Is our perception of ISIS influenced by the media? Are media reports on ISIS really unbiased? For her master's thesis, IMS student Nurzakiah Ahmad analyzed online articles by four major international media outlets.
Not a day goes by when the abbreviation ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) doesn't appear in the headlines. Media descriptions of the organization range from "terrorists" to "enemies of Islam". IMS student Nurzakiah Ahmad says for internet users, media reports can evoke everything from fear of Islamic terror to support for military intervention.
BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Russia Today were the four media outlets that you picked for your analysis. Why?
Nurzakiah Ahmad: I chose Al Jazeera English and Russia Today because they have a counter-hegemonic role in terms of the global news flow. CNN and BBC represent a Western perspective. I also decided to evaluate the broadcaster's online content instead of their TV reports because their websites are fairly accessible for most people, they're aimed at a wider audience and aren't constrained by broadcasting schedules. For the study I randomly chose and analyzed 30 online news articles from each broadcaster.
And what did you find out?
In terms of the military interventions against ISIS, I found that the CNN and Russia Today reports were justifying their own country's decision to intervene, and that they provided positive narratives on their airstrikes. In terms of the global flow of information, Al Jazeera English and Russia Today definitely wanted to counterbalance the hegemony of the Western media. However, in terms of reports about ISIS' gruesome acts towards civilians, all four websites spoke with a similar voice.
If CNN and Russia Today are justifying the military interventions, can one say that their reports on ISIS are also a tool for promoting their country's foreign policies?
True. After examining the narrative of the news articles regarding aspects such as the US-led coalition airstrikes, Iraqi military action, the strategy of the Peshmerga forces, support by the UK and Australia and the involvement of Iran, I concluded that although CNN International is not government-funded, it aims for audiences to perceive the US-military intervention as the right way to combat ISIS. I see this as a way to familiarize media consumers with US foreign policy. Russia Today, on the other hand, didn't appear to be interested in reporting on the airstrikes until Russia launched its own airstrikes in September 2015. Russia Today's initial disinterest was possibly because Russia wasn't part of the US-led military campaign.
You also examined humanitarian issues relatied to ISIS. Are the broadcasters trying to influence us on an emotional level, as well?
I would say so. When I analyzed reports about kidnapped Westerners, or Iraqi or Syrian civilians fleeing ISIS attacks, I found that all reports evoked sympathy for the victims. In their reports about the beheading of the British and American aid workers, David Heines and Peter Kassig, the broadcasters' websites depicted both men as good and charitable people. In terms of stories about the refugees, the websites focused on their struggle to escape, the poor conditions in the refugee camps and the refugees' perception of ISIS.
If the war on terror is also a war on information, how can we find unbiased information regarding ISIS?
I can't name a news organization that I believe is unbiased. However, because most of us have access to a wide range of online news and information these days, I recommend that people read reports from various media sources so that they can examine events from various perspectives.
28-year old Nurzakiah Ahmad is from Jakarta and participated in the IMS program 2013-2015. Her master's thesis looked at "Programming of International Broadcasters. Comparative Study of News Coverage about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)". She now works as a radio producer for the Voice of Indonesia, the international broadcasting service of Radio of the Republic of Indonesia (RRI).