The entire study of mass communication is “based on the premise that media have significant effects” (McQuail 1994, p.327). In the realm of hard news reporting, this can be especially true when negativity and sensationalism are used to skew perception, exploit fear, or craft a news story so that it appeals to as many people as possible. In today’s mediascape, in which a large number of organisations compete for audiences’ attention, a news story may be presented or framed in many different ways. Examining how this is done and the likely outcomes are valuable in understanding the functions and effects of mass communication. This essay will examine four news organisations’ – two English, one Turkish, and prominent Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera – coverage of the 1st January Istanbul nightclub attack in the days immediately after the incident. Instances of media framing and use of rhetoric will be recorded and potential motivations for framing suggested. Edward Said’s work on Orientalism provides a theoretical framework in which media framing of this news story can be contextualised.
Public communication occurs when individuals or organisations communicate with a large audience: the effects and implications of which have been scrutinised for decades. Framing by news organisations can influence the actions and choices an audience makes with a piece of information (Scheufele 1999, p.114). Entman (1993, p.52) described media framing as “select[ing] some aspects of a perceived reality and mak[ing] them more salient in a communicating text”, with the aim of “promot[ing] a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation”.
Edward Said wrote that the West’s view of the East – the societies and countries in the Middle East and Asia – is a “regular constellation of ideas” created as a “system of knowledge”, providing Europeans with an identity which is a “superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures” (Williams & Chrisman 1993, p.133). In Orientalism (1978), Said is concerned with establishing the context of the East as an “arena of continual imperial ambition” (Scott 2008, p.64) and describes the West’s ‘othering’ of the East as being forged in the realms of empire, patronisation and interference. This otherness is described as being created over centuries by Westerners viewing the East as a place of despotism, arbitrary lawlessness, and servility (Lockman 2004, p.48), which creates a “willed, imaginative and geographic distinction … between East and West” (Said 1978, p.140). While some critics have charged Said with cherry-picking evidence to create a case of Western racism against the East (Lockman 2004, p.182; Scott 2008, p.64), his work on Orientalism has been hugely influential since it was published. It is still relevant today, in that it can provide a framework for examining how the gap that exists between one human consciousness or set of societies and another can widen rapidly and tragically under “circumstances of time, distance, or oppression” (Scott 2008, p.64). Prejudice against Muslims preceded the 9/11 attacks and the so-called ‘War on Terror’, but those events and many terrorism attacks which followed have created a climate of distrust surrounding many Muslim communities (Ogan et. al 2013, p.28). These feelings of distrust continue to be perpetuated by some Western media organisations.
In the early hours of 1st January 2017, a gunman opened fire in Istanbul’s Reina nightclub, which was filled with revellers celebrating New Year’s Eve. Thirty-nine people were killed and dozens wounded before the gunman fled the scene. Citizens of Morocco, Lebanon, Libya, Belgium, Saudi Arabia and France were killed, officials later said (Pamuk & Tattersall, 2017, online). Witnesses said the gunman shouted Islamist slogans as he discharged his weapon. He was arrested by Turkish authorities on 16th January, and it was reported he had links with Islamist militant groups (Arslan, 2017, online). News organisations picked up the story within minutes of the incident happening.
The Guardian has traditionally operated and been regarded as a left-wing or centre-left publication on the left-right political spectrum, and has been known for portraying Middle-Eastern refugees with empathy (Pupavac 2008, p.270). On 1st January, it first reported the nightclub attack story with a piece entitled ‘Turkey nightclub shooting: Istanbul on alert after gunman kills dozens’ (The Guardian 2017, online). The story labels the perpetrator a “gunman” and “attacker”, and by the fifth sentence, notes that “no group has claimed responsibility for the attack”, before moving on to describe the known series of events in simple, factual detail; including the number of dead, their nationalities, and details of the police search for the attacker. The publication quickly began a blog of rolling coverage for the news item, running through the following 24 hours (The Guardian 2017, online). Again, writers described the perpetrator as the “assailant”, “attacker” and “gunman”, with no reference to nationality, religion, or skin colour. A single mention of religion exists in a quote by Turkey’s most senior cleric, who condemned the attack as “savagery … that no Muslim conscience can accept” (The Guardian 2017, online). In a story published on 5th January entitled ‘Istanbul nightclub gunman identified, says Turkish foreign minister’, The Guardian reported that the identity of the gunman had been established, but did not give further details as his identity was not yet confirmed. In the same article, it was mentioned that “Isis claimed responsibility for the attack” (The Guardian 2017, online) and that Turkey is a NATO member working with the United States against Isis in Syria and Iraq. No direct implication was made that this fact and the attack were linked.
