Critical Media Literacy: Watching the Reporters II

Perhaps the biggest news story today – unless you are a huge David Carradine fan (in which case, my sympathies go out to you) – is President Obama’s “much-anticipated” speech in Cairo. Here are the headlines, subheads and leads for the story from a few key news sources:

[For a discussion and explanation of newspaper style, with definitions of terms like “lead” – sometimes spelled “lede” – get Wiki with it.]

nytlogo152x23The New York Times: Addressing Muslim World, Obama Calls for New Start

President Obama pledged on Thursday to “seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world,” imploring America and the Islamic world to drop their suspicions of one another and forge new alliances to confront violent extremism and heal religious divides.

header_blocksBBC News: Obama reaches out to Muslim world

President Barack Obama has said the “cycle of suspicion and discord” between the United States and the Muslim world must end. Barack Obama pledges new beginning between US and Muslim

US president tells Israel ‘it is time for settlements to stop’

Barack Obama today appealed for a new beginning in relations between America and the world’s Muslims in a much-anticipated speech in Cairo, while delivering a blunt message to Israel over settlements.

Jerusalem Post: ‘US bonds with Israel are unbreakable’

In a widely anticipated speech from Cairo Thursday, US President vowed continued support for Israel, but was uncompromising in his demand for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and called for a stop to settlements.

Al Jazeera English: Obama seeks new start with Muslims

Barack Obama, the US president, has called for a “new beginning” with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims.

China Daily: Obama calls for new beginning between US, Muslims

Quoting form the Quran for emphasis, US President Barack Obama called for a “new beginning between the United States and Muslims” Thursday and said together, they could confront violent extremism across the globe and advance the timeless search for peace in the Middle East.

[Note: The byline “(Agencies)” for the article in the China Daily suggests it is a compilation and rewording of material from wire service and news agency reports.]

h1-theaustralian-logo-sml2The Australian: Barack Obama reaches out to Muslim world

Barack Obama vowed last night to forge a “new beginning” for Islam and the US in a landmark speech to Muslims around the world, evoking a vision of peace after years of “suspicion and discord”.


There isn’t much difference between most of these intros to the story, nor would I have expected there to be. The Jerusalem Post‘s variant take – its focus on US-Israeli relations – is to be expected. Even in this slimmest of cuts through the coverage, though, there are a couple of things to note.

For some reason, The Australian‘s lead employs the most forceful language: “vowed…to forge,” as compared with “called for” or “appealed for” in most of the other pieces. Consider the difference between the NYT’s “pledged to seek” and the language in The Australian. And in the same lead sentence NYT has Obama “imploring.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “implore” as “to call upon in supplication” and offers as synonyms “beseech” and “entreat.” It’s not as weak as, say, “begs” or “pleads,” but it’s close. In its introduction to the article at least, then, NYT positions Obama or at least this speech as fairly weak, particularly in contrast to the strong positioning of the speech in The Australian.

A couple of other minor things to note. China Daily, an official agency of the Chinese government, opens with the Quran. An experienced China watcher might be able to explain this, but I am at something of a loss. While the Chinese government has softened its stance on religion in recent years, it remains critical and mistrustful, and it also has problems with its own Islamic population, most notably in Xinjiang.

Lastly, it is worthwhile keeping an eye on use of the term “Muslim world.” According to Wikipedia [here and here], there are at present between 1 to 1.8 billion Muslims, and 1.5 and 2.1 billion Christian adherents globally. Both are found around the world, and each is the state religion in a number of countries. We tend to associate Christianity with white people and Western Europe and Islam with Arabs and the Middle East – a nice throwback to the Crusades – but in fact only 20% of Muslims live in Arab countries; 30% are in the Indian subcontinent (including Pakistan) and more than 15% in Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in terms of total numbers; while Christianity is declining through Western and Northern Europe and in places like the USA, Canada, and Australia, and growing in the developing world, particularly Latin America and parts of Africa.

And while Islam is not quite as fragmented as Christianity – which has some 34,000 separate denominations – it is still split between a number of different groups – though most Muslims fall roughly into the either the Sunni or Shi’a strands (a distinction which so many Americans have learned about through trying to make sense of the situation in Iraq). In short, there is no more a “Muslim world” than there is a “Christian world.”

