Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

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8.4.1 Young people’s media use (i)

Our final article this section is again UK based, but focuses on a specific place and time: Tower Hamlets between September 2004 and December 2005. Al-Ghabban examines the experiences of young adults of white, Bengali and mixed race backgrounds who watch and use a variety of television, internet and mobile-phone mediated news sources. We change methods too, from inferences based on the critical reading of texts, to the conversations about media use that is characteristic of media ethnography. As you approach this article, a good reading strategy will be to try to answer one of the questions raised by Mythen and Walklate: ‘How [have] communications about the terrorist threat have been converted into meaningful understandings by members of the public?’ (ibid: p129).

Activity 37 Global viewing in East London

Please read the sections of the article [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] outlined below now, and note your answers to the questions as you progress. When you have finished, reveal the discussion and check your answers against those provided.

P311–313 (end of first paragraph ‘...passionately believed’) and p314 (final paragraph)

1. What does al-Ghabban suggest ought to replace the ‘notional types of “active” or “passive”, “resistant” or “accepting” viewers’ (p314)?

P315–6 ('Method')

2. Who were his interviewees and why did he choose them (p315)?

P316–321 ('Discussion: Terrorism news talk' and 'Apocalyptic visions')

3. How does al-Ghabban distinguish between ‘cynical’ and ‘critical’ responses to media sources, and how did access to transnational media influence the understanding of the Bengali interviewees? How did Bengali Muslims and non-religious white interviewees perceptions of the risk of terrorist attack differ?

P323–324 ('Broader horizons')

4. How did interviewees explain and frame their downloading of images of hostage executions?

P324–5 ('Conclusions')

5. What conclusions does al-Ghabban draw concerning the effects of exposure to transnational media sources (or contra-flows, to use Cottle's (2006) term)?

6. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of ethnographic interviewing as a method of researching media effects?


  1. Al-Ghabban argues that a dichotomy between passive, accepting audiences and active (and 'resistant') audiences should be replaced with a perspective that recognises 'all readers orient themselves differently depending on their experiences and varying community, class, ethnicity and gender identities' (p312).
  2. His interviewees were a mixture of working-class Bengali Muslim and white middle-class non-religious school children, and a group of working class women with mixed ethnicity and religion in their late twenties. All participants lived in the Tower Hamlets area of east London. The students were volunteers for the project from the school at which al-Ghabban is a teacher. Although al-Ghabban does not fully explain the reasons for his selection in this section, it is possible to speculate that the Bengali Muslim and white non-religious students may have been chosen to enable a comparison between mono- and bi-lingual backgrounds and different religious orientations, and the older group perhaps served to increase the diversity in the sample.
  3. This distinction, derived from Buckingham (2000), serves to distinguish between two kinds of sceptical responses: more emotionally engaged and specific ('critical') and more distant and generalised ('cynical'). Access to transnational media gave Bengali Muslim students exposure to a wider range of perspectives on world events, and may have influenced some of them in becoming more politically engaged. While they rejected media stereotypes of Muslims, the Bengali Muslim students thought that the threat of terrorist attack was real, in contrast to their non-religious white school mates.
  4. Curiosity seems to have been a significant reason: 'I wanted to see how it was like'. This is combined with recognition of the moral dubiousness of viewing – 'not in a good way' – and moral condemnation of the action depicted: 'What they the kidnappers were doing was just as wrong as the war' (p324).
  5. Al-Ghabban's main conclusion is that while access to diverse media did not improve the impartiality of news sources viewed, nor give access to 'the democratic arena', his interviewees were able to form opinions and even get politically involved. Thus exposure to diverse one-sided sources generated not just cynicism but criticism, and even political engagement, such as going to protests. It is interesting to compare this with the conclusions of both Cottle and Mythen and Walklate, which stress the importance of access to accurate and impartial sources of information and to spaces for public discussion as a basis for deliberative democracy. In contrast, al-Ghabban's conclusion is that access to a range of opinion may be more important than the quality of news sources for stimulating political action and debate.
  6. Ethnographic interviewing allows us to see how media sources are interpreted in real-life contexts, and hence to the forms of engagement that real people actually have with the media. However, it is necessarily small scale and it is not possible to tell whether the sample studied is representative of wider trends.

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