able to imagine himself in the context of an American. By following Jacobian’s example, we can start to better understand each other’s “bias” and move towards a more objective story showing both sides of the issue.

Works Cited

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

“Buying the War.” PBS.org. Public Broadcasting Service. 25 Apr 2007. Web. 2 Feb 2010. Transcript. http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/btw/transcript1.html

Davies, Humphrey. “Why do We Hate Them?”: Arab Satellite Coverage of 9-11. Transnational Broadcasting Studies Journal. 9 (2002). Web. 2 Feb 2010. http://www.tbsjournal.com /Archives/Fall02/Davies.html

El-Nawawy, Mohammed and Adel Iskandar. “The Minotaur of ‘Contextual Objectivity’: War coverage and the pursuit of accuracy with appeal.” Transnational Broadcasting Studies Journal..9 (2002) Web. 2 Feb 2010. http://www.tbsjournal.com/Archives/Fall02/Iskandar.html

Fahmy, Shahira. “Emerging Alternatives or Traditional News Gates: Which News Sources Were Used to Picture the 9/11 Attack and the Afghan War?” Gazette. 67.381. Print.

Poniewozik, James, Aparasim Ghosh, Amany Radwan, and Pelin Turgut. “What you see vs. what they see.” Time Magazine. 7 Apr 2003: 68-69. Print.