French Journal For Media Research

Sawsan Atallah Bidart et Catherine Pascal

Challenges and Stakes in Syrian Representation and Participation in International Media

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1Résumé : Une approche théorique est adoptée pour cet article afin de comprendre non seulement la représentation des cultures par les médias internationaux auprès d’un public international mais aussi la compréhension (ou pas) interculturelle. Dans notre étude, nous utilisons un corpus des reportages audiovisuels couvrant les histoires d'un seul contexte : les événements du soulèvement syrien et ses conséquences entre 2011 et 2013. Un extrait de ce corpus est présenté ici afin de souligner l’importance de la compréhension et de l’adaptation culturelles ainsi que la nécessité de décrypter les influences hégémoniques et géopolitiques.
Mots clés : représentation, participation, médias interculturels, engagement, activisme
Abstract: A grounded theory approach is adopted for this article so as to understand the international media representation of cultures to international audiences and intercultural comprehension. Our study focuses on a corpus of audiovisual news stories covering a single context: the events of the Syrian uprising and its aftermaths between 2011 and 2013. Through the case study, we are able to highlight the significance of cultural comprehension and adaptation as well as the need to keep wary of hegemonic and geopolitical influences.
Keywords: Representation, participation, cross-cultural media, engagement, activism

The Challenges of Intercultural Comprehension through Intermediaries

2Communication encompasses the journey of a message between the message sender and the message receptor and within this journey are several stop points starting from how a message is perceived and interpreted by the sender before finally encoding the message to be sent. The journey carries on so that the receptor decodes the message using codes they are familiar with so as to begin perceiving and constructing an interpretation of the message they believe they have received. The message the receiver decodes will never be exactly what the message constructor encoded in their message, and this results in various possible interpretations of messages, which subsequently leads to the co-existence of various realities in the perception of different people in society. The way in which humans perceive and eventually interpret reality is strongly intertwined with our culture, our language and our experiences with infinite objects and entities ranging from words and information to people and cultures in various contexts. No two people can have the exact same experiences, even if they share the same national culture, and therefore no interpretation will be equivalent to its encoded message. This is not to diminish the power of the discourse producer; on the contrary, it is to further emphasize the weight of their responsibility in the discourses they produce. Indeed, it is the dominant discourses in a society that contribute to the construction of shared experiences amongst people with words, people, cultures, information and events. And it is these shared repetitive, powerful and dominant experiences that lead to the co-construction of meaning in society, whereby the role of the power-less society in the construction of meaning is that of a construction worker who simply builds the plans following the blueprint drawn by their architect and approved by their managers. Of course, both the sender and receiver of a message will be responsible for the construction of meaning. Therefore, the co-construction of meaning in society is a result of both information producers and their audience, some of whom have taken on a participatory role in the news. But it is our realistic belief that human beings cannot avoid influences of powerful, dominant and repetitive messages. Dominant discourse producers need to be made accountable in society so as to ensure that messages are broadcast in the most representative manner possible.

3In a world impacted by globalization and yet still divided by physical and imaginary borders, how can we achieve intercultural comprehension when the only experience some societies have with other cultures is through intermediaries such as media corporations, teachers and movies? The postulate that media have a role to play in intercultural comprehension is not new. In her study on public and private media in Europe during the Second World War, Ghosn noted that media at the time did not limit its scope to politics and economics; culture was considered of equal significance to the media and therefore also prioritized (Ghosn, 2012, p. 110). Furthermore, intercultural comprehension can be said to be the result of media output, which can include representations of both real and fictive events that will characterize cultures. Sommier explains that “cultural resonance” can be studied by researchers “examining media frames” (Sommier, 2014, p. 6). Furthermore, Sommier argues that “culturally resonant frames in media discourse increases their taken-for-granted, which enhances their [media] power” and “cultural markers create a sense of common sense because of their presence in everyday life experiences which contributes to normalizing them” (idem).

4The press, sometimes referred to as the fourth power in a state, in place as a government watchdog but also as information gatekeepers, has the power to define, persuade and format (Neveu, 2014). The term “format” used by Neveu can be interpreted in 2 ways. The word ‘format’ can be used in reference to the power of the media to format or produce an event into a news story in terms of its final presentation form. However, the term ‘format’ can also be used on society itself. If the media can indeed format, mold or construct public opinion, then the media’s role is no longer limited to that of a witness who is reporting the news. Instead, the media becomes an actor or even an event participant in news stories (Tudesq, 1997). Representation of a people in the media is therefore of essence in the construct of public opinion and the endeavor for inter-cultural comprehension.

