UA Journalism professor’s research indicates Western, Arabic media skew coverage of 9/11 and Afghan war -- January 2011

Journalists publish news photos that support their cultural and political perspectives, according to a University of Arizona professor’s analysis of nearly 1,400 photographs published by the U.S.-owned International Herald Tribune and the Arabic-language Al-Hayat.

In a study published in the recent issue of The International Communication Gazette, Shahira Fahmy, an associate professor in the UA School of Journalism, studied 1,387 photographs published in the two newspapers from Sept. 12, 2001, through Nov. 15, 2001.

She found that photos published in the Tribune tended to amplify human tragedy of 9/11 and de-emphasize the human suffering in Afghanistan, and Al-Hayat photos tended to focus on human suffering in Afghanistan, but not of 9/11.

“While both newspapers claim objectivity and balanced coverage of events and issues, it is important to note that different cultural and political perspectives inevitably filter into the news-making process and influence news values and photographic outcomes” Fahmy said.

Both major newspapers are published in Europe. They have access to photos from the same Western news agencies, such as The Associated Press (AP) and Reuters.

Fahmy recorded whether each photograph was pro-war or anti-war, whether it pertained to 9/11 or the Afghan war, whether it focused on human victims or material destruction, and the graphic nature of each photo. She found significant differences in the papers’ photo selection:

• More photos in the Tribune depicted 9/11 (60 percent) than the Afghan war, while Al-Hayat published more photos of the Afghan war (67 percent) than 9/11.
• When Al-Hayat depicted 9/11, about 82 percent of the photos focused on material destruction, not human suffering. The Tribune, on the other hand, focused on the human tragedy – 79 percent of the photos.
• Al-Hayat pictures about the Afghan war tended to focus on human suffering, including pictures of injured or dead civilians, more so than the Tribune, which showed no photos of victims or bodies.
• Al-Hayat was more likely to present anti-war photos, such as protests, than the Tribune.

“These results suggest that the visual coverage introduced contrasting visual frames that limited the two newspapers from replicating the complex nature of these two tragic events. The readers of these two transnational newspapers therefore did not have an adequate opportunity to learn all sides of 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan” Fahmy said.

After analyzing the photos, Fahmy contacted high-ranking editors at the newspapers to discuss the findings. The editors said there was no conscious effort to differentiate their photo depictions of 9/11 or the Afghan war – that they chose photos based on what they thought told the story in the most objective way.

“For journalists to explain that those differences in visual coverage were never intentional was to be expected. The literature suggests journalistic motives could certainly be unintentional. However, while news professionals might follow guidelines for objective reporting, their differences in cultural and political viewpoints lead to contrasting interpretations. Case in point, in covering these two events more than 95 percent of visuals that ran in the two newspapers were from the identical leading Western news agencies: AP, AFP and Reuters.” Fahmy said.

Fahmy is a leading scholar in examining how Western and Arabic journalists portray war and terrorism, particularly through photos and broadcasts. She teaches research methods and other courses in the UA School of Journalism and holds a joint appointment in the Department of Near Eastern Studies.

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