Friday, September 13, 2013

Media turn potential Syria conflict into battle against Assad

As the U.S. marched towards a seemingly inevitable (but now postponed) involvement in the Syrian war, the media increasingly used words that personified the alleged threat posed by Syria, according to a recent study. This means that after the chemical attack on Aug. 21 more stories were published that substituted “Assad’s army” or “Assad’s chemicals” for the terms “Syrian army” or “Syrian chemicals”, for example.

In other words, media framed the possible war increasingly as being the U.S. vs. Bashar Al-Assad himself. Why? Many would argue that personification makes it easier to sell to conflict to the public. My colleague Professor John Lofflin prefers the term personalization to describe this notion that journalists make one person the symbol of the war. Whatever it's called, the danger in this approach is the misperceptions that are created, along with the mistaken notion that eliminating one bad guy would easily end the conflict. Certainly, that didn’t happen with Saddam Hussein or with Osama bin Laden.

In the case of personifying the Syrian conflict in the person of President Bashar al-Assad, the study referenced earlier concludes that this personification--the use of terms like “Assad’s chemicals”, “Assad’s army”, “his military”--increased more than ten-fold in the two week period before the chemical attacks as compared to the same period after the attacks. (see study details below).

One question unanswered in this study is whether these were terms that originated in quotes by administration spokespeople, or whether journalists themselves generated these phrases.
The personification of a perceived threat is as old as war itself. Alexander Nickolaev from Drexel University writes about this in, “Why media go along with government war plans.” One of his main contentions is that war is easier to sell when it is presented as “good guys vs. bad” and when there is a “vilified” enemy. (Critical Sociology, 2009).  

One example of personification was Saddam Hussein, who upon invading Kuwait in 1990 went from a little-known dictator to the embodiment of evil. This narrative, of course, was embraced by the George H.W. Bush administration as an easy way to convince the public of the necessity of the first gulf war. However, when evil is personified and thus oversimplified, as it was with Saddam, it leaves the public with little understanding of the real conflict or about the countries in the conflict region. Sociologist Todd Gitlin told the Washington Post in 1990 that “personalizing evil makes it difficult to learn about a country most Americans know little about. When I see 'Eyes of the killer,' I know this is hysteria. But when I see 'Dictator’ who will stop at nothing to control the price of oil,' I don't know if it's true. I rather assume that it is. It's very difficult for me to know where accuracy ends and where alarm and hysteria begin." 

There are close parallels between Saddam and the current situation with Assad and Syria, which is, after all, a country Americans know little about. Certainly, demonizing an opponent is easier, cleaner, and perhaps more effective than attempting to explain the eccentricities of global diplomacy.

As peace journalists, it’s important that we are aware of personification tactics and how they are used to sell conflicts. Journalists need to more carefully consider the verbiage we use, whether it is in quotes or not. Are they really “Assad’s chemicals?” We need to lead a discussion about the dangers inherent in personification as we ask tough questions that expose oversimplifications. It’s our job to help the public understand that the ‘good guys vs. bad’ model doesn’t reflect reality.

Study: Personification of Bashar Al-Assad in English language media

8/1-8/15 pre chemical attack
9547 articles on Syria (searched using only one word-Syria)
Search on Lexis-Nexis database, under “all English media”:  The word Syria plus search terms Assad’s army, Assad’s  troops, Assad’s  forces, Assad’s  military, Assad’s  soldiers, Assad’s  armed forces, Assad’s  aggression, “his army”, “his chemicals”, “Assad’s chemicals”
Total mentions=111 (72 under “his chemicals”, 34 under “his army”)
Percentage 111/9574
= Personification in .011 % of stories

8/28-9/11 post chemical attack
43,329 articles (minimum) on Syria –more than quadruple after the chemical attack. (MINIMUM—Lexis-Nexis maxes out at 3,000 search hits per day. 12/15 days studied hit the maximum).
Same search
Total mentions=6022 (5613 under “his chemicals”, 175 under “Assad’s chemicals”, 168 are under “his army”)
Percentage 6022/43,329=Personification in  .13%  of stories –More than 10 times the previous personification mentions

NOTE: Even if there were twice as many articles on Syria not found because of the 3,000 daily limit on the Lexis Nexis search, there would still be 5 times the personification mentions as before the chemical attack.

Increasing frequency of terms
“his army” from 34 pre chemical attack to 168 post
“Assad’s military” from 1 to 56
“his chemicals” from 72 to 5,613
“Assad’s chemicals” from 0 to 175

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