5If intercultural comprehension can and will also take place via intermediaries, then the problem of intercultural comprehension between societies divided by culture, distance, borders, and politics will never cease to exist. So as to enlighten audiences and make discourse production recommendations to the media, it is necessary that scholars regularly assess how cultures are represented in the news.

6For the purpose of this paper, it was decided that we would use one particular case study, already conducted in a Ph.D. research (SAtallah Bidart, 2019), to understand how one culture is represented to other cultures over a period of time. The objective was to focus on the importance and complexity of news contexts covered by the media, in contexts where spaces in distance and time can lead to contradictory interpretations between mediators, subsequently leading to a distorted co-constructed understanding of a culture. The selected case study was the events of the Syrian uprisings and post-uprising conflicts that took place between 2011 and 2013. The case study was used to understand how Syria, the country, the events, the people and the culture as a whole was represented to the international community.

Research Aims and objectives 

7This paper aims to answer the question of Syrian representation during the Syrian uprising and post-uprising conflict in international media. By exploring communication and culture within dominant discourse institutions found in Syria as well as in international media covering the events of the Syrian uprising and its immediate aftermath, this paper will highlight the role of local and international media in Syria. The dominant institutions of discourse will be identified so as to analyze their discourse using Critical Discourse Analysis. This means that the media studied will not be restricted to traditional news outlets; instead, other forms of information producers will also be studied, as per the CDA prescription, so as to comprehend and analyze the produced discourse.

8Furthermore, using a purpose-built audio-visual corpus of already broadcast news, by Al Jazeera English, France 24 English, Euronews English, and Press TV, on the events of the Syrian Uprising and the conflict between 2011 and 2013, this paper will also present the representation of Syrians in international news. Prior to the kick-starting the research and building a corpus, 3 hypotheses were drawn.

9The first hypothesis was that conflict coverage from afar leads to stereotyped interpretations by the media. As the Syrian Uprising escalated into a dangerous conflict, there was an immense crackdown on the press, notably international press, whose job it was to interpret the conflict for the world. International journalists were not granted visas into Syria and international news channels were not willing to risk sending their journalists to a country, that according to the Committee to Project Journalists, had become the most dangerous country in the world for journalists (Doyle, 2014). This meant that the uprising and conflict in Syria between at least 2011 and 2013 was largely covered through proxies in Syria who sent footage and news to news desks in neighboring countries such as Lebanon and Turkey, who then relayed the message to the world through international news outlets. As the news flows from one node of information to the next, messages transform and evolve into the final news product broadcasted to international audiences. As the flow of information is stretched to include various information nodes, the risk of misinterpretation grows higher. And as news is reported by various outlets, the dominant messages will more likely be echoed into newsrooms and reproduced to international audiences, leading to narrow views of a culture that is biased and based on what may be misrepresentative media messages. This, therefore, leads to our next hypothesis related to miscomprehension between cultures.

10Our second hypothesis was that variations in interpretations and misinterpretations lead to questionable misinformation. Interpreting the news through proxies runs the risk of being misinterpreted at each node of information transfer, meaning that the final reported story in the form of international news may have variations from the story initially told by the first witness. Effective interpretation of a story may be affected by the number of actors in the news flow, but even more so when the actors come from different cultures who may use different languages and have varying experiences with languages used, therefore also leading to misinterpretation (Jakobson, 1959; Russell, 1921, 1949). It is therefore important to understand the international news flow by taking into account all checkpoints within the flux.

11This paper looks beyond national cultures, by highlighting the culture journalist profession so as to understand what is expected of journalists in different cultures. We know that press laws differ in various countries and therefore the press will receive training representatives of the laws in their working environment. We believe this has an effect on the journalist culture and therefore news production routines will change from one news desk to the other.

12Also, the final broadcast story on international networks is contributed to by local-based international media in various countries, adapted for the country’s culture. Following, Giles’ Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) (Giles et al., 1973; Whaley & Samter, 2007), one could presume that news stories would be narrated to different audiences differently, so as to accommodate the news to the audience and this may lead to those different audiences having different appreciations for the same culture. Media participation in news events and news construction leads to cultural representation and eventual intercultural comprehension or miscomprehension.

