Since the start of “Operation Iraqi Freedom” on 20th of March 2003, the media coverage of this event in traditional and new media has been both intensive and pervasive. The issue of whether the war is justified and of whether Saddam Hussein had indeed violated the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441 by possessing weapons of mass destruction has been debated in the lead up to the war. By the time the coalition troops moved into Iraqi in a war aimed at toppling the Saddam regime, viewers were unable to escape being bombarded by the onslaught of news and information coming through to them. Front pages of every major newspaper, as well as precious airtime on television and radio network in Sydney and beyond have been devoted to following this war. Even the Internet is awash with breaking news, discussion forums, and every other sort of information not available in the traditional media outlets.
With such extensive reporting by all the different media, it is inevitable that the media bias would lead to vastly differing views in war coverage. This is because having so many people involved in this big media event would mean that the personal biases of the media owners as well as the editors and journalists would all affect the way that the news is conveyed. Each one of these media gatekeepers would be privately pro or anti-war, and this would inevitably come across to the public in the way that the news in being reported. For example, Peter Jennings, who is the news anchor of the American Broadcasting Corporation is well known for bringing on air his negative perspective about the war.
According to Singleton, et al (2003: 361), with the exception of publicly funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation, most of the other media outlets “are privately owned and therefore subject in principle to the direction of the owners, directly or indirectly (through the law of anticipated reactions)”. Even with the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, the Australian media is dominated by only a few concentrated players, which would in turn affect how the media covers the war. John Schwartz, who is a Swinburne University media and communications senior lecturer commented “on the widely publicised statistic that all bar one of Rupert Murdoch’s 170-odd papers and the Fox network have a pro-war position, said [that] no doubt all his editors are noting Murdoch’s views, [and that] Fox is unbelievably bad…almost pure government line”. (cited in Seccombe 2003: 1).
However, it is worth noting that even though the different news media locally might adopt a pro or anti-war stance, they would all still be adopting the same western perspective of the war. As Fandy (2003:1) says, the coverage of the war by Arab TV networks like Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi TV shows a vastly different perspective of the war, such that in comparison, viewers might think that a different war was being reported.
This further illustrates the point that the coverage of the war is always reported in relation to the proximity of the issue at hand, creating some sort of double standards. For example, according to Frisk (2001: 489):
” ‘Terrorism’ no longer means ‘terrorism. It is not a definition; it is a political contrivance. ”Terrorists’ are those who use violence against the side that is using the word. To adopt the word means that we have taken a side in the Middle East, not between right and wrong, good and evil, David and Goliath, but with one side of combatants against another. For journalists in the Middle East, the use of the word ‘terrorism’ is akin to holding a gun… its employment turns the reporter into a participant in the war.”
Parenti (1986: 30) asserts that ” the mass media actually are highly centralised outlets that proffer a remarkably homogenised fare”. The wide use of news wires like Associated Press and Reuters by all the major broadsheets in Australia means that the war coverage locally would be generically the same. Even if the local newspapers and television networks decide to send their own reporters to the Gulf to get a different perspectives, it would still be not make a difference, as they are all covering the same press conferences given by Central Command. They are also subjected to pool arrangements at certain times, when only selected journalists and cameramen would be allowed to take footages in the field due to logistical constraints. This means that much of the western world would be viewing the same footages on television no matter which network station a viewer was watching the news on.
Advances in technology such as the satellite makes it possible technically for “the live presentation of [the war in the Gulf] to the rest of the world (Wood 1967: 27). The relatively new feature of war reporting, which involves embedding journalists and cameramen with coalition troops also mean that the war has turned into some kind of reality show for viewers who turn on the television. Viewers can now get live feed from the battlefield, and benefit from the first-hand exclusives and war perspectives from the embedded reporters and cameramen who travel with the army regiments and military units. However, this new aspect of war journalism is not without its drawbacks.
While viewers do get immediate breaking news coverage, such technological advances have its downsides as well. The immediate streaming of live feeds to TV stations means that viewers are subject to the speculations of the reporters who are stationed in the Gulf before any official confirmation of the news can be received. For example, there was an instance when, according to Pros and Cons of Embedded Journalism (2003: 1):
“embedded correspondents for several news organisations reported seeing a convoy of up to 120 Iraqi tanks leaving the southern city of Basra, and most news outlets reported a large troop movement. The next day, a spokesman for the British military said the massive movement was really just 14 tanks.”
