Robert Kelly used to blog here before he made the big-time on the BBC, so here’s a salute via Friday nerd-blogging.
— Lindsey B (@lindseybieda) March 17, 2017
The website e-IR asked me to review how mainstream media have represented radical Islamist media in the past decade, and what this means for the spread of radical discourses more broadly. Here is my reply, and you can read the original at e-IR here.
Mainstream media’s presentation of radical Islamic terrorism since 11 September 2001 is simply a continuation of how mainstream media have represented political violence for many decades. Moral panics about enemies within, journalists following agendas set by ministers, scandalised yet sensationalist coverage of violence, victims and perpetrators – all familiar from the post-9/11 period, but also thoroughly documented in the classic studies of media and violence in the 1970s and 80s. The focus on Islam has been hugely damaging for many people across a number of countries, but what is at stake is more fundamental. Modern societies have not found a way to manage the boundaries between their mainstreams and margins. In 20 years’ time, other groups will be demonised, journalists will continue to fail to explain why violence occurs, and many people trying to go about their daily lives will find themselves anxious, suspicious, and ill-informed.
Each society imagines its mainstream differently. Media are the condition for imagined communities, as Benedict Anderson put it, but also imagined enemies. Russia, Israel, France, Thailand – in any country we find journalists, artists, and political leaders routinely making representations of their own values and of groups that might threaten those values. The ‘war on terror’ label enabled a diverse range of states, each with their particular social antagonisms and historical enmities, to represent their struggles as part of an overarching conflict between themselves and radical Islam. They imagined their own community, and an international community, at war. Although some journalists challenged this, journalism as a general institution was a delivery mechanism for the very idea of a war on terror and for all its local manifestations. Reporters on newspapers, 24 rolling news and even ‘highbrow’ news analysis shows accepted the framing assumptions given by military and political leaders, and repeatedly and unthinkingly stitched together disparate attacks into one global narrative.
One of the most striking aspects of this decade was that the enemy became a visual presence as never before. ‘Radical Islam’ could be seen. Indeed, Islam itself became a spectacle for all around the world to gaze upon and think about, the historian Faisal Devji argues. Al-Qaeda took advantage of real-time 24 hour media to project violent events onto all our screens in sporadic but spectacular ways. At the same time, religious views returned to everyday political debate as religious leaders and communities used the internet and TV to promote and discuss their dialogues, concerns and beliefs. This increased visibility created difficulties for many ordinary Muslims, who on the one hand wanted to argue that Islam is one religion and Muslims a united body of people, but on the other complained when the resulting single image grouped together Al-Qaeda’s terrorist iconography with everyday multiculturalism in the West, the rich diversity of Muslim-majority countries, and the terrible suffering of Palestinians. The struggle for the image of Islam took place in large part through mainstream media; if a Muslim person appears in Western news, statistically there is a higher chance it is in a story about terrorism and criminality than if it was an individual of another ethnicity. Lone figures – the angry bearded man and the veiled woman – are the stereotypes media reporting has bequeathed us from the 2000s. While many herald the emergence of social media and the shift from mass communication to what Manuel Castells calls ‘mass self-communication’, it is likely that mainstream media will continue to be a chief venue for the struggle for Islam’s image in the next decade.
Ironically, despite the routine presence of Al-Qaeda in mainstream news, journalists have not always been willing or able to explain what or who Al-Qaeda is, or how it functions. Equally, the term ‘radicalisation’ only became a public term in the 2000s, but journalists have used the term as if its meaning is obvious without actually explained how radicalisation works. Admittedly, these two confusions both stem from the fact that security policymakers lack reliable knowledge about Al-Qaeda and radicalisation themselves, or at least won’t release full information to journalists. Meanwhile a ‘radicalisation industry’ of so-called experts has emerged, willing to speculate on air about radical Islamic terrorism (witness the first 24 hours after Anders Breivik’s killings in Norway this year).These people are rarely challenged by journalists.
As a consequence of these media failings, audiences are routinely presented with the image of an angry bearded man, possibly a clip from a video linked to Al-Qaeda, and then an unspecific warning of an imminent threat. Audiences are asked to be concerned, but not allowed to be informed.
What does this mean for the spread of radical and radicalising groups in the future? Three interlocking, structural tendencies must be considered. First, the state will continue to assimilate all non-state violence as a single threat to international order and the domestic social mainstream. “Violence must not be allowed to succeed”, remarked a British official in the 1970s. It is a simple, unchanging principle. In April 2011 in London, Patrick Mercer OBE, Conservative MP for Newark and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic and International Security, warned that the three security threats facing Britain are Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism, violence ‘attached’ to student protests, and ‘Irish terrorists’ attacking the royal wedding. Drawing a parallel between students and those engaged in terrorism suggests a failure to appreciate that vibrant democracy requires space for dissent and disagreement. From the point of view of the state, however, it is all actual or potential non-state violence. Meanwhile, the latest version of Prevent, the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, has switched attention from addressing violent extremism to simply ‘extremism’. Extremism is understood as divergence from ‘mainstream British values’, defined as ‘democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind’. Society is asked to imagine itself as a community bounded by shared values, but this necessarily puts some people on or outside that boundary. Even if they are not violent, they might one day consider violence, and violence must not be allowed to succeed.
Second, it is a challenge for journalists to observe how political leaders are re-drawing and redefining these boundaries, since they – as responsible, professional insiders – will be asked to categorise and condemn those deemed on the radical outside. News values endure. The drama, simplicity and immediacy of acts of political violence will keep terrorism and violent protest on the news agenda while allowing a new cast of radicals to come to the fore.