13What happens when different and same news outlets produce news stories with various interpretations? One might say that providing various interpretations leads to objective news reporting, which eventually results in a well-informed society. But it may also lead to two opposing problems in cultural representations to international audiences: (1) event simplification and (2) event ambiguity. The news may be reported as ‘black and white’, opposing actors in every news story presented as the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ actor and this leads to an absence of grey elements found outside of the ‘black and white’ spectrum. News simplification can lead to a dangerously reduced understanding of a culture. On the other hand, representing events in the news in an ambiguous manner may be the result of the journalist’s culture in terms of their education and experience within the culture that they are covering in a particular location. Journalists, just like anyone in society, can and will interpret an event through the experience they have. They cannot borrow local understanding of a culture to interpret the event as locals are experiencing it.

14Our third hypothesis is that the participation of cultures in their storytelling will make locals accountable for intercultural comprehension. When deconstructing the international news flow, we can identify various parties including local information actors. These local information actors may include local governments (dominant discourse producers), local press (dominant discourse producers), local international press (dominant discourse producers) and citizen journalists and activists (society). All of these actors, perhaps with the exception of the locally based international press, represent the national culture and will, therefore, represent their culture to international culture through intermediaries.

15It is our belief that stereotypes are formed when stories of culture are similar. Repeated stories with similar characters and similar conflicts in similar environments lead to dominant interpretations of a culture, which become normalized into perception. Cultures that do not benefit from diverse coverage in the media will experience limited and narrow narratives on them and will inevitably suffer the most when it comes to intercultural comprehension and appreciation.

16World economic powers such as the USA, who have developed their film industry in the international arena, have the luxury of writing various, diverse stories about their culture that allow other cultures to be exposed to the American culture. Cultures that do not produce and distribute stories about themselves on an international level will be reduced to the few similar stories narrated by their international storytellers.

17Between 1996 and 2008, research papers contributed by Arab countries were minimal. In research articles published by Arabs, the percentage of retraction is high; for example, Egypt’s retraction rate is double that of the US and three times more than the retraction rate of academic articles published in the UK. Retraction is the consequence of falsified evidence but also conflicts of interest or plagiarism (Placket, 2019). The twenty-two Middle East and Northern African countries will benefit from the first even Arabic Citation Index in 2020 and this is expected to develop the “Arab academic footprint” (Sawahel, 2018). The Internet World Stats published figures showing that Arabic-speaking internet users are the fourth highest user group and yet the Web Technology Surveys (W3Techs, 2019) found that Arabic content on the internet only makes up 0.6% of all internet content. Studies have found that Arabs will take to social media mainly to chat (50%) or access information (18%) as opposed to creating and publishing content even in form of discussions or blogs (6%) (Arab Social Media Report, 2015). The Arab Film Institute notes on its website that out of 1000 films studied by Jack Shaheed, featuring Arab and Muslim characters, only 12 of these films depicted Arabs and Muslims positively, whereas there 936 films portrayed Arabs in a negative manner. And for 11 years from 2002 to 2013, only 1.8% of film screenings were directed by Middle Easterners.

18In researching this hypothesis, we are able to go a step further by not only studying representation but also exploring participation in terms of how locals/nationals recount their stories to others in the search for intercultural comprehension.

Justification of research topic

19Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model portrays how governments “manufacture consent” through the media (Herman & Chomsky, 1988). Some of the literature on “manufacturing consent” argues that it is the governments who influence traditional media in their reports to the public (Gehlbach & Sonin, 2008) and this results in what Adhikari calls “a significant propaganda role” (Adhikari, 2008). “Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government” and it can be used to “manufacture our political personalities” (Bernays, 1928, p. 108), resulting in modern propaganda and the constant endeavor “to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group” (idem).

