Media coverage largely shapes our view of the world. Although the degree to which mainstream media affects its viewers is widely contested, according to the agenda setting theory even if media does not tell us what to think, it does certainly influence what we think about. A particular issue or narrative will adhere to the mind of television viewers and newspaper readers more easily if it is being constantly mentioned by the media, and will influence its audience to regard that issue as more important than the ones that are not routinely covered. This is why an analysis of media representation of the Syrian revolution is vital to understand how the media has constructed a dominant narrative that will affect the way in which the public understands the conflict.

The conference presented in June by the London Middle East Institute at SOAS and the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver analyzed the Syrian conflict and its representation by mainstream media by a number of different experts on the topic. The panelists of this conference were Bente Scheller, Middle East Director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, co-editor of PULSE, and author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War, Scott Lucas, editor of EA WorldView and professor of American Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the moderator Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies.

The aim of the conference was to assess how a dominant narrative has emerged in which both Bashar al-Assad and the rebel forces are constructed as mainly undesirable and unworthy of Western aid.  According to the majority of Western newspapers reporting on the conflict, both al-Assad and its opposition are guilty of unspeakable atrocities, even though factually speaking there is no parity between the massacres committed, as the numerical evidence can corroborate. The Houla massacre of May 2012 was blamed on the rebels by a number of media outlets despite the evidence to the contrary and “Mother Agnes”, the “detective nun” who claimed that she had evidence that rebels faked the August 2013 gas attack, was given ample coverage by important media outlets such as the BBC even though her ties with the Syrian regime can hardly make her an impartial witness.  Similarly, many Western media outlets have referred to the Syrian rebels as “extremists” or “jihadists”, making the conflict seem to Western eyes as a choice between al-Assad and the terrorists, while erasing the Syrian population and their suffering from the picture altogether.

According to the panelists, framing the conflict in a way in which there is not a “good side” relieves the West from any type of military interference. After the chemical weapons attack in August 2013, a military intervention seemed inevitable. However, a publicity campaign orchestrated by the Russian and Syrian governments which denied any chemical weapons attack by the Syrian government and proposed instead that the weapons were homemade by the rebels was rapidly picked up by Western media and contributed to make most countries hesitant about intervention. The conclusion made by the conference was that he who controls the narrative holds power, and right now the narrative is benefiting the Syrian government. As the panelists stated, nobody denies that extremists exist in both sides of the conflict, but that is also the case in the Israel and Palestine conflict and that hasn’t stopped most people from stating that Palestinians have the right to self-determination.

Why are so many media outlets constructing this particular narrative? According to the indexing theory, the range of debate on public affairs appearing in the news is often indexed to the range of debate present in mainstream government discourse. If we believe this theory to be true, mainstream media is constructing a narrative based on most Western governments’ reluctance to intervene in the Syrian conflict. Media incentives are an important factor in driving the narrative, as stories are more attractive if they have provocative headlines and a headline about “extremists” is more likely to stimulate public interest. An important element that also needs to be taken into consideration is that many news organizations do not have the resources to have people on the ground and may rely on information that is not reliable. All of these aspects put together will contribute to construct a picture of the conflict that may be far away from the truth.

Media usually likes to present itself as the “fourth state” or the “watchdog” to government. The media’s role to monitor the conduct of government is invaluable in a democracy, but the SOAS conference on media representation of the Syrian conflict also reminds us that media itself needs to be routinely analysed if we want to understand how and why different issues are represented. This is vital if we want to avoid being manipulated by the same media that is supposed to inform us.

Julia Tena de la Nuez



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