Finally, radical Islamic terrorists or any radical group will play cat-and-mouse with security agencies as they try to use digital media to mobilize potential recruits and supporters. This game will be largely invisible to ordinary people. Nevertheless, we will be asked to endorse cybersecurity policies and work within modified internet infrastructures without being given any systematic data on connections between radicalism, radicalisation and cybersecurity. Journalists will be no better informed, but will be obliged to report as if there are connections.
These intersecting pathologies might leave the reader pessimistic. Opportunities for change seem minimal. On an immediate level, it is a question of changing behaviours. Can security journalists bring a more informed manner of reporting to mainstream audiences? Will the state decide it has a stake in a more informed citizenry? Will citizens themselves bypass mainstream media to find alternative ways to be informed? On a more profound level, it is a question of finding new ways to conceive and manage the relationship between social mainstreams and margins. The implicit equivalence of margin with radical and radical with violence makes for perpetual insecurity. Finding a more mature approach, however, opens up fundamental questions about the state, society and individual which few have begun to ask. This is where the challenge lies.
A new study has cast doubt on these assumptions. This opens a space for a more analytical approach to how media, NGOs and intelligence agencies provide warnings and how states and international organisations can decide to respond. The Foresight project has spent three years analysing under what circumstances warnings are noticed, prioritised, and acted upon. The team, led by Christoph Meyer, has looked at a series of case studies offering various degrees of warning and response, including Estonia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Macedonia, Darfur, and Georgia. They have interviewed responders from the UK, US, Germany, the UN, EU and OSCE and analysed media and NGO reporting around these conflicts. In short, they’ve done a lot of the empirical work that was missing from the 1990s debate. What have they found?
And as the Foresight study shows, decision-makers will still pick up the New York Times or turn on the BBC and trust their favourite reporter, even though those reporters might no longer be able to go to the countries they’re reporting on. Hence, for all the promise of communication technology, foreign policy is still about the human factor and cognitive biases. Understanding the warning-response gap in the next decade will involve some careful unpicking of the interplay over time of stressed, confused people in media, humanitarian and government agencies.
[Cross-posted from https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/]
You have devoted your life to creating a great empire, one that stretches around the world and wields influence over politics and culture in a number of countries. Decades of criticism and conspiracy about the pernicious effects of your empire only testify to your importance. You have groomed your successors and shaped the climate they will work within. Biographers will not be able to knock the magnitude of your achievements. Your story is written. You are legendary, a mythical figure in your lifetime, hated, loved, known. So imagine the agony of losing this reputation in a single act and finding that all you built can be swept swiftly away. Instead of being remembered as a great empire builder you’ll be remembered for a single, tawdry episode. The horror!
International relations is full of leaders and legends who achieved much but will be remembered for a totally different and humiliating reason. The Spanish novelist Javier Marias calls this narrative horror:
Its what we call “vergüenza torera”, literally, “a bullfighter’s sense of shame” … Because bullfighters, of course, have loads of witnesses, a whole arena full, plus sometimes a TV audience of millions, so it’s perfectly understandable that they should think: “I’d rather leave here with a ruptured femoral artery or dead than be thought a coward in the presence of all these people who will go on to talk about it endlessly and for ever.” Bullfighters fear narrative horror like the plague, that final defining wrong move, they really care about how their lives end.
And ‘it’s the same with … almost any other public figure’ – the retired pop star whose paedophilia is suddenly and definitively public, the movie star whose career is eclipsed by a racist outburst or car chase, the president whose eight years in office will be remembered for a misplaced cigar, the international office holder for whom a graphic accusation of rape is never exorcised from the public mind.
It is these single tawdry episodes that Marias writes of, but I wonder if narrative horror is looming for Rupert Murdoch. There are many hoping that we are at the beginning of a chain reaction episode that will bring the downfall of his News International business and potentially his wider News Corps empire in the US, Australia and Asia. It seems the editors and journalists of his UK newspapers operated an institutionalized practice of bribing police and hacking into the voicemails of anyone newsworthy, including murdered schoolchildren and dead soldiers, not to say the sitting Prime Minister’s bank account and the medical records of his ill children. The ingenious practices that have made his UK newspapers so successful became – inside a week – the disgusting practices that force him to start shutting those newspapers down. His bid to take over the pay-TV operator BSkyB is now opposed by all parties. Such a twist in the larger tale of his empire-building can only be a blow to Murdoch’s pride.
If this has happened in other countries, a new mythology will quickly form, especially as these practices have long been suspected. The troubling links in the UK between News International and the current Prime Minister’s choice of press officers raises questions about a new iron triangle of press, police and political leaders that exerts control of public information that could be replicated anywhere institutional arrangements allow. Murdoch failed to contain the crisis in the UK, now he must fear contagion. The sense of narrative horror must be setting in.
Under this pressure, will Murdoch say or do something that will obliterate his life story so far? We might think this unlikely – he’s too smooth an operator, too experienced, and his reporters know where everyone’s bodies are buried. But Marias’ point is that you cannot know your own face tomorrow – what you are capable of, and how you will look to others. We have a parallel, private or theoretical self who could break through any moment and ruin all our hard work and public reputation. How far will this go and how will he react? Parliament has called for him to give evidence next week. It is a chance for the final defining wrong move.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of International Relations is that the decisions leaders make aren’t fully explained by their rational reading of structural forces or immediate conditions. Life intervenes: character and psychology, personal glory and horror, boldness and panic. So I’ll call this Narrative Horror #1 and invite contributions about other leaders who lost it all – or who found a way out.
My Rules of War class this past Spring was an Honors version of the course, and to challenge my students I asked them to do original research on popular conceptions of international humanitarian law, an issue the International Committee of the Red Cross takes quite seriously. The assignment was to identify a concept in the rules of war, gain a firm understanding of the law, then identify a set of data on how people see those rules, and use content analytic or discourse analytic coding methods to study how far apart the representations of the law in text are from the rules as understood or represented in reality, and in which respects. It was a tough assignment!
