The Minotaur of 'Contextual Objectivity': War coverage and the pursuit of accuracy with appeal
By Mohammed El-Nawawy & Adel Iskandar
The pursuit of objective coverage has always been a cornerstone of the ideals of journalistic endeavor. Schools of journalism have consistently enshrined and standardized objectivity as the prime responsibility of a responsible reporter. Scholars in mass communication have also grappled with this concept for decades, articulating it in multiple contexts and applying various philosophical underpinnings to it. More recently, 'objectivity' has come to imply both a media practice of information collection, processing, and dissemination, and an overarching attitude.
While the term itself signifies the adoption of a position of detachment and neutrality towards the object of reporting, it is also suggestive of the absence of subjective and personalized involvement and judgment. However, these ideals are particular to the media practitioner. Media audiences are not held to the same standard of mediated objectivity. While audiences are expected to espouse some degree of partisanship, reporters, by virtue of their occupational responsibilities, are to avoid taking sides in matters of dispute. This perpetual tension between the deliverer and receiver of the message has come to be emblematic of the struggle for the construction of mediated messages.
The metaphor of the Minotaur best describes the battles media networks fight to accomplish both duties. Like a Minotaur, the Cretan mythological character that bore the head of a bull and body of a man, contextual objectivity reflects the instinctive and the rational, the relativist and the positivist. Contextualization demonstrates a situational perspective, a means of creating collectivism among participants within the same context, allowing for sensitivity to cultural, religious, political, and economic climates. It is this contextualization that complicates the pursuit of even-handed coverage that covers all possible sides of a story and is capable of speaking to the 'enemy' at times of war. It comes as no surprise that as the United States builds a coalition for a preemptive war with Iraq, dissenting voices are pushed to the sidelines of political discourse, not just by the U.S. administration, but by the media and its audience. For instance, a visit by several U.S. senators to Iraq to evaluate a mounting humanitarian crisis there was swiftly framed as a form of national betrayal and defection.
In our discussion of Al Jazeera's role in post-9/11 conflict coverage, we offered the highly charged and contentious concept of contextual objectivity in an attempt to articulate and capture the eclectic discursive and epistemological tensions between the relativism of message receivers and empirical positivism of message builders. While the term appears to be an oxymoron, this is not accidental. It demonstrates the hybrid struggle between attaining objectivity in news coverage and appealing to network audiences. This is best witnessed in the popular press's reaction to the concept.
In a September 7, 2002 review, the Economist characterizes the concept of contextual objectivity as a symptom of the "struggle to defend the network [Al Jazeera] from its detractors." In an attempt to simplify contextual objectivity, the reviewer states that it is merely the claim that Al Jazeera presents an Arab view of the world, just as CNN presents an American one." Furthermore, it is described as a dubious notion, "at best a muddle, at worst, an evasion." Other reviews find the concept workable and representative of the way a reporter's attitudes affect the angle of coverage.
A Washington Diplomat article published in June 2002 looking at contextual objectivity interviewed Los Angeles Times chief diplomatic correspondent Robin Wright in this regard. He explained how very strong pro-Israeli sentiments often point the angle of a correspondent's story. He states that it doesn't take much to realize that there is another side of the story beyond that which is being reported. "There's no other part of the world that I think we as Americans or as American journalists go out and cover with kind of a set opinion or acceptance of a certain moral value and importance," explains Wright.
Furthermore, other reviews have focused on the ability of contextual objectivity to interpret media outlet's tailoring to audience sensitivities, whether audience were publics or nation-state administrations. Toronto Star columnist Antonia Zerbisias described in her June 23, 2002 article such an example, stating "Contextual objectivity must be why CNN president Eason Jordan rushed to Israel last week for damage control after Ted Turner, who is no longer editorially involved with the news network he founded, told a British paper that the Israelis and Palestinians were 'terrorizing each other.' Jordan, trying to protect CNN's availability in Israel, said the channel will no longer air statements from suicide bombers or their families without 'an extraordinarily compelling reason to do so.'" On the same circumstance, Mark Jurkovitz of the Boston Globe explained that, "CNN is selling editorial policy to the highest bidder."
But this situation is not particular to CNN alone. Such judgment has become symptomatic of network broadcasting, particularly during times of war. Contextual objectivity, in some form or another, can be witnessed in virtually every broadcast on every media outlet in the world today, not the least CNN and Al Jazeera. During times like these, how do networks strike the balance that provides audiences with a true representation of real events while still appealing to public opinions and sensibilities?