20Social media and new technologies are used by governments to communicate with the public (Oliveira & Welch, 2013) and this is backed by other studies that highlight the media’s agenda-setting role, which can arguably “shape public opinion” (Luo, 2014; Mccombs & Shaw, 2015). It is important to explore how the media, in the process of manufacturing public opinion, constructs the identity of “the other” within societies based in faraway locations that are unable to perceive the “other” directly. When it comes to covering events taking place in faraway locations, international media will not only witness and report events; in perceiving the events, through their cultural glasses, they will then interpret the events into news stories for other cultures, therefore contributing largely to the perception cultures have over others. When it comes to the events of the Syrian uprising, the events can be reported in two “black and white” styles: (1) a positive democratic series of events and (2) a violent series of events. The ways in which the Syrian conflict, post-uprisings, were represented also contribute to the Syrian identity that is built in the minds of foreigners watching the news from other locations. Identity construction is of essence in a world affected by globalisation especially because globalisation itself may also have a role to play in cultural identity. Understanding the different ways in which various cultures may understand and interpret stories of a people is essential to critical intercultural comprehension. Furthermore, it is also of essence that we understand the role of journalists in cultural constructs. The final broadcast story on international networks is often also reported by local media in various countries, further adapted for the country’s culture.

21Understanding the Middle East and its people from faraway is an ambiguous matter in intercultural comprehension that Shahghasemi and Prosser elaborate on. After exploring the various definitions that academic researchers have proposed on what encompasses the Middle East, they raise the evident question that many will begin with: “The Middle East is middle east to what”? (Shahghasemi & Prosser, 2019, p. 7) and they offer a very simple answer “it is middle east to another construct: the West” (idem).

22With over 5.6 million Syrians who have fled the war to settle in other countries (United Nations, 2018), a true representation of the Syrian people is of essence to ensure that they are accepted and well-integrated by cultures across the world.

Methodology

23The chosen methodology reflects the need for interdisciplinary research, which persuades researchers and journalists to use theories that can be applicable to both researchers and journalists so as to ensure hermeneutical flexibility that engages media communications researchers to study various interpretations ethically.

24The methodology adopted for this paper took on a Grounded Theory approach allowing for the purpose-built corpus made up of original data from relevant sources in the media. The data was analyzed following recommendations of Critical Discourse Analysis and the data analysis was complemented with interviews with journalists. The results are therefore a result of quantitative analysis complemented by qualitative research. Taking on a grounded theory approach, it is our wish that by specifying the complexities involved in transmission and reception, we learn how researchers can promote a deeper understanding of contexts that include representation of the “other”. We also explore the link between Grounded Theory and Participation Communication. Is it not necessary that different interlocutors from different cultures engage and participate with one another?

Grounded Theory coupled with Participatory Communication

25A Grounded Theory (GT) approach was adopted so as to construct and propose theories applicable to the construction of international news. Following recommendations by Glaser, Scott, Strauss, and Corbin (Glaser, 1967; Scott & Glaser, 2006; Strauss & Corbin, 2008), theories can be founded on collected data, therefore allowing for an inductive research reasoning. Such an approach conditions a research environment that allows for theories to emerge from data, rather than allowing the researcher’s perception to cloud theory construction.

26Participatory Communication theory can be tied to the Grounded Theory research approach. As data collection is of essence to theorization and because the data gathered is sourced from the field, rather than being confined to literature, the GT research approach ties very much into Participatory Communication Theory. Data gathered using a GT approach can, of course, come from interviews with prime actors, which means taking on an approach allowing for open dialogue with research participants, just as in Participatory Communication Research.

27There is also a link between Participatory Communication and Participatory Journalism. In order to produce a news story, actors participate in the news flux. With Participatory Communication, the researcher initiates communication with people on the field. In participatory journalism, there is the notion of news audiences suddenly participating in news production.

28It is worth noting that there are differences between Participatory Audiences and Participatory Journalism. Participatory Audiences broadcast events directly to audiences on social media, blogs, the WebSphere and other public forums on their own. Whereas, Participatory Journalism involves cooperation or collaboration between audiences, citizens, and professional news organizations. Bowman and Willis propose a definition of Participatory Journalism: “The act of a citizen, or group of citizens, playing an active role in the process of collecting, reporting, analyzing [sic] and disseminating news and information (Bowman & Willis, 2003, p. 9).

Corpus Construction

29Using Grounded Theory, a corpus of 49 news videos was constructed for the basis of this research. The corpus was built using the UGC platform YouTube to source news videos, already broadcast by Al Jazeera English, France 24 English, Euronews English, and Press TV English, on the events of the Syrian uprising of 2011 and its immediate aftermath.