The students were at liberty to choose any kind of text data they wanted. Some chose blog posts. Some chose news articles. Some studied internal DoD memos to try to understand the narratives of policymakers as they tried to implement the rules of war. One scoured the Star Wars Trilogy screenplays for evidence of inaccurate portrayals of just warrior-hood (see below). All were required to attend a coding workshop, explain their methods and their findings, and draw inferences about the dissemination of humanitarian law to the public, media and policymakers.
Having graded many an undergraduate paper in my day, I was mightily impressed by the quality of the papers I saw and the amount of effort and detail many of these students put into their projects. Below the fold are short descriptions of the five best papers in the class, with accompanying visualizations. Working papers are linked below.
Dan Glaun snagged a summer research assistantship with me for this paper, in which he explores how news coverage of the Geneva Conventions themselves has changed since 9/11, in the context of agenda-setting theory. Dan tracks an increase in the overall salience of war law reportage in the US press, a shift in the referent point of the articles, and a corresponding change in the accuracy, precision and normative bent of the news coverage compared to war crimes reporting in the 1990s:
“In the two years preceding 9/11, there was not a single story which misrepresented the Conventions. However, only 11% of the stories were precise as well as accurate. The pre-9/11 newspaper reports tended to engage in generalities about civilian protection and war crimes, rather than citing specific sections of the Conventions or quoting significant excerpts from the texts. Post 9/11, however, the profile of accuracy and precision changed significantly. Accuracy declined from 100 to 65 percent, indicating an increase in media misrepresentation of the Conventions. Simultaneously, precision increased from 11 to 54%, including both accurate representations and specific, precise claims which were in actuality false. Among accurate articles post 9/11, 58% were precise and 42% vague. For inaccurate articles, 44% were precise and 56% vague. This demonstrates an acrossthe-board decrease in accuracy following 9/11. It also shows a universal increase in precision, both in accurate and inaccurate accounts.”
Christine Donovan examined jus ad bellum justifications for the Iraq war in not only press coverage but also US and British political speeches and statements. Christine examined both newspaper articles and political speeches for both countries and coded them not only according to how accurate, vague or misleading they were but also for what type of war law arguments were used to sell the war. She found that overall both press coverage and political rhetoric in the US was less misleading than in Britain (and also relied less on arguments grounded in humanitarian law, such as Hussein’s treatment of civilians). She also found that the media and the public were far more interested in international law aspects of the invasion than the politicians were in making international law arguments:
“While the positive interpretation of UNSCR 1441 (as well as 678 and 687) appeared to have been the soundest legal argument for the United States and the United Kingdom to make, it was not the main focus of political rhetoric. This may have stemmed from the belief that, perhaps, complicated legal arguments would not resonate with ordinary people as much as weapons of mass destruction or human rights violations would. However, the strong focus on international law found in the selection of newspaper articles, especially those later on in the war effort for the United States and consistently in the United Kingdom, suggest that the public cares more about international law and the legality of the invasion than originally assumed. Perhaps United States and United Kingdom officials made an error by not presenting this legal reasoning to the public in depth, as it might have improved public opinion.”
Wes Mason, who also worked with me on my Battlestar Tweet project, examined how well bloggers understood the law on cultural property as applied to both Iraq and Egypt. He finds some variation between Egypt and Iraq (discussed at more length) but also some general conclusions:
“My analysis shows that bloggers do not use particularly nuanced understandings of international law to make arguments about protecting cultural property in armed conflict, that they are far more likely to reference the Hague Regime than the Geneva Regime, and that they are even more likely to reference other laws outside the aforementioned regimes specific ally concerned with preventing the trafficking rather the destruction of cultural property.”
Sarah Wesley coded a random sample of 200 articles from the NYTimes, Al-Jazeera, WSJ and Huffington Post to explore to what extent the term ‘enemy combatant’ has come to be used interchangeably with ‘detainee.’ She found that the answer depended somewhat on the source – with Al-Jazeera six times more likely than the NYTimes to use the terms interchangeably, but also more likely to put the term ‘enemy combatant’ in quote marks when used, and far less likely to use it overall:
“On average, newspapers recognize there is a clear distinction between the terms ‘enemy combatant’ and ‘detainee’ and/or ‘prisoner of war.’ However interestingly, these news outlet did not often understand the differences between the terms.”
And last but not least, without doubt the juiciest paper of the entire lot was Shawheen Saffari‘s analysis of the Star Wars Trilogy, in which he finds a significant gap between portrayals of just conduct by the rebels and the standards of conduct required of actual rebels under humanitarian law circa 1977 and after:
“My analysis shows that the Rebels in Star Wars abide to war law in some cases but not all, including certain tactics that would be considered grave violations. While Rebels would generally follow law dictating accepted uniform and bearing of arms, the Rebels would frequently harm civilians in the majority interactions as well as show disregard towards civilian property that would be deemed culturally or religiously significant, violations specifically of Articles 13 and 16 of the AP II.”
Quick: how many war law violations can you find in this clip?
