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How Citizen Journalism Could Make Mainstream News Obsolete in the Middle East

October 6, 2011

As protests explode world wide, the NYT still reports them the way the mainstream press did in the 1960s. But people have more choices now, two communications scholars argue.

How has the way news is framed affected the ways people outside Egypt understand the uprisings?

In “Overthrowing the Protest Paradigm? How The New York Times, Global Voices and Twitter Covered the Egyptian Revolution” authors Summer Harlow and Thomas Johnson of the University of Texas-Austin offer not only a content analysis of the New York Times coverage of the Egyptian uprising, but compare it to content analysis of columnist Nicholas Kristof’s Twitter feed, and the citizen media site Global Voices, finding that the different authors and genres framed their news quite differently.

They found that the Times reporting fell into the standard “protest paradigm” structure identified by communications scholars in the 1980s and 1990s, which delegitimizes protesters by focusing on “tactics, spectacles, and dramatic actions” rather than explaining the underlying reasons for the protests.

By contrast, they found Kristof used Twitter to provide “commentary/analysis” (but was hampered by the 140 character limit) and that the citizen journalism of Global Media offered “not just an alternative space for protesters’ voices and perspectives, but also a participatory, interactive approach to news coverage that could prompt greater credibility among readers.”

Framing News

The kind of neutral “objective” journalism of which the New York Times is an exemplar is neither inevitable nor is it objective. Prior to the 1950s, most newspapers in America had strong political positions not only in their editorial and op-ed pages but in their news. Walter Lippman’s “objective” news style caught on primarily because of news agencies–careful, neutrally positioned writing suppressing any obvious stance meant UPI and AP could peddle their news to Democratic and Republican newspapers alike.

Nor is such news actually objective. One of the first things we teach students in media courses is how to recognize media frames, which people habitually use to organize knowledge and make sense of the world. Elsewhere (Peterson 2007), I defined it this way:

By frames I mean “persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation, and presentation, of selection, emphasis, and exclusion, by which [people] routinely organize discourse, whether verbal or visual” (Gitlin 1980: 7).  Coutin and Chock (1995) argue that when faced with the problem of turning reports into stories, journalists draw from this collective pool of symbolic resources.  Even when reporters recognize that situations are more complex than can be expressed through these normative frames, journalists usually continue to use them, in part because they understand their task to be producing stories their readers will understand (Pedelty 1995).  Indeed, frames are useful precisely because they reduce the complexity of information into manageable narratives. Once established, frames become institutionalized by news organizations (Tuchman 1974, 1978a).

Some simple examples of news frames include the “horse race” frame for elections, focusing on who is ahead, who is behind and why instead of issues and examinations of facts (Hallin, 1990), and the “cold war” frame which, until 1989, described almost every story of an international conflict as between two opposed camps (Norris, 1996).

In reporting complex acts of violence in the Middle East, a “victim-perpetrator” frame attributes exclusive responsibility for terrorist actions to Palestinians rather than describing the complex, cyclical and dynamic interrelations of state violence and terrorist actions (Cohen and Wolfsfeld 1993).  Indeed, Berkowitz (2005) argues that the entire Middle East conflict over Palestine is usually described using a “frontier” frame that creates a structural analogy to American myths about “the wild west” with Israelis as noble settlers conquering the wilderness and Palestinians as savage Indians.

Alternative Frames and the End of News as We Know it

The interesting thing is that as news sources multiply, and types of media multiply, not all news is framed identically, as it was in the days of “objective” newspapers and three broadcast news networks. Some news sources, like Fox and MSNBC wear their biases out front, like news media did before WWII. Twitter allows live raw news and commentary. Citizen journalism is everywhere for those who want to look for it.

The authors conclude that

…as more countries are motivated to protest and revolt, it could mean an opportunity for citizen journalism to shine, and one more nail in the coffin for traditional media.

The authors are among more than 30 communications scholars have contributed papers to a special issue of the International Journal of Communication focused on the role of information and communication technologies in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.

References

Berkowitz, Daniel.  2005.  Telling what-a-story news through myth and ritual: The Middle East as wild west, in: E. Rothenbuhler and M. Comans, ed. Media Anthropology (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage), 210-219.

Chan, J. M., & Lee, C. C. 1984. The journalistic paradigm on civil protests: A case study of Hong Kong. In A. Arno & W. Dissanayake, eds. The news media in national and international conflict.
Pp.183–202. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Cohen, Akiba A. and Gadi Wolfsfeld, eds. 1993 Framing the Intifada: People and Media. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing.

Coutin, Susan and Phyllis Chock. 1995.  ‘Your friend the illegal’: Definition and paradox in newspaper accounts of immigration reform, Identities 2(1-2): 123-148.

Gitlin, Todd. 1980. The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Hallin, D. 1990. Sound bite news In G. Orren, ed. Blurring the Lines. New York: Free Press.

McLeod, D. M. (1995). Communicating deviance: The effects of television news coverage of social protest. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media 39(1), 4–19.

McLeod, D. M., & Detenber, B. H. (1999). Framing effects of television news coverage of social protest. Journal of Communication, 49(3), 3–23.

McLeod, D. M., & Hertog, J. K. (1992). The manufacture of public opinion for reporters: Informal cues for public perceptions of protest groups. Discourse and Society 3(3), 259–275.

McLeod, D. M., & Hertog, J. K. (1999). Social control, social change and the mass media’s role in the regulation of protest groups. In D. Demers & K. Viswanath, eds., Mass media, social control and
social change: A macrosocial perspective. Pp. 305–330. Ames, IA: Iowa State University Press.

Pedelty, Mark. 1995. War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents. New York: Routledge

Peterson, Mark Allen. 2007. “Making Global News: ‘Freedom of Speech’ and ‘Muslim Rage’ in U.S. Journalism”  Contemporary Islam: Dynamics of Muslim Life 1(3): 247-264.

Tuchman, Gaye. 1972. Objectivity as strategic ritual: An examination of newsmen’s notions of objectivity, American Journal of Sociology 77, 660-679.

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