Ever since a part of the Syrian people rebelled against the Assad regime, bloody confrontations in the streets of Homs, Deraa and Damascus dominate our media’s foreign news bulletins. As a independent Newswire journalist I noticed that the portrayal of the ‘Syrian revolution’ is decidedly one-sided. My annoyance with mainstream media reportage has motivated me to conduct a small inquiry on the issue of biased media representation in past and present days, more specifically on war photography. This article explores the portrayal of war, both in the strict sense of war photography as well as in the larger sense of the mental images we have of the events taking place thousands of miles from our door steps.
The Construction of Fear and Sympathy
(Dis)information on a certain event influences the public’s attitude and conscience of that event. Media documentation of violence and brutality inspires fear, even to those a thousand miles away. Today’s main information channel on the world’s war zones are still the ‘conventional’ media such as TV, newspaper and radio. These outlets bring us ‘news’, factual information gathered by themselves or, as is mostly the case, given to them by sources.
As a consequence, the source determines the news. States, especially today’s super powers and their military, invest heavily in information gathering and distribution, they are today’s main sources. For example in 2010, US president Barkack Obama gave 491 speeches and remarks, and organised 27 news conferences. Mainstream international journalism is therefore the voice of power, not people.
Military planners are aware of the fact that no war can be waged or won without an ideological battle. Justification and legitimacy are key issues to tackle if public opinion has to be turned in favor of policy. Governments and international organisations use media to the widest extent possible, helping unify their message, manage and shape perception.
The 2003 toppling of a Sadam Hussein statue in Baghdad illustrates the abuse of ‘media fetishism’ by a powerful stakeholder source. The event was stages by the US military ‘PSYops’ offices, with all journalists on the balcony of the Palestine Hotel. The square was sealed off by the military and only a few Iraqis were allowed in. This was in fact a non-event, yet media portrayed it as a major event of the Iraqi people welcoming the American troops.
Within the prospect of managing ‘news flows’, powerful stakeholders do not only stage events, they also work hard to prevent undesirable information from reaching the public. At the peak of the Middle-East conflict, allied forces bombed the Al-Jazeera Arabic Bureau’s of Kabul and Baghdad. No one was hurt in the 2001 bombings as the journalists were geven a warning to get out prior to the entry of NATO forces into Kabul.
The mass media, consciously or unconsciously, contribute to the creation of ‘fear of the other’ through the unbalanced reproduction of facts selected by stakeholder sources. As a consequence, the public consumes a frame that manifests itself through patterns juxtaposition, and determines public opinion, beliefs, values and reactions.
The Syrian Media circus
Last year, the ongoing conflict in Syria and the very one-sided reporting on the situation motivated me to write a paper, in which I conducted a small inquiry into the portrayal of Syrian rebels in photographic material that reached Western audiences. Through a social-constructivist approach I analysed 15 randomly selected AFP images from the “SYRIA: EDITOR’S CHOICE” image collection, at that day holding 399 photographs.
The general findings of the inquiry were unsurprising, the images taken to supply Western Media all portrayed the Syrian rebels in a way to render sympathy and support. On the other hand, the Assad regime received much less coverage, voice and agency in the pictures. It is portrayed only in the distance, as an alien force creeping closer every second and wreaking havoc everywhere it goes.
This small content analysis of 15 AFP photographs from the Syrian conflict provides a certain amount of evidence for the above-mentioned. The western mass media reproduce a certain value system biased towards favouring the oppositional forces and fear of the Assad regime. A striking example is for instance the disproportionate amount of attention given to the death toll on oppositional side, vis à vis the death toll on government side, which is practically unspoken of.
Photojournalism: Grand Theft Emotions
In March 1993, photographer Kevin Carter took the iconic Pulitzer-prize winning photo of a vulture preying upon an famished Sudanese toddler. The picture appeared in the New York Times on March 26. Within hours after that day’s newspaper rolled out of the press hundreds of people contacted the editorial office to ask whether the child had survived. Carter himself came under criticism for not helping the girl, accused of being a predator with a camera. Consumed with the violence he’d witnessed, and haunted by the questions as to the little girl’s fate, he committed suicide three months after the Pulitzer-prize award ceremony.
In press photography the imprint of frames is reflected in the many decisions a photographer willingly or forcefully takes before pressing the button. Would Carter’s photo have such an impact if he excluded the vulture from the frame? And how would the world have percieved Nick Ut’s Napalm girl if they had seen the uncropped version of the scene?
Photographs are only partial illustrations of reality rather than reportage giving the full picture. Despite that fact, they potentially have an enormous impact on public opinion. Just like with video, the public percieves the medium as more accurate, closer to reality and their own self. When emotions stir and come to dominate whole communities, media walk a thin line between journalism and propaganda.
The voice of power, the voice of people
In the 21st Century, no media outlet can survive without the input of powerful stakeholder sources, I have no illusions about that. I do not argue for completely unbiased news, as in such case there would be no news.
The essence is to realize the subjectivity of media and the importance of being a critical individual when absorbing information. Go and look for those daredevil independent journalists, spread your views beyond your native-language newsbulletin or newspaper, and read more than only headlines. Be a conscientious objector.
This is why I chose to join the Newswire project. I was saturated by the voice of power. By writing these articles I am a voice of people, more specificly I am the voice of my own self. And the case study of syria shows that this is so much more than just about being ‘captain hindsight’.
There is no denying that there is also a large group of people just not interested. Well, screw them, and thank you!
- John Pilger’s 2010 documentary “The War You don’t See”
- 1997 motion picture “Wag the Dog” starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert de Niro
- Authors: Jaap van Ginneken, Dahr Jamail et al.