The killing of Osama bin Laden allows political leaders to further disentangle Iraq, Afghanistan and the whole war on terror concept; to wind down some operations and refocus others; to bring some stories to light and push others aside, to be forgotten. But how do those who served in these wars feel about this? In today’s New York Times Captain Shannon P. Meehan, a US veteran of the 2003 Iraq War, published a powerful statement of alienation on this matter. Meehan felt no closure on hearing of bin Laden’s death. It only brought a sense of distance and disconnection. It reminded him he had been part of the bad war, the war whose meaning is already settled in what he calls the ‘shifting public memory of war’. And he must live with the severe injuries he suffered regardless. He writes:
Nobody has come close to explaining how strategic narratives work in international relations, despite the term being banded about. Monroe Price wrote a great article in the Huffington Post yesterday that moves the debate forward. As I have already written, strategic narratives are state-led projections of a sequence of events and identities, a tool through which political leaders try to give meaning to past, present and future in a way that justifies what they want to do. Getting others at home or abroad to accept or align with your narrative is a way to influence their behaviour. But like soft power, we have not yet demonstrated how strategic narratives work. We are documenting how great powers project narratives about the direction of the international system and their identities within that. We see the investments in public diplomacy and norm-promotion. We have not yet demonstrated that these projections have altered the behaviour of other states or publics. Does the Arab Spring show these narratives at work?
Many leaders in the West and protestors taking part in the Arab Spring promoted a narrative about the spread of freedom, often conflating this with the hope and vigour of youth and emancipatory potential of social media. Of course this narrative may be bogus, as Jean-Marie Guéhenno argues in yesterday’s New York Times. However, the key point Price makes is that narratives set expectations, regardless of their veracity. Narratives defined what NOME leaders were expected to do: step aside! We can see the power of narratives by seeing what happens to those who defy them. Mubarak and Saif Gaddafi both gave speeches where they were expected to align with the narrative. The narrative set the context and expectation for how they should behave. But they did the opposite of what was expected. Price writes:
At the beginning of every war, journalists must quickly find a frame that makes the new violence intelligible to their audiences. It is often convenient to compare new events to old events, to see what looks similar and what looks different (journalists routinely follow the principle of comparison earlier articulated by Sesame Street). In 2006, during the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman employed the Vietnam template in an op-ed: ‘in time we’ll come to see the events unfolding — or rather, unraveling — in Iraq today as the real October surprise, because what we’re seeing there seems like the jihadist equivalent of the Tet offensive’ (here, subscription required). The White House rarely responds to op-ed columns. Perhaps alarmed by possible parallels – afraid of the “quagmire” analogy – it responded directly to Friedman’s claim (here).
Yesterday the BBC’s Andrew North wrote:
But what Anstead’s paper seems to suggest is this: Even if journalists are excluded from an event, the media ecology inhabited by political leaders, reporters and publics will shape what is thought possible, intelligible and legitimate, whether in domestic or international politics – an indirect but inescapable effect. Political processes can be un-mediated yet mediatized. He will present a more developed draft of his paper at the PSA Annual Convention in London in April, but if you are interested in receiving a copy please email N.M.Anstead@lse.ac.uk
Crossposted from https://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/
In Diffused War, Andrew Hoskins and I argued we’ve entered a new paradigm of warfare. The wikileaks stories seem to confirm much of this account. War is mediatized, we wrote, as the institutions of war and those affected by war take a form governed by continual media recording, display and archiving. This creates diffuse causal relations between action and effect, since mediatization can amplify or contain the cognitive and emotional response any action generates in ways not dependent on the initial action itself. Militaries, NGOs, insurgents, journalists – none can predict the outcomes of their actions or the display of their actions. US and UK military practitioners did not envisage their communications going public, but their institutions allowed those records to exist. And as my Duck colleague Charli Carpenter notes, they’ve started shredding documents. This is to counter the greater uncertainty now faced by those conducting war. While who sees what, when, and where is usually largely controlled (most people still rely on mainstream media), the potential for surprises is permanent and unavoidable, such that the worst case must always be built into decision-making.
In contrast to the splutterings of military chiefs, for my students wikileaks is already the norm. So what should we expect to see next? Where might novelty lie? Let’s take a risk and look briefly at some ideas in contemporary art, which has long dealt with mediatization and how it reconfigures human relationships and our ideas of the image and representation. Nicolas Bourriaud recently wrote that, in our ‘control+S’ culture of instant archiving of all political and social life, ‘an insistence on the “here and now” of the artistic event and a refusal to record it are a challenge to the art world’. What is notable now is what goes unrecorded or is not made public. He discusses Brian de Palma’s 2003 Iraq war film Redacted, which pieces together soldiers’ blogs, cameraphone footage and other media from the war to produce a style of ‘organized proliferation’ that is now common in TV and movies generally. Pushed to its limit, Bourriaud suggests, ‘the degree of spatial (and imaginary) clutter is such that the slightest gap in its chain produces a visual effect’. In other words, we now expect the depiction of war to amalgamate several media recording technologies, a chain of styles, textualities and episodes edited into any single news summary or Hollywood movie. And if a gap occurs, something is wrong. If no citizen-generated content emerges, that is surprising. If footage from the helicopter gunship’s point of view is absent from the news report, and we now know such a perspective is continually recorded, then at least a few members of the audience might begin to ask why there’s no footage.
We’d expect the next phase of military media management to employ the full range of textual styles to which audiences are now accustomed. Its a question of credibility, and studies show audiences are far more savvy than military practitioners assume. With that in mind, instead of shredding documents and looking like you’ve something to hide, perhaps a truly pre-emptive PR agent would deliberately create a full, convincing range of leaks for wikileaks such that a controlled version of the worst is already on show. It would then appear there are no surprising gaps.
Last week I participated in a workshop at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies in Doha, Qatar, which brought to an end the ESRC’s Radicalisation & Violence programme of research projects, led by Prof. Stuart Croft. I was one of several researchers invited to present recent research on ‘terrorism, resistance and radicalisation’. My fledgling experience of academia has thus far been that debates rarely get politicised. It is noteworthy when it happens, triggering a visceral thrill or horror as we depart from our scripts of professional civility. The Radicalisation & Violence programme has been politicised from the outset. Anthropologists and sociologists were unhappy that researchers might apply to carry out fieldwork in dangerous regions, that the FCO was offering some funding towards the programme and hence it was ‘state-sponsored’ to an extent (although so is the ESRC), and nobody carrying out research could be unaware that in the UK in the 2000s people at universities were being arrested for having ‘radical’ material on their computers, even if they were carrying out legitimate research. It is no surprise, then, that the concluding event retained this political edge. Talking about terrorism in this particular region could not be otherwise.
