Al Jazeera, CNN and Two Attacks May08

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Al Jazeera, CNN and Two Attacks

The Al Jazeera broadcast center in Doha, Qatar (Photo Credit: Flickr Paul Keller)

In February, Tal Yehoshua Koren, wife of an Israeli Defense Ministry envoy in India, hopped into her car with the family’s driver. Shortly after they entered traffic,  a passing biker on a red motorcycle stuck a bomb on their Toyota Innova. The explosion injured Koren and her driver.

Sound familiar? It should. Just a month earlier, Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was killed in Teheran in almost identical manner. According to eyewitnesses, a motorcyclist attached a bomb to the Peugeot 405 that Roshan was sitting in. The explosion killed him and his driver instantly.

The parallel between the cases was reinforced by the fact that after each bombing, Iran and Israel respectively blamed the other for the attack on their countryman.  Other parallels played out in the media, though in very different ways.

A review of the coverage of Al-Jazeera and CNN for a week after each attack finds significant differences in reporting not only between the two networks, but also between the two different stories within Al Jazeera’s coverage.  The popular Arab network reflected mainstream Arab biases in its coverage.  CNN was more consistent in it’s treatment of the two cases.

The views of Al Jazeera are evident beginning with the headlines for the two stories: “Iran nuclear scientist killed by car bomb” and “Israeli envoys targeted in India”.

The Iranian headline is more powerful and empathetic for the victim.  It focuses on who was killed and how.  The headline referring to the Israeli victims, however, was impersonal, calling them “envoys.”   This doesn’t speak of a specific person, even though one person in particular was hit. The use of the word “targeted” also leaves the act vague, unlike in the first headline.

Differences of this type can be observed in the content of each of the video stories. The story of the Iranian scientist is narrated in a more ‘personal’ way.  It put emphasis on the victim—his  name, his age, his job—and even included the display of a picture of him, with the camera slowly and dramatically zooming in on the scientists fact. In the text accompanying the video on the website, even the university from which he had graduated is mentioned. In the report, a female eyewitness describes the scene, adding a more ‘dramatic’ feel to the story.

Later, after the event, Al Jazeera followed up on the story of Roshan’s assassination in the program ‘Listening Post,’ where a segment was dedicated to exposing the fact that western news channels had not used the term “terrorist attack” in covering the event. The argument Al Jazeera makes in this segment is that ‘the West’ only calls those attacks led by Arabs or non-Western agents as “terrorism” According to the show, when countries like the United States undertake such an attack, euphemisms are used and the T-word is never mentioned.

When covering the attack on Tal Yehoshua Koren however, we notice a different overall angle. First, the headline, “Israeli envoy targeted in India” gives no specific information on the victim. Using the term ‘envoy’ suppresses the ‘personal’ angle that was used in the previous story. In fact, throughout the video report, the name of the victim is never mentioned. The report focuses more on the tension between Iran and Israel and the fact that Israel “immediately lashed out at Iran” after the event. The main victim is only mentioned briefly in the sentences: “At least 4 people were wounded, one, reportedly, the wife of an Israeli diplomat.”

Although both the attack in Teheran and the one in New Delhi took place in very similar manners, Al Jazeera has made it a point to call the first one ‘terrorism’ but hasn’t done the same for the second.

CNN’s coverage of the two cases serves as a basis for comparison.

The video story covering the Iranian scientists’ death included the same ‘personal’ angle that Al Jazeera’s report did: we are told the name of the victim and shown a picture of him. In addition, one of the first shots displays women crying over a coffin. The story then develops more into the tensions between Israel, the US and Iran as well as Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The video also mentions previous assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists that took place in the recent past. This is well reflected by the headline: “Another Iranian nuclear scientist killed.”

When looking at their coverage of the bombing in New Delhi, one can find that the first sentence of the voice over states that the victim was “the wife of an Israeli defense official”, being a little more specific about her than Al Jazeera. Her name, however is not said in the report. [Are you sure the Israelis released it?]  The video then goes on mentioning the woman’s health condition saying she is expected to survive. In addition, eyewitnesses are interviewed, explaining what they had seen or heard of the explosion. We notice this was done on the Al Jazeera report about the scientist .The story then continues, just like the first one, with a background about the tensions Iran-Israel.

In looking at how the two cases were reported within the same respective networks, we can’t help but notice differences in the reporting.

The CNN report reflects an attempt at balance.  The life of an Israeli is equal in treatment to the life of an Iranian.   But CNN has the advantage of coming from outside the region.  The Al-Jazeera reports reflect the passions of the Arab world when it comes to Israel.  This was a look at the coverage of just two incidences, but the network regularly reflects pro-Arab sympathies in its news stories.  The network’s Arab language service is known to be more extremist than its English one.

A study of the Israeli media might be equally instructive, but a look at Al-Jazeera in English underlines the challenges of trying to bridge the differences between Israelis and Arabs.  Al-Jazeera has taken on a special role as the most trusted Arab media source in the Mideast.  It also has spread through much of the rest of the world.  Yet even on this network, the life of an Israeli is not equal in importance to that of an Iranian.  The question is whether they ever will be, on both sides.

Danielle Ziri is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She can be reached on Twitter (@DanielleZiri)