The Daily Mail has traditionally operated and been regarded as a conservative or right-wing publication, and has received criticism for portraying Middle-Eastern refugees in a negative fashion (Khosravinik 2009, p.477). Shortly after the attack took place, the Daily Mail reported the story in a piece entitled ‘Terrifying moment terrorist dressed as Santa stalks Istanbul nightclub where he killed 39 and wounded 69 before leaving his weapon behind – as funerals are held for victims just 13 hours after the atrocity’ (Daily Mail 2017, online). The fourth sentence in the story includes the words “it is unclear who carried out the shooting, however recent terror attacks in Turkey have been carried out by groups such as ISIS and Kurdish militants” (Daily Mail 2017, online); immediately suggesting the motivations or background of the attacker. Several sentences later, it is noted that the Turkish President “has vowed to fight to the end against all forms of attack by terror groups and their backers” and that the attack “had been carried out with Kalashnikov rifles” (Daily Mail 2017, online); again framing the attack as having been carried out by a terror group of ‘Eastern’ origin. On 2nd January, the Daily Mail ran a story with the headline ‘ISIS claim responsibility for Istanbul nightclub atrocity as police hunt gunman who murdered 39 revellers in five-minute shooting spree’ (Daily Mail 2017, online). The first sentence of the story begins with the words “ISIS fanatics…”, mentions the type of weapon as a Kalashnikov, states that the killer “shouted in Arabic during the attack”, lists a series of unrelated attacks which occurred in Turkey throughout 2016, before moving the focus to the United Kingdom by describing London as being on “high alert” and having an increased number of police officers on patrol (Daily Mail 2017, online). The Daily Mail published further stories daily until 16th January with a heavy focus on the attackers supposed links to ISIS, along with a ‘selfie’ photograph of the alleged attacker described as “menacing” (Daily Mail 2017, online).
Al Jazeera, despite its relatively short history, has been described as having “changed the face of a formerly parochial Arab media” (Zayani 2005, p.1) and as an organisation that has “scooped” Western media many times (El-Nawawy 2003, p.1). The broadcaster has helped to shape Arab identities in the public sphere, while “rattling the status quo” in the West (Seib 2008, p.7). On 1st January, Al Jazeera first reported the story under the headline ‘Istanbul attack: Dozens dead at Reina nightclub’ (Al Jazeera 2017, online), referring to the perpetrator as “attacker” and quoting a Turkish minister as “hunting one ‘terrorist’”. The story mentions that no claim of responsibility has been made for the attack, but that “experts say the needle of suspicion points at” ISIS (Al Jazeera 2017, online), and goes on to describe other terrorist attacks which occurred in Turkey during the previous twelve months. On 2nd January, Al Jazeera published a story with the headline ‘Istanbul: Police release photo of Reina attack suspect’ (Al Jazeera 2017, online), which displayed the photo with no accompanying description. The article quotes the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister on the country’s state of emergency and reports the attack as being claimed by ISIS, but does not state this as fact or make unsubstantiated claims on terrorism-related activity. By 17th January, in a story published with the headline ‘Istanbul Reina club suspect “confesses”: official’, Al Jazeera quotes Istanbul’s governor as saying that a suspect, Uzbekistan national Abdulgadir Masharipov, has confessed to the attack, and that it was “carried out in the name of [ISIS]” (Al Jazeera 2017, online). The story again sticks to quoting officials rather than making firm statements about the perpetrator’s arrest or possible motivations for the attack. Interestingly, the writer of the story deems it important to mention that the perpetrator was found and arrested in the Esenyurt district, which is “on Istanbul’s European side” (Al Jazeera 2017, online). This is not mentioned in any of the Western-published stories on the arrest.