James Ron and Howard Ramos have a piece in Foreign Policy on how Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International select countries to criticize. Especially, they talk about how media coverage drives human rights reporting:
Human rights groups are partly true to their mission, since they report more on countries with more human rights problems…Amnesty and Human Rights Watch also seek visibility and impact, however… Like any advocacy organization concerned with real-world effects, the watchdogs feel compelled to respond to media interest. Supply rises with demand; the more journalists who ask about a country, the more information watchdogs will supply.
…This, for better or for worse, is the way the news game is played. The media report on issues or countries it thinks readers care about, and advocacy groups of all stripes respond in kind, creating the virtuous (or vicious) cycles that drive public attention.
Hmmm… well, the actual study they are describing in their article is a bit more nuanced. In the scholarly version, media coverage is only one of several factors explaining reporting patterns, including whether an organization has previously reported on the same topic; or how powerful the target of influence is. But then again, Ron and Ramos are writing for a beltway journal now, so
nuance be damned they can be forgiven for a little simplifying.
Still, the media-watchdog relationship may be over-determined in this account. Surely it goes both ways: Human Rights Watch and Amnesty do not just follow the news, they create it with their reports. Consider Darfur, a festering civil war which suddenly became politically interesting early in 2004. The first media report on Darfur occurred directly as a result of the pioneer journalist having read an Amnesty International report on Darfur published six months earlier.
Third, it will be interesting to see if this model, to the extent it is valid, holds true for thematic human rights issues rather than country-reporting. I don’t have statistical tests to show you (not yet anyway), but I can think of lots of counter-examples to the argument that media attention drives watchdog attention on thematic issues. (Journalists loves “robot menace” stories, but so far these organizations have not gone there.)
Regarding the alleged viscious/virtuous circle, Ron and Ramos go on:
Whether this is this a good or a bad thing depends on your ethic of moral engagement. If you believe in Quixotic struggles and think watchdogs should swim valiantly against the tide, you’ll castigate Human Rights Watch and Amnesty for investing more resources, time, and energy on countries already in the news. ‘What about Niger?’ you’ll ask. And if you’re young and rebellious, you might even mutter something nasty about corporate sellouts under your breath.
But if you believe an advocacy group’s highest purpose is to make a difference, you’ll support the strategy of focusing on targets of opportunity. You’ll also think that investing scarce activist resources in low-interest struggles should be done sparingly, lest the few watchdogs we have go bankrupt in pursuit of lost causes.
Nicely articulated. Then again:
1) Most of the mudslinging about Amnesty comes from the young and rebellious? Really? To me it seemed more like the old, cranky and conservative.
2)Amnesty and HRW aren’t “the few watchdogs” we have; they are simply the most visible and well-networked – see this paper by Amanda Murdie and her collaborators.
3) I worry about the reification of “low-interest struggles” in this piece. Low interest to whom? Not those in Niger. And not inevitably. Darfur too was once an ignored crisis.
So a really interesting question is what role human rights organizations can and do play in generating “interest” – in advancing the human rights agenda – in the absence of media attention; and why they choose to play that role sometimes and not others.
The Associated Press has sparked a controversy by publishing these graphic photos of Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard’s death in Afghanistan, against the wishes of his parents and the Pentagon.
Forgetting the fact that we never seem too concerned about representations of dismembered or dying people from other countries, let’s review the two key issues in the debate:
1) Should the DoD be bullying the press into sitting on war photos that render war as ugly as it is? In reviewing the coverage on blogs, most comments I’ve seen by military personnel argue no.* But they also think it’s bunk to assume that a) the public doesn’t ‘get it’ and b) that the war is ‘senseless’ and c) that the public will turn against the war if they see ‘what it’s really like.’ On all three points, I agree (that it’s bunk).
2) Should the press respect the preferences of those it represents and their families even if it means suppressing the full truth? This is by far the more important issue in my mind, for Bernard’s family (not just the Pentagon) twice asked the AP not to publish photos of his death. I tend to come down on victims’ rights in these cases, and ironically, so do progressives most of the time. A lot of the same liberals who are supporting the AP in this case, because they believe in the political agenda behind its decision, would have criticized war journalists in Bosnia for publishing photographs of rape victims against their request, no matter how useful this would have been in bringing attention to the horrors of war. If I were in the reporter’s shoes in either case, I’d have respected such a request.
On the other hand, if the US government wished to lend support to the family’s cause, it could not have chosen a worse spokesperson than the Secretary of Defense. Now this family’s genuine wish for privacy has been associated in the public’s mind with the DoD’s agenda to maintain war’s legitimacy – and has undermined both.
*Those who identify themselves as having served are saying things like the following in comments on the Denver Post article that broke these photos:
“I am a 3rd generation combat arms soldier. I have several good friends buried at Arlington. I feel for this young amn’s family and honor his sacrifice and his memory. But I have no qualms about publishing photographs of my death or my friends death as death is part of war and we must be able to comprehend that every death is a horrible thing and a great sacrifice to a family and friends back home. Recall the shot of the rotting corpse of a soldier in a shell hole that is one of the “classic” images of WWI…the photo showing the washed up bodies of dead Marines on a beach in the Pacific, etc etc…yes, the images are graphic, but unfortunately they are also necessary. A photo can mobilize a nation to fight when necessary, or it can serve to start the dialogue needed to end an unjust one. Free society requires a free press. You don’t have to like it, just honor it. That is what we are/were fighting for after all people…freedom.”
