The attacks perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway on July 22 had the unintended effect of unveiling bias and prejudice in the Western media, and sparked worldwide debates about the role and responsibility of the press. The incident also raises important questions about the lessons that we can extract in our bid to harness our regional media’s power as an agent of positive change and a reflection of the aspirations and values of the people.

In the hours immediately following the massacre, the false assumptions and speculation as to the perpetrator revealed a significant lack of rigor and objectivity by some major news outlets. When the truth was out — that the massacres were not carried out by Islamic terrorists but in fact by an anti-Islamic Norwegian one — Middle Eastern journalists were quick to pour scorn on the mistakes made by the foreign media, seizing the opportunity to point out all the faults in coverage. It would seem that they forgot for a moment that our own media industry still has a long way to go before being able to brag about values like objectivity and truthfulness.

Lazy assumptions

Some of the most influential broadcasters undoubtedly were too quick to jump to conclusions, favoring the Islamist and Al Qaeda route without any reliable facts. Looking back at the earliest hours after the attacks, most media directly assumed the terrorist attacks were linked to Islamic organizations and attempted to rationalize every new piece of information by integrating it into the Islamist hypothesis. For instance, an American commentator accounted for the fact that the killer was a “blonde Norwegian male” by deducing that Islamic terrorist organizations had probably moved to “a new level” by recruiting natives. Moreover, the foreign media’s choice of experts commenting on the event provided the grounds for erroneous interpretation; most specialized in researching Al Qaeda, Salafis and other Islamist extremists, thus automatically directing the media analysis towards the Islamist theory without any shred of evidence.

In fact, the Norway attacks could have been a chance for the international media to rectify the strong prejudice against Islam and Arabs that it has played a role in fostering since the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC. Instead, it reinforced a false perception that continues to influence local and international politics around the world. In their reluctance to use the word “terrorist” once the man’s identity was discovered, the media helped perpetuate the idea that terrorism and Islam are often mutually inclusive, and to some extent interchangeable. The word terrorism, or its derivatives, was ubiquitously absent in the majority of the mainstream media’s coverage the day following the attacks, whereas some broadcasters used it only to reassure the audience that “it seems like this is not linked to any international terrorist organizations” and is “not Islamic-terror related”.

In addition, the media’s propensity for sensationalism, and its desire to fill airtime, was prevalent in the headlines used to cover the attacks. The headline that ran in the British tabloid The Sun — ‘Al Qaeda’ Massacre: Norway’s 9/11 — clearly has absolutely no relation to the reality but was immediately chosen as a convenient sound bite that would resonate with audiences, and a captivating branded product that could easily be “sold”.

Moreover, instead of focusing on the human aspect — the young victims and their stories — the media chose to focus on the perpetrator and his ideology, inadvertently shifting the debate to the topic of immigration and integration, and thus somehow rationalize his horrendous act. The end result, while yet to fully unfold, seems to indicate that Breivik succeeded in what he set out to do,which was to sound the alarm bells over an issue that Europe has been grappling with for generations.

Our own failings

Returning to the media in the MENA region, which were given the rare opportunity to look down on their Western counterparts, the Norway attacks provide an opportunity to assess our own limitations. It is important to remember that our media is still far from performing its role effectively or living up to people’s expectations in terms of objectivity, editorial integrity and ‘fair and balanced’ reporting. The truth remains that, whereas many of the faults the foreign media committed in their coverage were caused by the race for the headline and the urge to fill the 24/7 airtime, the ones committed by our own media are mostly driven by the specific agendas of the media outlets ’financial backers.

One of the many examples is in the coverage of certain campaigns and elections in the region for which media entities are often quick, and more than willing, to announce winners even before official (if not credible) results are in. They often disseminate unfounded information, use sensationalism in their reporting through violent language and fear mongering, and reveal a clear lack of objectivity whether in the amount of airtime given to specific political parties or candidates, or in the partiality of the reporting of certain facts. Moreover, whenever there are security breaches or incidents, some of the media in the region are always ready to point fingers at specific parties, simply because it suits the agenda or interests of the government, politician, or “deep pocket” behind the media outlet.

And most recently the coverage of the Arab Spring has revealed the extent of the partiality in regional media outlets. Whether in the choice to cover, or to not cover, certain demonstrations and political events, or by taking sides between the opposition and the regime, media institutions have clearly failed to play their role as providers of unbiased information.The myth trumpeted by some media channels in the region that they abide by the highest industry standards when it comes to objectively showing both sides of the story, free from propaganda or self-serving interests has to a large degree been shattered in 2011.

For the media to truly reflect the high level of professionalism and integrity of many of its journalists, it should re-examine its practices and instate self-regulatory boundaries that prevent information from becoming a tool for public opinion manipulation. The media has a moral obligation to shun sensationalism that puts a shade on the human and social aspects of events and often directs the debate towards unconstructive dimensions. And it has a duty to avoid speculation and discriminatory discourse that further reinforces prejudices, as a step towards becoming a uniting, rather than a dividing, force.

Accepting responsibility

It is a fact that the media is no longer simply a medium to relay the news. It has a responsibility to use its reach and influence to educate and break down barriers enacted out of prejudice. Remaining faithful to these imperatives would most certainly set the media in the region on the right track; only then would it be in a position to criticize the western media for its shortcomings.

The western media’s coverage of the Norway attacks should serve as a lesson to MENA outlets on the power they have in shaping opinions and debates, and on their responsibility to not turn such power into propaganda. Then again, many would argue that putting the onus on the media, knowing the political climate and the industry’s dependence on advertising revenues and/or political and financial backing, is asking too much. Knowing this, what it all boils down to is that most regional media should free themselves from the shackles of political and financial servitude. Only with such freedom comes the ability to be objective and free of prejudice. Following the incredible societal achievements of the past months, one can only hope that the time has come for the media in the region to show some courage by looking closer into how they operate and re-examining their own system of values.

Youmna el Asmar, Zeina Loutfi and Ramsay G. Najjar