8.2 Media flows and public debate
In Mediatized Conflict: Developments in Media and Conflict Studies, Simon Cottle reflects on the use made by Western news networks of material from al-Jazeera. Al-Jazeera was founded in 1996, initially as an Arabic language news service and satellite broadcaster. It is based in Qatar in the Persian Gulf, and funded by the Emir of Qatar and (El Oifi, 2005, p75). An English language service based in London has been available since November 2006. In the extract provided, Cottle introduces Iskander and El-Nawawy's concept of 'contextual objectivity' to describe al-Jazeera's journalism, and then goes on to discuss several critical voices that have emerged within the West since 9/11 that use a mixture of media genres (e.g. documentary and satire). Figure 1, which is contained within the PDF downloadable below, maps these features of the contemporary media landscape alongside internet developments, presenting these environments as providing a range of public spheres or 'spherecules' (mini public spheres) within which public debate takes place. The size of the circles roughly represents the size (in terms of viewers/participants) of the public sphere, with the minority and new media forums described as spherecules because they each involve much smaller numbers than broadcast media. Nonetheless, because they tend to be densely networked together, collectively these spherecules can involve large numbers of people.
Activity 31 Mediatized conflict: Developments in media and conflict studies
Now read the extract from Cottle and answer the following questions. When you have finished, reveal the discussion and check your answers against those provided.
Click to view
- What is a 'media contra-flow', and why are US (and other Western) media interested in re-using content from al-Jazeera?
- What have been the effects of such contra-flows on Western media audiences?
- What is 'contextual objectivity' and how useful do you think it is as a concept?
- What is the significance of cross-over genre films and the internet (see also Fig. 9.1) for the development of the deliberative democracy?
- A 'media contra-flow' is a flow of media content in the reverse direction to dominant flows, which tend to flow from global, Western-based media corporations. Examples include:
- flows from independent media producers in the West into Western corporate media systems
- flows from non-Western media producers such as al-Jazeera into Western corporate systems
- flows from Western producers into state controlled media systems in non-Western societies (such as from the BBC World Service into China).
- These flows increase the range of images (and to some extent perspectives) to which Western media audiences are exposed. In the case of al-Jazeera, its images may challenge Western constructions of journalistic 'objectivity' by presenting alternative viewpoints, but only to the extent that such viewpoints are evident in re-packaged visual content.
- 'Contextual objectivity' refers first to al-Jazeera's attempt to present news in a way that is free from particular political interests and agendas, but which nonetheless broadly fits with the concerns of its predominantly Arab audience. The term can be then be used to argue that there is a similar relationship between 'high quality' Western news services (such as CNN or the BBC) and their respective audiences.
Of course how useful you think that the term is depends on your standpoint: it could be argued that it is misleading to compare al-Jazeera and organisations such as the BBC or CNN. The BBC and CNN are much less dependent on funding from a particular unelected, not (fully) commercially accountable source (i.e. the Emir of Qatar). On the other hand, the BBC has close links to the British political system (and claims to editorial independence might be viewed sceptically from abroad), while research has also pointed to the close links between political elites and the media in the US (recall Herman and Chomsky from Section 7).
Furthermore, the term highlights relationships between media products, media producers, and their funders and audiences, in a way that makes simple notions of objectivity problematic. In response, it makes an argument that even if it is inevitable that all journalism has some kind of cultural, political or value orientation, there remain criteria by which some may be judged better than others; i.e. contextual objectivity may be defined in terms of accuracy, balance, construction of argument, etc. Thus, this may be considered a useful term for those concerned with evaluating standards of journalism in an increasingly polycentric world.
- Both cross-over genre films (such as Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11) and the internet have some significance for deliberative democracy. In the context of a media landscape that is increasingly commercially dominated, the former circulate alternative views while the latter provides spaces for their expression and discussion.