“I’m glad the photos were published. As a Marine, I’m far from disgusted by them. I am appalled that such “hoopla” is being raised over it. This is war, it’s not pretty or fun. It’s not all parades and fireworks.”
“I am a Corpsman (the medics that take care of the Marines) currently deployed to Iraq. People dont fully untderstand what is going on over here and in Afghanistan. We see it everyday. If you guys want to send us to war and not come along for the fun, well you better not complain when you have to look at how ugly it really is.”
UPDATE: The original version of this post was “Children and the Media.” It was basically a little tirade about the absence of genuine news media for children.
What was ironic about this post is that my rant was triggered by a visit to BBC’s website (upon following a link from BBC’s homepage to their “Children’s” page, I found primarily a bunch of games rather than substantive news for children):
“What a statement of contemporary assumptions about children’s role as citizens! It’s as if BBC thinks kids have no interest in current events or need for relevant, age-appropriate journalism. Too bad, actually. As 10-year-old Damon Weaver reminded us with his recent interview of President Obama, young people everywhere can be and are engaged in the events of the day, especially those that affect them (and what doesn’t?).”
However, as was pointed out in comments, BBC is actually one of the few “global” news organizations that do in fact produce news tailored to children, and has since 1972. However, you can’t find “Newsround” easily unless you grew up with it and know where to look – the BBC homepage doesn’t link to it (not even among its “32 languages; I don’t know, kid-ese seems like another language to me half the time), or from the “Children’s” page (mostly games); you have to go to the “Children’s BBC” page from the “Children’s Page on BBC” and even that includes only the Newsround icon (see – it’s that funny N down there in the corner), but if you aren’t already familiar with the icon that won’t help much. You won’t get far, for example, by surfing around in search of something that looks like the word “News” on the children’s page; or “Children’s News” on the homepage.
What did I learn from this experience?
1) I was wrong (and delighted to be so). If I want to get my kids interested in reading current events, BBC is actually setting a great example for the US news media. (Although, see here and here.) If there’s an equivalent of Newsround here in the States, I’ve never heard of it and neither have any of the parents I know (most had also never heard of Newsround). By contrast, to hear my commenters talk, Newsround is so ingrained in British culture that kids “presumably all recognize the logo.”
2) I was right. BBC is providing children’s news, but it’s also steering them (and parents like me) away from it in exactly the way I criticized in my earlier post. While we’re waiting for global news organizations to follow this example, BBC will fill that niche a lot more easily if it rethinks its new website design to emphasize news instead of entertainment for kids. It would be a simple matter, would it not, to treat the Newsround website as the children’s homepage, with games and activities embedded in Newsround itself? Instead, currently, games dominate the Children’s page, and Newsround is relegated to a tricky-to-find external section. (I don’t know about your kids, but mine would never make it past all the tantalizing drivel even if they knew what to look for; and I doubt many kids outside of the UK will “recognize the logo.”)
Architecture is governance. The packaging of information is as important as its presence or absence. It shapes our perception of what is available as well as our access; it shapes assumptions about what it is normal to want; and thus, it communicates and reproduces social values. Though I picked on the wrong news organization, my essential argument remains: too little thought is given in our culture to the idea that kids might be interested in the world around them, whereas enormous amounts of energy are spent turning them into consumers of entertainment and goods. This should be changed.
P.S. My original and now defunct post remains below the fold to remind me never to use this blog as a space for venting everyday frustrations without doing my research. Sorry, BBC.
On BBC’s recently revamped website, I noticed this morning a link to “Children” which I assumed would be a webpage devoted to getting children interested in the news and current events through coverage of topics related to them. Instead I found this:
What a statement of contemporary assumptions about children’s role as citizens! It’s as if BBC thinks kids have no interest in current events or need for relevant, age-appropriate journalism. Too bad, actually. As 10-year-old Damon Weaver reminded us with his recent interview of President Obama, young people everywhere can be and are engaged in the events of the day, especially those that affect them (and what doesn’t?).
Here are other examples of news stories involving children that might have appeared on BBC’s “Children” page, were it structured to take children’s intelligence seriously rather than to provide cheap and low-quality entertainment:
1) Picking Tobacco is Bad For Children: “THOUSANDS OF child labourers working as pickers on Malawi’s tobacco plantations are exposed to nicotine poisoning equal to smoking 50 cigarettes a day, an international children’s rights group said yesterday. Plan has called upon Malawi’s tobacco industry to vastly improve working conditions, and the government to ensure existing child labour laws are enforced in full.”
2) Study Confirms Universal Health Care for Children is Good For Society. “In June, Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy released “The Economic Impact of Uninsured Children on America,” a new report whose bottom line is that extending health insurance coverage to all children in the United States would be relatively inexpensive compared to the cost of letting children remain uninsured and would yield economic benefits that are greater than the costs.”
3) New York Should Treat Children in Prison Less Harshly, Says Justice Department. “A recently completed federal investigation has documented unsafe and, in some cases, heartbreaking conditions in several New York state detention facilities.The department describes a hellish environment where excessive force is commonplace and children risk serious injury — concussions, knocked-out teeth and fractured bones — for minor offenses like laughing too loudly, getting into fistfights or “sneaking an extra cookie” at snack time.”
4) Stressed Out Families? Too Much Work, Not Too Many Children, Is the Problem.“Families in which both partners work long hours are more stressed than others, but the addition of children doesn’t seem to have much impact on stress levels, according to a new report from Statistics Canada.”
5) African Children’s Choir on Tour in the Pacific Northwest. “The critically acclaimed choir, whose members are drawn from impoverished African communities, has performed for dignitaries such as President George W. Bush and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, and strives to raise awareness of the plight of children on the African continent.”
