by Barbie Zelizer
coverage of the horrifying explosions in Bali last weekend shows that
not much has changed in journalism since Sept. 11.
Despite the incessant cautionary statements about violence and the warning signals pushing the national state of alert up and down the color scale, journalism gave us the same old news. Its knee-jerk treatment of violence, terror and atrocity -- exemplified by the coverage of the bombing in the Indonesian resort village -- differed hardly at all from its treatment of countless other events overseas before Sept. 11.
Even though the blast killed an estimated 200 people, it received the kind of patterned journalistic attention that we have come to expect of our media. It happened over there, so why pay too much attention?
The explosions happened early Saturday morning, and only inched on to the news. Initial stories on the broadcast news focused on a tight recounting of what happened without extensive analysis. By the end of the weekend, the focus shifted to broader considerations of its effect elsewhere in the world, as it should have, but failed to flesh out the story. The blast received terse mention on the inside pages of Sunday newspapers, bursting onto their front pages only on Monday. In the meantime, stories of the sniper shootings filled the news hole, following what journalists call "firefighting" or "parachute journalism." Bali just wasn't important enough to lead the news.
Journalism had not addressed Bali before last weekend's blast, curious given the post-Sept. 11 call for a "different kind of coverage" of violence, terror and atrocity. Over the past few months, warning signs proliferated: A color-code alert was pushed up in September because of an expected rise in terrorism in Southeast Asia, seven different explosions rocked the region over the past three weeks, a heightened alert was in place at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta a month ago, and several U.S. embassies in Southeast Asia were closed.
Even after the explosions, the slight lag time between coverage of the blasts themselves and their contextualization suggested a temporary, if fleeting, lapse of judgment on the part of journalists who could and should have provided an immediate context for the bombing.
Monday, the skies over Bali darkened with journalism's parachutes. A
statement by President George W. Bush and other officials positioned the
Bali attacks as part of a so-called resurgence of al-Qaida activities. That
linkage brought with it a torrent of stories -- all of which helped position
the blasts against some larger context: Within hours, they were linked
backward to the recent explosion aboard a French tanker in Yemen and
attacks on American soldiers in Kuwait, and fast-forwarded to next week's
potential targeting of oil and gas installations in Indonesia.
Only after the White House connected the dots did the U.S. mainstream media report that al-Qaida functionaries were said to be entrenching in Indonesia, and tapes bearing threatening messages against the West reemerged. Bali -- long seen as both a major international tourist destination and a Hindu island alongside the world's most populous Muslim nation -- became the newest repository of the world's horror, with one tourist quoted as saying, "If Bali is no longer safe, then there's no place that's safe."
By Tuesday the blasts were codified as "the beginning of a new campaign," and the media ran stories about the impact of the attacks on America. The high Australian death toll prompted CNN to label the event "Australia's Sept. 11," urging comparisons of a pre- blast context that had not sufficiently been made before the bombs exploded.
There is a limit to how much we can expect of our journalists. But there are lessons to be learned about journalism that require a different mode of treatment than simple parachute entry and exit. These lessons call for different kinds of journalistic engagement with public events. Stories about warmongering against Iraq, waffling over whether Osama bin Laden is dead and the eradication of al-Qaida bases in Afghanistan deserve to be part, but not all, of what we know about the world.
In a post-Sept. 11 era, it remains curious that the news we get and don't get often has less to do with Indonesia, Australia or Southeast Asia than with ourselves. And in that respect, too, little has changed since Sept. 11.
© 2002 Newsday and reprinted with permission
October 21 2002 (http://albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
All Rights Reserved.
Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.