30It was a criteria to focus on audio-visual news rather than social media or radio because it was believed that international television stations reached a larger international public. The news video selection criteria was based on its length (less than 10 minutes long per video) and the event covered in the news video (4 significant events in Syrian from 2011 – 2013 were identified and selected). Focus on material from this timeline is related to the evolving nature of events in Syria that took a turn from the Syrian Uprising to the Syrian civil war. It is true that the Red Cross declared civil war in Syria as early as mid-2012 (BBC, 2012), but the coverage on Syria’s civil war continued to highlight the participation of activists from the uprising in the conflict (Associated Press, 2013) and therefore it was deemed necessary to include news on Syria up until 2013, when the rhetoric on what was once called the ‘Syrian Spring’ evolved into the ‘Syrian Winter’ (Abdul-Ahad, 2013; de Bello, 2013; Kurzman et al., 2013).

31The first set of news videos collected covered the first speech Bashar Assad gave after the start of the Syrian uprisings. This news event was long-awaited by both the Syrian public and viewers from around the world who had followed the recent uprisings in North Africa resulting in toppled regimes. In addition to people around the world, watching these events, international press and governments also watched this public speech closely.

32The second set of news videos covered the first cabinet resignations in Syria post-uprisings. This was a significant attempt as it seemed to indicate that the Syrian government was also toppling, but it was later revealed that these decisions were made internally by the regime so as to show demonstrators that there was, in fact, a shift in the government following their demands voiced in demonstrations.

33Thirdly, news videos on the declaration of a civil war in Syria was also included in the corpus due to the significance of a clear shift from ‘uprising’ to ‘war’, which in fact was almost a rupture between what seemed to be a manifestation of democracy and its aftermath.

34Finally, it was thought that a study on the Syrian uprisings and the immediate aftermath would be incomplete without news coverage on the sarin attacks that took place in Ghoutta, Syria, because it resulted in the death of many. The number of deaths reported by various institutions shows discrepancies in the number of victims reported (Entrous et al., 2013; French Defence Ministry, 2013; Joint Intelligence Organisation, 2013; Medecins Sans Frontieres, 2013). This tragic event also proved that the line US President Obama had drawn in the Syrian conflict had been crossed and yet yielded no American intervention in Syria.

Critical Discourse Analysis and the Dominant Discourse Producers

35The news video corpus was analyzed using recommendations by Van Dijk and Fairclough on Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough, 2003; van Dijk, 1988, 1993, 1995). To critically analyze a text or parts of the discourse in a text, the researcher must also study the discourse producers, including the dominant institutions producing or leading to the production of the discourse. The relationship between dominant discourse institutions and representation or misrepresentation is not only of essence when studying power in society, but also of extreme significance to intercultural perceptions of a people considered as the “other” by another set of people based elsewhere.

36It was obvious that the dominant international institutions included the international press; it was therefore essential that the news videos in the research corpus were produced by 2 western-based media corporations and 2 Eastern-based media corporations. Of course, both Euronews and France 24 have their head offices in France and therefore may represent the French ideology. These news channels enjoy international English-speaking audiences and therefore do not only target the English-speaking French population. The 2 Eastern-based news channels, Al Jazeera and Press TV represent opposing ideologies; one from the Arab Gulf and the other predominantly Iranian; of essence to our study because of Iranian influence in the Syrian regime. Studying the representation of the Syrians and the Syrian events between 2011 and 2013 required the study of international news channels that had international audiences; and therefore it was decided that a focus would be made on media that communicated in English, a language spoken largely by cultures from different geographical locations. There was, therefore, a limited choice on international news channels based in either North Africa or the Middle East that addressed their viewers in English. News channels such as Al Arabiya, a very prominent news channel in the Middle East, only broadcasted in Arabic and therefore their audience would only be Arabic-speakers.