Viewers can also get a distorted view of the war, as it is virtually impossible for the journalists to report the news with in a truly objective and impartial light when they are stationed within the battalions, experiencing camaraderie with the troops and the savouring the excitement of being in the frontline in the midst of all the action. “Objectivity was to include a strict adherence to facts, a healthy scepticism of institutions, and a need to link facts together to form a larger picture of [the war]” (Willis 1991: 60). As gatekeepers, the media thus shows a constructed, and mostly distorted version of what is reality.
In fact, as Howard Kurtz, a journalist with The Washington Post puts it, they “have been taking considerable flak for overly sympathetic reporting, dismissed by some by some part of the military propaganda machine” (cited in Tee 2003: 2).
According to Williams (1999: 4), propaganda disseminated during wartime “is based around short- to medium term objectives… to celebrate actual achievement or hide embarrassments…to invoke national pride, create a feeling of righteousness and incite hatred for the enemy” . Hence, it is not surprising the media bias and perceptions do play a part in the ensuring the scope and accuracy of the war coverage. Even “the [publicly funded] ABC is shaping its products to fit its perceived audience, and this is not a perspective which is value-neutral” (Lumby 1999: 41).
Since there are so many different media sources competing for the viewer’s attention, media owners might also want their reporters to sensationalise their coverage to stand out from the competition. Much of what is deemed to be newsworthy is often centered on “the government’s mistakes, on sensation and crisis” (Singleton, et al 2003: 360). As Moeller (1999: 34) puts it, “Media moguls have long known that suffering, rather than good news, sells”. Viewers are not interested in the mundane daily news; they would rather watch something extraordinary or thrilling.
However, no matter how bias the media coverage is, it might not actually have much of an effect on the viewers who have already made up their minds about the war. This is because, according to the cognitive dissonance theory, “we have, built into the workings of our mind, a mechanism that creates an uncomfortable feeling of dissonance, or lack of harmony, when we become aware of some inconsistency among the various attitudes, beliefs, and items of knowledge that constitute our mental store” (Gray 2002: 520). These individuals are likely to be their own media gatekeepers, filtering out information that might cause them to doubt their own current view, and looking out only for information that would reinforce it.
Although the media might not explicitly tell the public what to think, it manages to get them thinking about the war in general and the various issues involved, via the agenda-setting function of the media that the public has been subjected to. According to Roscoe et al (cited in Agenda Setting – Setting the Terms of Reference 2000:1):
“Rather than seeing the media as telling the viewer what to think, television presentations can be seen as “setting the agenda” in terms of how and which issues should be discussed… television presentations frame the events in such a way as to promote particular accounts as being the legitimate and valid, while other accounts are excluded and marginalised. By doing so, the parameters within which the debate can be conducted are set out…the media can be seen as having the power to frame the debate by promoting the legitimacy of certain representations and accounts…viewers are active but within the parameters set by the text.”
According to Ward (2002: 405), the micro-level equivalent to this function would be that of agenda-priming, where “individuals make judgments about issues based on information immediately on hand and from easily retrieved memories”. The constant coverage of the war in all the different news mediums means that viewers would believe that the war is an important issue, worthy of thought and discussion.
While news from the traditional forms of media like television, radio and newspapers may be limited by time and space constraints, as well as being highly selective and bias, the emergence of the Internet has made it possible for people to garner information about the war from all angles. This development of technology makes it possible for viewers to get a balanced view of the war through alternate sources from the Internet in the comfort of their homes, “particularly in Australia, where computer ownership and Internet access is becoming widespread” (Singleton et al 2003: 369). The public can now choose to educate themselves by getting both sides of the story, from both the western media, as well as the angle taken by the Gulf media.
” Nevertheless, quality coverage and a challenge to political agenda setting will depend on the use of insights from both the domestic and foreign environments to extend the parameters of news coverage, commentary and debate in the Australian media” (Payne 2000: 167).
According to investigative journalist John Pilger, (in Propaganda Wars 2003:3), “the quality of the debate is very high among the public…turn to the letters page or …listen to people in their homes and shops”. Instead of taking an apathetic attitude towards this Gulf War, the public has taken a more pro-active stand by organising peace rallies as well as setting up various charities and donations for post-war Iraq.
Hence, even though there is some form of media bias present in the pervasive coverage of the war in all forms of media locally, it has nevertheless contributed to the “reasoned debate”, and not public hysteria over the war.
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