The ongoing tension we see here represents the primary functions and relationships of the medium to the source (event/object) of coverage and the receiver (audience). Journalistic standards are some form of contextual objectivity as the media reflect all sides of any particular story but still retain the values, beliefs, and sentiments of their target audience. In this case, one could argue that the media determines what is important for the public to know by framing news, while themselves being determined by public views. One could further argue that likewise American television coverage, under no governmental influence, may reflect the views of mainstream America in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, while at the same time help create public opinion in the streets. This dual relationship between the audience and the media is at the heart of media's duties to be objective while still reflecting views of its public constituency. Is it necessary that media present their stories in a fashion that is both somewhat impartial, yet sensitive to the local audience sensibilities? Here we take a look at Al Jazeera's attempts to take a stab at the Minotaur of contextual objectivity.
Al Jazeera's Paradoxical Challenge: Between Objective Coverage and Popular Appeal
The Western world has been familiar with the "CNN factor." Moreover, the African, Asian, and Latin American countries have known the "BBC factor." But these media were always regarded as largely presenting Western perspectives in the non-Western developing countries. Such a reality has been very critical, especially during times of strife and military conflicts. During the events following September 11 and the American military strikes on Afghanistan, the world has been introduced to the "Al Jazeera factor." The Qatar-based Arabic language network Al Jazeera has emerged as an important actor that provided a 24-hour live coverage of the Afghan conflict. For the first time, the Middle East has been introduced to an objective and independent coverage from an Arab perspective.
Al Jazeera's motto "The Opinion and the Other Opinion" is an indication that the channel, which was launched in 1996, aspires to cover all sides to a particular story in a fair and balanced way. But in the process of trying to live up to its motto, Al Jazeera has also tried to appeal to the values, beliefs, and sentiments of its Arab audience. This seemingly paradoxical dilemma is for some a form of contextual objectivity, one of the greatest struggles networks are dealing with today. The real concern is when there are lives at stake. During times like these, networks like Al Jazeera are faced with the following questions. How can they strike the balance that provides audiences with a true representation of real events while still appealing to public opinion? Does the public's right to know sensitive information outweigh the harm that releasing this information might cause?
These are not easy questions to answer. In fact, as American reporters struggled to dig out information in the aftermath of September 11, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer cautioned the media to "be careful what you say and watch what you do." The pressure on American media to practice self-censorship was evident on October 10, 2001 when national security adviser Condoleezza Rice urged the television news executives to stop airing live or unedited video statements from Osama Bin Laden and his lieutenants in the Al-Qaeda group out of fear that such statements might send coded messages to terror cells. Many American networks agreed to what the U.S. government wanted them to do and one news executive told The New York Times that his network's decision to dismiss Bin Laden's statements as propaganda was "a patriotic decision."
Even prominent American journalists expressed a sense of nationalism in their coverage of the September 11 events. For example, Tim Russert, the host of MSNBC's "Meet the Press" said in late November, 2001, "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."
Moreover, in late September 2001, the federally funded Voice of America radio service temporarily held back a news story that included comments from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar after the State Department complained to Voice of America's board of governors. When the station played the segment anyway, State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher criticized Voice of America for "asking the U.S. taxpayers to pay for broadcasting this guy's voice back into Afghanistan." Some American media shared that view.
Al Jazeera, however, was not deterred by the American government's call for self-censorship, and it insisted on airing the Bin Laden tapes. Moreover, Al Jazeera provided the only footage coming out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, documenting the killing and maiming of Afghan civilians during the U.S. strikes. The George W. Bush administration strongly objected to Al Jazeera's version of "objectivity," and in October 2001, the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reportedly told the Qatari emir to "rein in" Al Jazeera. A month later, the U.S. military bombed the station's offices in the Afghan capital Kabul, claiming that Al-Qaeda members were hiding there. Despite promises to the station, the U.S. authorities have never investigated the incident.
It was obvious that Al Jazeera provided coverage of the U.S. side of the story by inviting prominent U.S. politicians, such as senior State Department official Christopher Ross, who spoke against Bin Laden in fluent Arabic. However, since Al Jazeera was equally efficient in disseminating the Bin Laden side of the story, the United States seemed wary of losing the information war against transnational terrorism.
The extent of Al Jazeera's dilemma has been complicated by its critics in the Arab world. While Al Jazeera has been accused in the West of being pro-Taliban, pro-Al-Qaeda, and anti-American, some Arabs have accused it of being a CIA agent because it has crossed all the government's red lines in discussing sensitive political, social, and economic issues. Others have gone so far as to accuse it of being a "Zionist" network because it provides a balanced portrayal of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by inviting Israeli officials-a shock to Arab viewers, who are not used to watching Israelis on Arabic television.
