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What happens after journalists leave the violence?

The news media have a responsibility to their readers to cover important events even after they drop off the front page.

Last Modified: 04 Oct 2013 14:01
Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden. https://twitter.com/ChrChristensen
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Iraq is an example of the media's short attention span [Getty Images]

March 19, 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Only four months later, in July, Iraq would experience the deadliest 30-day period since 2008, with more than 1,000 civilians killed and 2,100 injured.

In fact, more Iraqi civilians were killed during the first half of 2013 than had been killed during any entire year between 2009 and 2012. While there was a degree of soul-searching on the part of (some) journalists, considering the magnitude of the humanitarian disaster that is contemporary Iraq, the day passed with relatively little fanfare or introspection. And, while the routine bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere are reported, the level of coverage given to Iraq is paltry.

The lack of coverage of Iraq - particularly by the US media - over the past seven or eight years is by no means unusual, but is part of a clear pattern where news organisations cover a number of international events in bursts, but then drop them when the topic loses "heat". This, I would argue, is what we have seen, and are seeing, in the cases of Iran in 2009, the anti-government protests in Brazil, and the Gezi movement in Turkey (and elsewhere).

This is not to say that the coverage of these events has disappeared, but rather that the flood has been replaced with an inconsistent drip. Nor is this to say that there has not been (and still is) good reporting from these areas. But the drop-off in coverage has been palpable.

Selective coverage

Of course, war sells, violence sells and scandal sells. The argument that news organisations focus on the sensational, the unusual and/or the bloody in order to attract readers and advertisers is well-worn and not really in need of re-hashing. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't also acknowledge the role of "hot and sexy" topics in academic research. For example, within my own discipline (Media and Communications) there is an absolute avalanche of research (my own included) on media coverage of the US-led attacks on Iraq in both 1991 and 2003. But, were I to ask a room full of my fellow scholars to name books or articles within our field addressing coverage of the US-led sanctions against Iraq between 1990-2003, you could probably hear crickets chirping in the background.

By choosing to focus on the violent, the tense and the bloody, news organisations have opened doors they must be willing to walk through, which in this case means letting news consumers know what the outcomes ... might be.

Why? Because war and conflict make for rationalised research, just as it makes for stimulating journalism: there is lots of material, events are magnified, there is drama and national ideology tends to bubble to the surface. Sanctions, however, are far less dramatic on a short-term basis. On a long-term basis, however, and depending on which source you look at, the Iraq sanctions were estimated to have killed between 100,000 and 1 million Iraqis. On this issue, I must offer my own mea culpa.

So how do we link this to Iran, Turkey and Brazil? It is simplistic to argue that people simply believe that the only events that are "important" are those covered in the media. People undoubtedly are aware that news organisations cannot cover everything and, thus, editorial decisions must be made. In other words, people know that there are things happening in the world that are important that they simply do not hear about.

In the case of the Iranian elections of 2009, the Arab Spring uprisings in countries such as Tunisia and Libya, the anti-government protests in Brazil and the Gezi Park movement in Turkey, the international media did give these events coverage. There were powerful images: the streets of Istanbul shrouded in an eerie fog of tear-gas; pepper-sprayed protesters in Rio; the lifeless body of  Neda Agha Soltan in Tehran; the fallen statue of Saddam; and Bush "Top Gun" on an aircraft carrier with a "Mission Accomplished" banner behind him.

While these images remain in our heads, they were supplemented in news reports by rather broad presentations of their contexts, and not a great deal of follow-up. As a result, the protests and violence covered over short periods of time remain in a form of frozen animation, with no real understanding of what the longer-term implications might be. While stories of youthful protests on Twitter with good visuals are sexy, post-protest negotiations and long-term consolidation are not.

The Iraqi example

Iraq is perhaps the best example of this: While the world's media zoomed in on the country following the invasion, the drop-off in coverage once the occupation had become "old news" made it extremely difficult for the average news consumer (in other words, not academics or think-tank members) to follow and understand the incredibly complex political environment in Iraq. I consider the lack of coverage of Iraq by the US media over the past seven to eight years to be particularly egregious, as the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was met with little critical analysis by the US media. In fact, it is fair to say that many media outlets actively cheered on the war, ignorant or uncaring of the implications of this support for millions of Iraqis and thousands of US troops.

An exception to the pattern I am discussing would be Egypt, which has remained in the headlines for an extended period. I would wager, however, that Egypt's place in the global news consciousness is likely a function of the repeated large-scale public protests and violent crackdowns that have taken place since Mubarak's fall, rather than a general interest in Egyptian domestic politics. The reduction of coverage of the protests in Iran, Turkey and Brazil after a period of engagement, on the other hand, might be considered more understandable, given limited resources and world events.

Yet I would argue that - like Iraq - coverage of Tehran, Gezi and Rio is part of a much larger pattern of quick-hit journalism with relatively little follow-up, which in turn re-enforces stereotypical images of certain nations - almost always non-Western - as existing in a perpetual state of crisis. Importantly, it is precisely the juxtaposition between supposed Western "calm" and non-Western "crisis" that has been used - at least partially - as an underpinning for various military and/or economic actions. Or, to put it another way, public support for military or other forms of punitive action is undoubtedly boosted by both the perception that certain parts of the world are inherently violent, and a lack of knowledge of the complexities of domestic politics in those regions.

News organisations face certain political economic realities, and it is impossible to cover everything. Yet, by choosing to focus on the violent, the tense and the bloody, news organisations have opened doors they must be willing to walk through, which in this case means letting news consumers know what the outcomes of that violence, tension and blood-letting might be. Sometimes, the protests continue. Sometimes, the protests result in political change. Sometimes both. Sometimes neither. Without these longer-term details, however, we relegate important geo-political occurrences to the level of ephemeral events lost in a sea of ever-flowing stories. That is a disservice with potentially serious consequences.

 

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

You can follow him on Twitter @ChrChristensen.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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