37The criteria were not very discriminative in news channel parity as we did not seek for an equivalent number of videos per channel. Instead, the news videos are representative of news videos found on YouTube on the 4 aforementioned Syrian events that were selected for this study. Al Jazeera English accounted for 17 of the news videos, 13 of which focussed on the Ghoutta sarin attacks of 2013. The Syrian president’s parliamentary address post-demonstrations in Syria in 2011 was represented in 2 of AJE’s news videos. There is only 1 AJE news video on the Syrian cabinet resignations in 2011 as well as 1 AJE news video covering the declaration of Syrian civil war. Euronews English accounted for 14 of the news videos in the corpus, 8 of which covered the Ghoutta sarin attack of 2013, 3 of which broadcasted the Syrian president’s first parliament speech after the first Syrian demonstrations of 2011 and finally 2 news videos on the Syrian cabinet’s resignations of 2011. The corpus contains 13 news videos by France 24 English, with 5 videos dedicated to the Ghoutta sarin attack of 2013, 4 videos covering the cabinet resignations of 2011, 3 videos on the declaration of civil war in Syria and only 1 on Bashar Assad’s first parliament speech post uprisings in 2011. The 5 Press TV news videos included in the corpus contain 4 videos on the Ghoutta sarin attack of 2013 and only 1 on the Syrian cabinet resignation of 2011. As can be noted, there is no parity between the number of news videos selected per news outlet and this is representative of a Grounded Theory approach, which does not seek to build perfect research conditions, but rather to analyze existing data. Again, this is not to say that other news videos may not have existed on YouTube during the corpus collection stage, but rather what was “easily” found at the time. The news outlets had, of course, covered the different events on television, but not all these events were broadcast on YouTube. It must also be noted that in some cases, online material was lost, for example, one of Press TV’s YouTube accounts was shut down and Press TV had to open a new YouTube account that may have not included previously uploaded news videos (Doffman, 2019).

38News videos were transcribed and several elements were recorded in a template so as to extract as much information from the news videos as possible that could perhaps lead to an understanding of how the Syrian people, their culture and their events were broadcast to international audiences. The most interesting analysis variables recorded, which can be used in this paper include the sights and sounds of Syria, that is to say: the presentation of the event, the footage location, the journalist location, images and event representation in form of international representatives, [Syrian] event actors or experts.

39In following with Critical Discourse Analysis, these elements were analyzed in accordance with the study of international news production covered through semi-directive interviews. In addition, the media landscape in Syria as also studied using various already published texts (Al-Saqaf, 2016; Baroi, 2012; Chasdi, 2013; Committee to Project Journalists, 2016; Freedom House, 2012; Stepanova, 2011), allowing for a deeper understanding into how the events in Syria were witnessed, under a specific environment for the press, perceived and then eventually reported.

Hegemonic practices or falsified emancipatory practices?

40Questions on communication as a form of transmission and reception can be raised. New media such as YouTube have brought early debates on media receptiveness back to the surface. Ien Ang argued that reception itself will be limited if a linear communication model is considered. Ethnographic studies on reception will have to consider the socio-psychological reality between media and society (Ang, 1988). Hall noted that cultural research explores the pivotal role of the media in constructing societal contentment and producing a hegemonic society (Hall, 1980). Such studies have led to a better understanding of the specific mechanisms through which the media function ideologically, following processes of institutionalized cultural production by embedding meaning in texts that eventually become “preferred” meanings, which may strengthen dominant economic, political and social powers.

41As culture itself is a very large and ambitious field of research, it is necessary to make reference to studies, such as that of Morris (Morris, 1991), that have studied cultural impact. Morris explains that cultural studies do not simply define culture as a set of similar ideas, beliefs and behaviors, instead, cultural studies examine the social processes that both support and contradict the production and circulation of cultural consumption. Cultural critics will adopt a position external to the culture being studied so as to decode and demystify the ideologies embedded in a culture.

42This perspective was followed by a counter-current, which rather than studying the power of the ruling class, explored the resistance of the ruled classes, granting them a form of unofficial power. Well known works on youth subcultures (Hall & Jefferson, 1976; Hebdige, 2012; Willis, 1981) in addition to ethnographic approaches to media audiences are part of this counter-current.

43Populist-inspired studies describe how powerless societies create a universe of meaning by using the raw information provided to them by the dominant culture to appropriate or define a culture. Hall’s (1980) encoding and decoding model paves the way for examining how noncompliant and headstrong audiences can negotiate or even subvert preferred meanings broadcasted by the media. John Fiske went even further proclaiming that audiences are independent in their struggle to attach meaning to cultures (Fiske, 1990). In this version of cultural studies, the researcher/critic is not an external critic that condemns societal oppression by the dominant culture, instead, the researcher allies with the audience, whereby their political engagement consists of encouraging a “semiotic democracy” by giving the public a voice and saluting their resistance.

