Media as a Weapon of Mass Illusion

by Emily Ferguson and Vijay Nagaraj.

The coverage of the killing of Osama bin Laden, in particular in the American and Western European media, reflects many of the concerns canvassed in the report of the Kathmandu Roundtable on Conflict, the Media and Human Rights in South Asia.

The BBC's coverage of bin Laden's killing is an example of how the media often fragments issues, sticks to simplistic categorization, leaving out shades of grey and highlighting complexities selectively without a substantial analysis of the context or background information.

In the wake of the media frenzy unleashed by Osama bin Laden's killing, the BBC dished out generous doses of the 'west versus the rest formula'. Consider, for example: "BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner says that, to many in the West, Bin Laden became the embodiment of global terrorism, but to others he was a hero, a devout Muslim who fought two world superpowers in the name of jihad" (emphasis added). Anchors and correspondents alike freely used 'west', on the one hand, and labels like 'elsewhere', 'other parts of the world', 'rest of the world' etc., on the other hand, to characterize parts of the world inhabited not only by the vast majority of humanity but also most of the victims of bin Laden and his ilk. In fact, this mirrors precisely from the kind of clash of civilizations the likes of bin Laden so desperately thrive on. Arguably, a thread of imperial simplicity links to this to the code name Geronimo, the germinal other of the American nation, which as President Obama reminded us, can do what it wants.

The characterization of responses to bin Laden's killing, in particular those of the skeptical kind, again served to press home the problems with the BBC's approach. Consider, for example, "correspondents say that many people in Pakistan doubt that he has been killed. And in a debate run by the BBC's Asian Network on Monday, some British Muslims also expressed skepticism." This seems intended to single out a group – British Muslims – as the purpose of the programme was not to ascertain the attitudes of British Muslims, and there is no evidence that those participating identified themselves as such nor did they link skepticism, for that matter, to them being Muslim or British, or indeed both. This categorization of 'British Muslims' and 'others' not only aids a highly questionable black-and-white worldview but also suggests, as a self-evident truth warranting no explanation, that the skepticism of (British) Muslims is connected to their religious affiliation as opposed to others. It appears to be of little concern that people from different religious and political persuasions were also skeptical and that some 'British Muslims' were, in fact, not skeptical at all. The use of 'some' and other such statistical sleights of hand is by no means an accident. A video story on the BBC, headlined "Osama Bin Laden: Pakistan’s skepticism over videos", far from reflecting any official position of Pakistan, was, in fact, nothing more than the conclusion reached by a correspondent after speaking to 50 randomly chosen people, some of them in groups, in a busy market-place in Abbottabad a couple of days after the incident.

The report of the Roundtable points to the widespread tendency in the media to engage in do-it-yourself social science – passing off opinion as fact, perception as reality, and untested assumptions as truth. It is little wonder then that a research report on the role of the media in national security produced by the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute underlines the media’s role as "force multiplier" arguing that "today decisions are no longer based on events but on how the events are presented." In a highly networked world dominated by a discourse of security and risk, promoting a rational and informed public debate presents a huge challenge for human rights advocates. In this context, the recommendations of the Roundtable report that human rights advocates should insist on professional standards in the media rather than seek privileged access, desist from instrumentalising the media, challenge incompetency and go beyond just relying on ‘cultivating’ journalists are all very pertinent.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the ICHRP.

Further Reading:

About the Authors:

Emily Ferguson is a student at the Paris School of International Affairs pursuing a Masters in Development Practice.
Vijay Nagaraj is the Executive Director at the International Council on Human Rights Policy.

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