Emotional news in the Control Room
A British journalist thinks Al-Jazeera has more in common with Western news channels than its critics like to admit.
The most popular form of TV news today is ‘engaged reporting’, focusing on the emotions of those who feature in the news and of those who report it.
Al-Jazeera, the satellite Arabic news channel launched in 1996, is no exception. The Bush administration has accused Al-Jazeera of being the ‘mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden’, criticising its pro-Arab nationalist and anti-war bias. Yet Al-Jazeera has more in common with Western news channels than its critics like to acknowledge.
It has also been called ‘the CNN of the Arab World’, a more fitting description for a station that concentrated on images of injured Iraqis during the war, just like the emotionally-centred news reporting values of its Western counterparts. As Al-Jazeera’s website states: ‘Al-Jazeera’s correspondents opened a window for the world on the millennium’s first two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our expanded coverage competed with and sometimes outperformed our competitors, bringing into the spotlight the war’s devastating impact on the lives of ordinary people.’ (1)
The tug of war within Al-Jazeera between providing a news service and offering engaged reporting is shown in the new documentary Control Room. Directed by Jehane Noujaim, the award-winning Arab-American filmmaker, it follows Al-Jazeera covering the Iraq war from its start on 20 March 2003 to the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein on 9 April 2003.
Al-Jazeera may be famous for showing images of dead Iraqi children and dead and captured American troops (footage that the US military asked to have censored) – but it mirrors Western news values by giving a high status to victims and emotions in its news reports.
Of course, nobody wants to go back to the days when images of the bloodied victims of war were doctored out of the news by the media and the military. Unlike in the first Gulf War, the TV coverage of this year’s invasion included far more comment by Iraqi civilians and often showed viewers the effects of war. Yet engaged reporting tends to steer news coverage away from analysis and investigation of facts towards the emotions and experience of victims.
While Al-Jazeera concentrated on the emotions of Iraqis as their homes were destroyed and family members killed, Western news channels served up another variant of engaged reporting, by showing the feelings of coalition soldiers.
But what about giving as much weight to debates about what caused the war and how it might be stopped? With so much emphasis on reporting the experiences of troops and civilians, the media on both sides failed to ask challenging questions about what was driving America and Britain’s actions.
Al-Jazeera could claim to be ‘balanced’ because like other news channels it included comments by Bush, Blair and military chiefs. The Al-Jazeera website says, much like the BBC, Fox News or CNN, that ‘we continue to cover all viewpoints with objectivity, integrity and balance’. Yet this doesn’t make up for the fact that TV news reports of the war were emotionally-centred; how can viewers make their minds up on what they think about the arguments for war when the news is framed mainly as a series of disaster shots with little emphasis on journalistic investigation?
Al-Jazeera was accused of bias because its coverage focused on Iraqi victims. In Control Room, Al-Jazeera journalist Hassan Ibrahim says: ‘We’ll get grief from the Americans for showing these pictures [of dead bodies] because we’ll be [accused of] inciting rebellion.’ (2) An Al-Jazeera manager says they ‘wanted to show that any war has a human cost. We focus on that. We care for the Iraqi people.… We are Arabs and Muslims like them.’
But are Al-Jazeera journalists not concerned about the limitations of providing a news service that is more emotional than strictly objective? This question was put by an American journalist to Joanne Tucker, managing editor of Al-Jazeera’s English website. Tucker replied by asking whether American journalists were objective about the war? ‘This word “objectivity” is almost a mirage’, she said. ‘If there was true neutrality, there would be a welcoming of any and all information from all sides.’
You can understand why some Al-Jazeera journalists see their mission as offering a different perspective to the US TV networks. By offering the kind of footage that other networks left out, Al-Jazeera appeared to provide objectivity and balance of a sort. Control Room shows US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld saying that Al-Jazeera plays ‘propaganda over and over and over again’ and is willing ‘to lie to the world’. It then shows Al-Jazeera news footage of an injured Iraqi child with the message: the channel is just reflecting the horror of war, which others prefer to ignore.
Yet the argument that one kind of emotional bias counteracts another overlooks the need for a news channel that is itself objective. After all, who has time to watch all the TV news channels all of the time, to make sure they are getting the right balance of information?
The battle of the two news truths is a major theme in Control Room. Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a US military press officer at CENTCOM (the US military command centre), said: ‘It benefits Al-Jazeera to play to Arab nationalism because that’s their audience, just like Fox plays to American patriotism.’ (1) In a revealing moment, Lt Rushing admitted to feeling less upset when he saw images of dead Iraqis on TV than when viewing dead American soldiers; he said these different emotional reactions made him ‘hate war’, before pointing out that he doesn’t believe ‘we’re in a world that can live without war yet’. According to the UK Guardian’s Brian Whitaker, Rushing has since been gagged by the US military (3).
Another theme in Control Room is the tension at Al-Jazeera between providing a news service that offers balance and the journalists’ own personal views. In a comical moment, Samir Khader, a senior producer, tells off an interview researcher for not providing a sufficiently balanced expert for a news report. ‘That was shit’, he says. ‘That was not analysis, that was hallucination.’
Control Room provides a moving, behind-the-scenes look at how Al-Jazeera journalists reacted to the war as they reported it. To the shock of his colleagues, Tarek Ayoub, Al-Jazeera’s Bagdhad correspondent, was killed by an American warplane, despite the fact that the Pentagon was sent the co-ordinates of the Baghdad office at the start of the war. Ayoub’s widow sent a taped message to an Al-Jazeera press conference saying, ‘My husband died trying to reveal the truth to the world’, and appealing to journalists to now ‘tell the truth’.
This month Al-Jazeera was censored by the new interim Iraqi government and its offices in Iraq were shut down for a month (4). Its journalists should be free to broadcast whatever news content they want to. When their broadcasting resumes, however, the question is which truth will their news editors show – a fact-based or emotional one?
Tessa Mayes is a journalist, author and commentator.
(1) About Aljazeera, Aljazeera.net
(2) ‘Control Room,’ shown at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 3 August 2004
(3) When worlds collide, Brian Whitaker, Guardian, 22 July 2004
(4) Aljazeera vows to defy Iraq ban, Aljazeera.net
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