Turkey is ranked lowly on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index (Solmaz 2015, online), but only one of its top-four selling newspapers is pro-government: the Daily Sabah. On 1st January the Daily Sabah reported the attack with a story with the headline ‘Terror attack on Istanbul nightclub leaves 39 dead, 65 wounded’, which describes the perpetrator simply as an “assailant” (Daily Sabah 2017, online) and makes no mention of religion. By 2nd January, a story is published with the headline ‘US denies having intelligence on Istanbul nightclub attack which killed 39’ (Daily Sabah 2017, online), bringing a potentially important new issue to the public’s attention, and one which is not mentioned anywhere in Western media. The story quotes the nightclub owner, Mehmet Koçarslan, as claiming U.S. sources had intelligence on the attack (Daily Sabah 2017, online). On the same day, the story ‘Istanbul nightclub attacker’s identity coming to light as Turkish police deepens probe’ is published (Daily Sabah 2017, online), in which the alleged perpetrator’s wife is reported as saying she is unaware of her husband’s “sympathies with the Daesh terrorist organisation”. Again, the name ‘ISIS’ is not mentioned. Use of the term ‘Daesh’ in media has been described as a better choice by a range of world leaders, including French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who said “This is a terrorist group and not a state … the term Islamic State blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims, and Islamists” (Khan 2014, online).
Aristotle described rhetoric as fundamentally “the political art of persuasion” (Varisco 2011, p.96): this ‘art’ was present in various amounts in the news organisations’ stories analysed. From this analysis, it can be said that The Guardian reported the story with little to no framing of the attack as being of ‘Eastern’ origin, and mentions of religion and appearance of the attacker were minimal or non-existent. The Guardian showed very little evidence of Said’s description of the West ‘othering’ the East. The Daily Mail almost immediately framed the attacker as an “ISIS fanatic” (Daily Mail 2017, online), and the majority of related stories in the days following the attack mentioned ISIS in the headline or opening paragraphs. The Daily Mail was the only publication to mention the weapons used as being Kalashnikovs, and described the alleged perpetrator’s unremarkable photograph as “menacing” (Daily Mail 2017, online). Known for portraying Muslims as an “alien other” (Saeed 207, p.1), the Daily Mail displayed the largest amount of reporting which fitted Said’s description of the West’s ‘othering’ of the East. This framing fits with Entman’s description of “select[ing] some aspects of a perceived reality and mak[ing] them more salient in a communicating text with the aim of promot[ing] a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation” (1993, p.52). A likely result is that Europeans are presented with an identity which Said described a “superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures” (Williams & Chrisman 1993, p.133) and that the resulting idea of Europe is “a collective notion identifying ‘us’ Europeans as against all those non-Europeans” (Said 1979, p.134). Al Jazeera displayed restraint in not making unsubstantiated claims about the attacker’s identity or links to terrorist groups in the days following the attack; instead quoting the Turkish Prime Minister and government officials. It is interesting to note that Al Jazeera found it necessary to mention that the perpetrator was found and arrested “on Istanbul’s European side” (Al Jazeera 2017, online), perhaps confirming its status as a broadcaster which “rattl[es] the status quo” in the West (Seib 2008, p.7). The Daily Sabah, it could be argued, was bold in raising the question over whether the United States had any prior warning of the attack, and was the most careful of any of the news organisations analysed in its labelling of the group allegedly responsible as Daesh, not ISIS (Daily Sabah 2017, online).
In conclusion, it can be said that Western media frames a vision of the East through its mass media organisations, although the extent to which this occurs varies depending on an organisation’s traditional position on the left-right political spectrum. Reporting news stories concerning terrorism or religious extremism in the East can be particularly problematic for Western news organisations. Said’s theory that the West allows the East into its consciousness through a filtered grid – a complex relationship between power, domination and varying degrees of hegemony – is still as relevant today as it was in the late 1970s. It could be argued that Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera provides a reliable, alternative option to Western media for coverage of stories concerning the Middle East and Asia.
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