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North American Journalism’s Inability to Ask Why?

Jason GONDZIOLA, 4 December 2002


"In any ordinary crime, even domestic crime, the first thing the cops do is look for the motive," said Fisk, Middle East correspondent for the London Independent. "But this we cannot or are not allowed to do for September the 11th."

Why no "why?"

It isn’t that the media is avoiding the question of why, but rather that the question is answered in ways that lead readers away from a meaningful assessment of the situation. Fisk accuses journalists of passively accepting the misleading statements of governments, with little criticism - a poor practice, according to Enn Raudsepp, director of Concordia’s journalism department.

"When Bush says ’you’re with us or against us’, he’s loading the dice and creating a situation where a lot of journalists just jump on the wagon," said Raudsepp. "Journalists need to preserve a certain kind of distance. They cannot allow themselves to be co-opted by any movement or social position."

Both in his lecture and in an interview with Alternatives, Fisk criticized journalists for frequently using unattributed sources. These statements usually involve "top" or "senior" officials speaking anonymously, thus preventing any verification.

An analysis of five articles, published on November 18th and 19th, about Osama bin Laden’s most recent recording revealed that Newsweek had 19 of 27 sources unattributed. The Washington Post used six of eight anonymous sources, and the New York Times 11 of 15. The Globe and Mail and the National Post fared far better, attributing all five and three of their sources, respectively.

According to Fisk, many newspapers give unbalanced coverage, often giving preferential treatment to allies. Choosing words like "retaliation" instead of "revenge" can slant coverage in subtle ways.

"Retaliation is usually performed by the military, revenge by the paramilitary," he said. In discussing coverage of attacks on "al-Qaeda remnants," Fisk notes that vague words like "remnants" have "now effortlessly and without any self-questioning entered the journalistic lexicon."
Raudsepp agrees. "I’d say that it’s a practice that certain journalists engage in," said Raudsepp. "There’s a tendency to look for simplistic solutions. Who are the bad guys and who are the good guys?"

He said this polarization does little to adequately address the issues. "That does a disservice to the population," said Raudsepp. "The media can further and expedite confrontationalism and this kind of radical dualism. There’s more to people than just being apes or angels. We’re all capable of being either."

According to Peter Van Wyck, a Communications professor at Concordia, labels such as "terrorist" or "fanatic" are emotionally charged, offering affective appeals that subtly dodge questions of cause.

"It bypasses motive," said Van Wyck. "But that’s not all. It bypasses history. It takes things away from a context and it reassigns them to a new set of established meanings that very often are stripped entirely of context [so that] using ’terrorist’ can only mean a limited number of things."

Noam Chomsky, noted linguist and critic of U.S. foreign policy, sees this as a problem in journalism throughout the world.

"That has always been the case," he said. "The practices are no more common now than before, to my knowledge, and I know of no systematic difference between the U.S. and other countries."

Where does it come from?

Fisk believes that journalists are motivated by "the idea that the reader will be somehow energized by the use of these powerful expressions. They’re not, of course."
Raudsepp feels that corporate ownership shares the blame for poor reporting. "I think one of the big problems in the media in the last century has been the corporatization of the media," he said. Journalists were once encouraged to take their time and write strong, balanced articles that investigated many sides of an issue. "That’s less common, I think, now," he said. "Particularly since the corporate ownership evolved these big debts [from purchasing media]."
Corporations must then recoup their losses. Typically, this involves cuts to editorial staff, closing foreign bureaus and filling the gap with stories from wire services. This centralizes information and reduces the number of independent reporters investigating a given event. But public awareness of these practices is growing.

"The public doesn’t trust the media and other mainstream institutions, as elsewhere, and quite rightly," said Chomsky, citing a recent survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, which revealed that only 52% of North Americans trust the media. "But many people do turn elsewhere, and rightly so. Fisk’s articles, for example, are widely read by concerned Americans, on the Internet."

What can be done?

"People who want to understand the world have to devote considerable time and effort to the task," said Chomsky. "There is no reason to expect concentrations of power to make it easy for them."

Van Wyck sees education as a solution. "Education can look like a great answer for which there wasn’t a corresponding question in rarified political times like these," he said. "People aren’t likely to value education if you live in a culture that doesn’t value intellectual labour, that doesn’t value thinking. The only way you come to ask a question is if you have a reason to do it."
But more important is the fact that the need to look outside of media is fuelled by the inadequate coverage offered by the media itself.

"’The duty of a journalist is to monitor the centres of power,’" said Fisk, quoting Israeli journalist Amira Hass. It is a duty that he feels is largely neglected. "Let’s stop saying that September the 11th, 2001, changed the world," said Fisk. "Let’s not say disputed when we mean occupied, neighbourhood when we mean colony, ethnic cleansing when we mean genocide. Let’s do what Americans used to tell their journalists to do: let’s try to tell it how it is."