44Morris has noted that when works of cultural research take on a very optimistic approach to describe a discourse from reality, then one must ask whether the study includes any critical cultural analysis. What becomes of a critic when they romantically emphasize the public’s resistance to dominant discourse? Studies that pronounce society as being independent of any influences by dominant discourse run the risk of downplaying the gravity that comes with the reality of oppression within societies. Other researchers (Ang, 1988; Gripsrud, 1989; Modleski, 1986; Schudson, 1999), who take on a critical stance in research, have also expressed their concerns with studies that glorify the public’s ability to be independent of dominant discourse effects.

Results

45The results of this study provide insight, via interviews and news text analysis, into the dimensions of international journalism in an international context as well as the media representation of the Syrian uprising and conflict to international audiences. These results can be used by researchers in both media and cultural studies as well as journalists when representing the stories of one culture internationally.

Dimensions of International Journalism in an International Context

46Interviews with journalists from AFP, the Al-Jazeera network, Euronews and France 24 led to an identification of 3 dimensions in international news production that affect international news presentation: cultural, professional and political. In studying intercultural comprehension via the media, it is proposed that researchers focus on these 3 dimensions so as to provide critical analyses.

  1. Cultural: International news corporations explained that despite being located in various countries and sometimes broadcasting to various countries via different languages or simply different news channels, the editorial instruction was often to report a story to the public concerned, which meant that despite the fact that the reported event was always the same, despite different audiences, the storyline would be different. The belief was that some news would not necessarily be accepted by one culture in terms of the political relationship they had with other countries involved in the event.
    Furthermore, it was also expressed that the news values of the same news organization in different regions were often different due to cultural differences amongst journalists or the countries in which they were based. For example, the journalist profession in Saudi Arabia is defined as a pedagogical role that exists to educate the population and further echo the government’s message to its people. On the other hand, the journalist profession in France is regarded as a part of the fourth estate, separate from the government. Also, the language and terminology used would be different. For example, Al Jazeera Arabic would refer to Palestinians as “resistance people” or “freedom fighter” in Arabic, whereas Al Jazeera English would not use such descriptions as freely (Essaif et al., 2012). Some studies have also shown the relationship with a news organization’s methods of working and the actual constructed news (Greatbatch, 1985; Hanitzsch, 2005).
    A thorough cultural comprehension and appreciation and eventually interpretation are perhaps made most effective through the people of a nation who share a culture with the people of the country in which an event takes place. Local journalists do exist in Syria, mainly under the regime’s influence, and so do activists who “will most likely over-represent matters that concern them and underrepresent other matters” (Atallah Bidart, 2019). The advantage of working with local activists is in fact that they are local and most often belonging to the national culture, which means they have a better understanding of the culture than international correspondents would and may also be able to access locations, organizations, people and information that would perhaps be made inaccessible or at least challenging to access for international correspondents. On the other hand, activists have a clear goal, which is to win the communication war between them and their opposition. This means that they will strive to share their stories from their perception and their point of view. They may not or deliberately will not share stories of their oppositions. This, of course, may lead to the production of news stories that only show one side of events.