And children are not just interested in news about children. BBC and other news outlets could take a hint from efforts by children’s websites like Pitara, which include a round-up of world news written in language kids can understand. Still, how much more accessible such news would be if it came to kids through the media machines their parents rely upon for daily reports. And how much more engaged children would be in our society if this were the case. And, perhaps, how much more responsive adults would be to children’s needs if it were taken for granted that their informed voices were a legitimate part of our national debates.
An AP article claiming that “legendary outlaw Robin Hood wasn’t as popular as folklore suggests” has been picked up by a number of media outlets. Presumably one Professor Julian Lukford of the UK has drawn this conclusion based on a monk’s scrawl in a history book circa 1460:
“Writing in Latin, the monk accuses Hood of “infesting Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies.”
OK, so Robin Hood was perceived as a thief by authorities during the period. What’s so surprising about this? And how does it prove he was ‘unpopular’ just because certain members of the clergy objected to his activities? Show me the equivalent of a 13th century Gallup poll demonstrating antipathy by the commoners, and then you’re talking. Until then, you’re just generalizing to the entire population of the area an opinion based on one data point – by a historian who actually lived two centuries later.
Luxford’s rather contradictory comments themselves suggest as much, leading me to wonder whether the press has quoted him out of context to sell a story. The BBC quotes him as saying:
“Rather than depicting the traditionally well-liked hero, the article suggests that Robin Hood and his merry men may not actually have been ‘loved by the good’. The new find contains a uniquely negative assessment of the outlaw, and provides rare evidence for monastic attitudes towards him.”
But the longer version of the AP article quotes the following more nuanced interpretation of the findings, one that doesn’t support headlines claiming Luxford has debunked the myth:
Luxoford “said it was not entirely surprising that monks, as part of England’s clerical establishment, harbored negative feelings about the bandit.
Luxford said Robin Hood stories from the Middle Ages paint him as an ally of “good knights and yeomen — salt-of-the-earth type people. But they are not so positive about his relationship with the clergy.”
In other words, does this finding confirm, rather than debunk, the classic narrative?
Luxford’s work is probably more important for clarifying the exact time period in which the famous outlaw lived. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
“Luxford said the note is the earliest known reference to the outlaw from an English source and supports arguments that the historical Robin Hood lived in the 13th century, even though most popular modern versions of the story set him in the late 12th century reign of King Richard I.
Luxford said his discovery also may help settle debates in England about exactly where Robin Hood lived. The northern England county of Yorkshire has long claimed he was based there, but folklore has most commonly placed Hood in Sherwood Forest.
John Knox has published a long and dense yet fascinating article, “Horizontal Human Rights Law” in January’s issue of the American Journal of International Law. In it, he asks considers whether international human rights law, designed to prescribe how states may and must treat their citizens, also impose human responsibilities on citizens themselves?
Thinking that it maybe should, the now-defunct Human Rights Commission took up the issue before it disbanded in 2006, an effort which culminated in a Draft Declaration on Human Social Responsibilities that aimed to lay out both the horizontal duties that individuals own one another as members of society, and the vertical duties owed to their states and governments (like the duty to obey the law or serve the nation).
Knox points out that existing human rights law already enshrines correlative duties – that is, duties to one another – in the limits it allows states to place on the exercise of individual rights, and the requirement that states pass and enforce laws criminalizing the abuse of human rights by private actors like corporations or family members.
What earlier multilateral negotiations rejected, however, and what the Draft Declaration would also promote if adopted, is a set of converse duties – duties owed by individuals to the state itself. Knox argues against the Declaration on these grounds: if rights, which are designed to curtail how the state may treat its citizens, are contingent on human duties owed to the state, then this would undermine the entire concept of non-derogable human rights:
“Correlative duties are truly horizontal… they run between actors on the same legal plane, and, unlike converse duties, they appear to further, rather than undermine, the enjoyment of human rights. Converse duties ahve the potential ot undermine human rights because the government may rely on them to offset the duties it owes to the individual under human rights law.
Human rights law should do more to develop specific private duties to promote and protect human rights. But advocates of new proposals for private duties should ensure that their proposals strengthen, rather than weaken, the existing system of horizontal human rights law.
The Draft Declaration on Human Social Responsibilities fails. It is a collection of converse duties that raise the very concerns that led to the rejection of lists of private duties in human rights agreements.”
I generally agree with Knox’s broad argument. However I’m not certain I can agree with his reading of the Draft Declaration, at least on the basis of some of the examples he gives. (I have not yet had time to read the declaration closely myself.) An example that caught my eye was this one:
“Rather that attempt to delineate duties that the right of freedom might place on private actors, the draft declaration would limit that right: ‘Ever person linked to the mass media has the duty to provide information with due objectivity and discretion based on sounds reasoning, the verified truth of the information give and absolute fidelity to what is said by the sources consulted about it.'”
I’m not certain I see how this example represents a converse duty to be feared rather than a correlative duty to be embraced. It could be enumerated as a media informant’s right not to be misquoted or to have their experiences sensationalized for profit. But it’s expressed as a corresponding duty.
While I expect Knox’s general argument about the dangers of converse duties are valid, it’s too bad he used this particular example to make his point, since this seems like precisely the kind of correlative duty the human rights system should be finding ways to promote. It’s often amazed me at how strict the standards of confidentiality, informed consent and fidelity are for social scientists, and how lax the standards and oversight are for journalists. Since human lives can in fact be lost when journalists act unethically (which sometimes give the state an excuse to clamp down on press freedom per se), it seems that the human rights regime perhaps should be able to reach and punish such harms directly. That way, journalists would have their own set of incentives to police themselves, and any excuse for blanket repression of press freedoms by the state would be eliminated.