One of the toughest challenges facing Al Jazeera is its journalistic scoops resulting from its inside news and interviews with Al-Qaeda members. The Arab network remains the best source of Al-Qaeda material, but the wariness persists. Like their American counterparts, Al Jazeera journalists have been feeling rising pressures to exercise news judgment in airing interviews with Al-Qaeda members. However, these pressures are not just coming from the United States; they are also coming from the Arab countries.
One of Al Jazeera's reporters, Tayseer Allouni, who was at one point the only correspondent in the Taliban-based territories, felt these pressures during his coverage of the Afghan war in October and November of 2001. "Investigative reporting is almost absent on Arabic television and what we do at Al Jazeera puts us in lots of trouble," said Allouni during a recent interview with Al Jazeera.
Another Al Jazeera reporter who has recently felt these pressures is Yousri Fouda, Al Jazeera's London correspondent, who was contacted by Al-Qaeda operatives who wanted to be interviewed in time for the anniversary of September 11. In June 2002, Fouda was taken to the Pakistan city of Karachi, blindfolded, and driven to a secret location where he interviewed Ramzi Bin Al-Sheeba and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Both men confessed to being the operational masterminds of the September 11 attacks. They also said that the Capitol was the target of the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.
Al-Qaeda never released the videotape of the interview, but Fouda did obtain an audio recording, which was aired in his program titled "Top Secret" just before the first year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. A few hours after Fouda's program was broadcast, Bin Al Sheeba and four other alleged terrorists were arrested in Pakistan and placed in American custody. This led some Arab critics to conclude that Fouda had been cooperating with the CIA and the FBI to arrest Al-Qaeda members.
"I can't blame people for thinking what they do. I myself tried to think if there could be some link. But why would the intelligence apparatus wait for all this time [three months] to act?" Fouda said during an interview on Al Jazeera on September 21, 2002. Fouda said he thought the reason he was invited by top Al-Qaeda members was that they wanted to show the world that they could still operate. "They were proud of their ability to contact and invite a well-known journalist, even if for just a cup of tea. It had big significance for them," he said.
Fouda, 38, who was trained at the American University in Cairo's Adham Center for Television Journalism [see Yosri Fouda Interview Causes Stir], in the Netherlands, and at the BBC, said he delayed the broadcast of the interviews because he needed time to check the interviewees' account and receive the audiotapes back from Al-Qaeda. He said he did not worry about sharing the fate of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was kidnapped and killed in Karachi, because he reasoned that many Arabs would turn against Al-Qaeda if it murdered a popular Muslim television host.
Fouda defended his position of not contacting law enforcement or intelligence agencies before or after the interview by saying that this "was not his job." He said he would only do so if he had specific information about an imminent attack on a civilian target. "Other than this, I am not going to do the job of someone else." So, for Fouda, his professional journalistic role and the people's right to know were more important than informing the authorities about the whereabouts of his wanted sources.
A CNN international correspondent in the network's London bureau, Sheila MacVicar, defended Fouda's position by saying in an interview with Al Jazeera in late September 2002, "If a journalist wants to deal with confidential sources that are wanted by the authorities, his job becomes a very tough one. But eventually, the journalist's credibility will be the determining factor in convincing his audience of his professional role, and that is a huge success."
However, other Western journalists question Al Jazeera's work. John Miller, a journalist who interviewed Bin Laden in 1988 and a terrorism expert for ABC news, agreed with the basic premise of most journalists that "reporters are not supposed to be an arm of the police." But he said during a recent interview with the New York Times that in the case of a mass murder in which almost 3,000 people died, the question "gets caught in the traffic of a very busy moral crossroads."
Al Jazeera's decision to air Fouda's interviews with Al-Qaeda members is part of its policy of revealing worthy information to its audience and covering all sides to the story without any inhibitions, even in wartime. This goes in line with a New York Times editorial published in November 2001 that said, "Openness should not be a casualty of war."
The United States perceives a strong element of bias in the overall coverage by Al Jazeera of the Al-Qaeda group. Since Bush has taken the position that in this war on terrorism "either you are with us or with the terrorists," Al Jazeera's seeming exercise of objectivity is equated to being at least "anti-American." However, in the Arab world, where the majority considers Al Jazeera to be a symbol of democracy and free speech, a few critics still accuse the channel of being "pro-American." This is evidence that the channel must be doing something right. TBS
Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar are the authors of "Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East" (Westview Press, 2002).