The use of the phrase “the Muslim world” – and similar phrases – is a common enough thing. It’s easy journalistic shorthand and not (usually) done with bad intentions. It has a certain utility in situations like Obama’s speech, but it also presents certain problems and pitfalls to which we should be attentive. Most obviously, it tends to efface the vast differences between adherents of Islam around the globe, and reduce all the people embraced by the term down to one narrow identity, and thus makes it much easy to adopt an “us and them” mentality.

“Muslim World” is used in the title of the NYT and Australian articles, but nowhere else in either. In The Guardian, it appears only once: “The Muslim world largely welcomed the speech, although some said it lacked concrete proposals.” (I’ll return to this statement shortly.) The term “Muslim World” appears in the headline and lead on BBC News, but elsewhere in the story only in the context of quotes from White House material. The term is used twice by The Jerusalem Post – once in a significant variant, “the Arab and Muslim world.” It’s no surprise that The Jerusalem Post is particularly attentive to the fact that not all Arabs are Muslim, and vice versa; it’s a distinction that is often lost in public discourse in America, where Arab and Muslim are too often treated as synonymous. Al Jazeera and China Daily both use the term twice.

Let’s take a closer look at the article in The Guardian, and in particular that statement quoted above: “The Muslim world largely welcomed the speech, although some said it lacked concrete proposals.” The statement appears near the end of the article and is followed by quotes from various people. Appearing in this way, these quotes are situated as evidence or examples of the claims in the statement – that it was “largely welcomed,” but also criticised for its lack of “concrete proposals.” The first response is from a Hamas spokesperson that precisely mirrors the welcomed/lack formulation:

“There is a change between the speech of President Obama and previous speech speeches made by George Bush,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman in Gaza, “… but his statements of today did not include a mechanism that can translate his wishes and views into actions.”

The remainder of the article consists of other responses from, respectively: Mohammad Ali Abtani, an Iranian cleric who was vice-president in the government of reformist president Mohammad Khatami; Danny Seaman, an Israeli government press officer; and Osama bin Laden, in the form of a recorded response rejecting any alliance between Muslims and Christians. (It isn’t entirely clear, but this last seems to be a canned response that was recycled for this occasion, which it obviously fits.)

All three of the Muslim voices quoted here are from groups associated – in the West, amongst mainstream British and American audiences – with terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism: Hamas, Iran, al-Qaida. The United States is in a state of open or thinly veiled hostilities with all three. This is a very narrow slice of the “Muslim world” – and plays entirely into the hands of those who would reduce Muslims to terrorists. The inclusion of an Israeli spokesperson doesn’t do much to open things out, as it keeps the perspective very much focused on violence in the Middle East.

In one sense, this focus makes sense. Violence in the Middle East is what’s on everyone’s mind, and was the main issue behind Obama’s speech. But the article in The Guardian collapses the “Muslim world” into this narrow frame of violence in the Middle East in a way that works against Obama’s call, in the speech, for greater understanding and an “end to suspicion and discord” between Islam and the west. We need to begin seeing beyond the Middle East, and beyond the violence, to an understanding of – and with – the much larger and very diverse Muslim world sketched in those earlier figures.

Interestingly, The Guardian is regularly attacked (eg, in HonestReporting) for being anti-Israel, even “one of the most virulently anti-Israel publications around” [here], and one columnist quit the paper in 2003 in large part over its  alleged anti-Israeli sentiments. One could argue that by selecting moderate voices and statements from Hamas and Iran, and a fairly poor one from Israel, The Guardian has favored Muslims, but keeping the focus on “terrorists” and ending with Osama bin Laden seems if anything a bit of a hostile framing – hostile to Muslims, and thus favoring Israel.

Obviously, we could go on at length parsing these articles for slants, emphases and biases, but I think this is enough here, since my intention is more to expand a bit on a “critical media literacy” approach to the news rather than to dissect the coverage of this particular story.

If you would like to look further into the coverage of Obama’s speech, I encourage you particularly to read the piece in Al Jazeera and compare its coverage with that of the NYT, Guardian and Jerusalem Post.


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