Perhaps a more nuanced argument would be not to oppose the Draft entirely, but simply oppose converse duties. I think we need a clearer discussion than Knox provides of how to distinguish one kind of duty from another, however.
Sorry for the lack of posts recently, I’ve been sick all week and finally feel like myself again this afternoon, so I’m going to try to catch up on a few things that I had meant to mention but….
First off: A must read from last Sunday’s NYT (I had actually started the post earlier, but only typed 2 lines before I started coughing).
So, to all those who thought that the US needed to do a better job in winning the “war of ideas,” it turns out that the US is doing a fantastic job—just targeting a different audience. Last Sunday’s NYT has a fascinating bit of investigative journalism on the cozy to insidious relationship between expert military analysts employed by major media organizations and the Pentagon’s public affairs team. In a nutshell, the Pentagon treated the retired senior officers acting as media analysts as its behind enemy lines information warriors, in place to shape the story of Iraq. Whenever bad information was reported, the Pentagon fed these analysts talking points which were then repeated on air or in print. What makes it really seamy is that these analysts were treated to first-class access to the upper echelons of DoD and used that access to advance their consulting gigs, helping to win contracts. DoD also paid big bucks to a media monitoring firm to track each and every media appearance of its team of analysts to monitor its efforts.
Now, a military friend of mine was not at all surprised by this–his reaction was duh, why wouldn’t they at least try this. I think the surprise is the extent of the effort, the blatant payoff in contracts for customers (sort of a play to get paid), and the monitoring and resulting swift retribution for those going off message.
Some seem to think this is more arrogance by the Administration, but my reaction was that smacks of insecurity even more.
Bush likes to analogize himself to Truman—a president who did what he thought was right, ended up rather unpopular as a result, but was vindicated by history. The key difference now exposed is that Truman never wavered in his forthrightness with the American people. Truman was vastly unpopular in 1948 as well, and yet still managed to defeat Dewey (famous photo to the contrary), because when he campaigned on the merits of his actions, his honest, forthright, and persuasive arguments carried the day. What we now see is that this administration has no honest, forthright, and persuasive arguments to offer the American people on the war with Iraq. Rather, it seeks to define the rhetorical terrain in the media in its favor because it knows that it can’t win on a level playing field, as its unvarnished arguments have little merit and even less persuasive value to the public at large.
Really, though, you should read the article and judge for yourself.
Does the press often serve as “government’s little helper”?
As you might guess, I am still thinking about the apparent failure of the public sphere (or “marketplace of ideas” if you prefer) to work properly during foreign policy crises. Many readers graciously provided interesting and helpful comments on my post from last week. Thank you! For now, however, I continue to explore the academic literature about the alleged timidity of journalists during such crises.
One implication is clear — when internal dissent is lacking, press reports will reflect fairly one-sided coverage. Bennett’s latest book, When the Press Fails: Political Power and the News Media from Iraq to Katrina (Chicago, 2007), coauthored with Regina G. Lawrence and Steven Livingston makes this argument in the context of the current administration:
During the gravest moments of George W. Bush’s tenure—the response to 9/11, the buildup to war with Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal—the media largely reported reality as his administration scripted it. Why, in these times when we most need a critical, independent press, does this essential pillar of democracy fail us? …When the Press Fails argues that reporters’ dependence on official sources disastrously thwarts coverage of dissenting voices from outside the beltway.
The result is both an indictment of official spin and an urgent call to action that begins by questioning why the mainstream press neglected to cover considerable evidence against the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Drawing on hard-hitting interviews with journalists and analysis of content from major news outlets, the authors show that such catastrophic blind spots, particularly during the Abu Ghraib controversy, have stemmed from a lack of high-level sources within government willing to question the administration publicly.
Much evidence suggests that “indexing” was a problem throughout the cold war.
Michael Schudson, a professor of communication at the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, and at the University of California, San Diego, wrote the following in The Nation, December 31, 2007:
A study of media coverage of forty-two foreign policy crises between 1945 and 1999 (written by political scientists John Zaller and Dennis Chiu) found the media to be consistently, as the article’s title puts it, “government’s little helper.” The study suggests that docile news coverage was a result of “source indexing,” in which news represents or “indexes” the range of opinions of leading government officials in the executive and the Congress, and “power indexing,” in which news emphasizes most of all the views of those with the greatest capacity to “foretell future events.” Coverage is normally docile, in other words, because it concentrates on the views of government officials whose hands are on or close to the levers of power.
Is the public sphere doomed to fail because of a subservient press — particularly during crises?
“the dynamics of media politics, despite a strong indexing effect over the entire post-World War II period, have changed since the end of the Cold War. In particular, the media tend to be more independent of Congress and the president, though not necessarily more independent of government officials generally.”
In the seven post-cold war cases they study, Zaller and Chiu (p. 77) find that “the news is more balanced, politicians are more fractious, and the slant of the news is more independent.” In the 1990s cases of Somalia and Haiti, for instance, they found the media heavily reliant upon expert sources — many of which were non-American.
As I addressed last week, it seems likely that the post-9/11 context is more like the cold war than the 1990s. The war on terror has re-militarized the public sphere. The deleterious implications, as noted above, are examined by Bennett and colleagues in their new book.
However, even in the most recent context, Bennett and colleagues find dissent. Hurricane Katrina — which was, after all, a homeland security disaster — featured “refreshingly critical reporting.” This “rare event…caught officials off guard, enabling journalists to enter a no-spin zone.”
Bennett et al conclude hopefully:
“if ordinary Americans start to hear alternative perspectives aired in the legitimizing arena of the mainstream press, they just might begin to act as a public.”
That’s interesting — and seemingly consistent with my previous arguments about an open and inclusive public sphere.