  2. Professional: The journalist profession is a precarious one made up of at least 3 identified statuses: the full-time journalist with a fulltime contract, the contractual freelance journalist and finally the occasional citizen journalist (Atallah Bidart; 2019). These statuses go hand in hand with a journalist’s safety while on the job. These statuses are also linked to journalist training or lack of training and may also influence the journalist’s perception of the role of journalism in representing events.
    Marine Olivesi, a former journalist who freelanced for France 24, was left to fend for herself, in Libya “alone, without a cameraperson or any crew” (Atallah Bidart, 2019). She also worked in Syria hunting for stories that editors would agree to publish. AFP’s Editor-in-Chief from Beirut’s offices, Sammy Ketz, explained that AFP’s news flux included journalists on their payroll as well as independent activists and citizen journalists not on AFP payroll. For their safety, many Syrian activists wished to remain anonymous and despite their willingness to share the news of their country via AFP, they lived in very harsh conditions and were sometimes displaced and often disappeared from AFP’s radius.
    Journalist statuses may also be linked to the journalist’s historical, political and cultural knowledge of a country, its people and its events. Olivesi explained that at least one other profession has come into existence unofficially in international news construction. A ‘fixer’ is a person who, unable or unwilling to join a physical conflict, decides to support their cause by guiding international journalists to the news they want to broadcast. The problem with this is similar to working with activists; news is constructed from only one story angle, therefore leading to a misrepresentation of events. Olivesi explained that fixers are in fact nationals who instead of picking up a weapon to fight on the battlefield choose to share information to international media; they believe that their work complements the goal of those who share their values for their country’s future.
    AFP’s Ketz apologetically stated in our interview: “I don’t like to say that, but most of the media coming to Syria don’t know the history of the country, I mean they are thinking that the story of the country starts the day they arrived in the country and finishes the day they are leaving the country and this is not true, the history of the country started much longer before they came and will continue after they leave, so if you are not reading about the country, if you are not looking about it, if you are not understanding the system of the country, it’s very difficult for you to have an idea of what’s going on (Atallah Bidart, 2019).
    Indeed, this view was also echoed by France 24’s David Thomson, who worked as a correspondent in Tunisia and Libya. In an interview, he explained why some international journalists were inexperienced. He explained that resources were so limited when working in a zone of conflict that he had to call on his previous classmates to film certain events and these classmates eventually gave up on the jobs because of insecurity. This meant that Thomson, as a correspondent had to report, film and edit his stories from the field before sending them to France 24’s news desk in Paris.
    Thomson’s former colleague Marina Olivesi, also provided reasons for inexperienced international journalists. She explained that just like many newly graduated journalists, she hoped to fill up her CV with as much experience as possible and getting a fulltime position in safe locations like Paris, London or New York was extremely competitive for inexperienced journalists. Therefore, newly graduated journalists looking to work in their profession go to areas of conflict where nobody else wants to go and it is on the field that these young journalists gain experience and knowledge about the countries they report from. Many young journalists begin working as freelancers, sometimes with no specific contracts, meaning that they would go where the story was and perhaps not have the time to truly understand a story before reporting it.

  3. Political: The journalists interviewed for this study admitted that the state of the press in each country has a major effect on news representation. Working in Syria as a local or international journalist meant working in difficult and dangerous conditions. During the uprisings, international journalists were not granted visas into Syria and journalists had to find proxies willing to share information. AFP’s Ketz explained that due to AFP’s strong presence in the Middle East, they had already established a relationship with the Syrian regime, dating back to Hafez Al Assad’s presidency. This meant that getting information from the regime was feasible. In a country where several factions of the opposition have been formed, the ruling powers still remain the only official source of information and therefore it is necessary for journalists to report statements by official branches of government. Of course, ‘official’ does not necessarily mean accurate. The regime, on the other hand, would share their ideology and it was sometimes noted that events were orchestrated for the press.
    In a semi-directive interview with Peter Greste, former international correspondent of Al Jazeera English arrested for 400 days in Egypt, he explained that governments used “national security to chip away at freedom of the press” (Atallah Bidart, 2019). What is considered legal under one government may suddenly be deemed illegal by new governing powers and press laws will affect the different ways in which journalists can report stories ranging from who they are legally allowed to interview to what they are able to legally film.
    Syria’s “schizophrenic” press law which was updated post-uprisings in Syria, apparently in response to demonstrator demands, “makes room [for] a media sector that is not monopolized and removes prison sentences for press offenses” (Atallah Bidart, 2019). However, the law also “imposes the responsibility to ban publication that may negatively affect the country’s security (idem). This means that journalists broadcasting stories that lead to an uproar or any kind of negative reaction in the country would be deemed irresponsible and the journalist would be made accountable for the resulting insecurity.
    Information was also censored in Syria and social networks had been made inaccessible prior to the uprising as early as 2000. But interestingly, activists noticed that they no longer had to use web proxies to access social media during the uprising in 2011. Despite this leading to an increase in online content by Syrian activists, it also helped the government identify members of the public that opposed their regime. Also, the Syrian government blocked all opposition websites, even those that were published outside of Syria, for example, regime opposing media from Lebanon and all Israeli sites; they also blocked websites that published news on the country’s minorities (Atallah Bidart, 2019, p. 226).
    Government censorship, especially when so harsh, leads to the destruction of truth in international news being relayed about one person to another. But even worse than government censorship, according to Greste is that “self-censorship had become a bigger problem […] they tend to use intimidation or terrorism charges so that journalists begin to censor themselves in fear that they will be reprimanded for sharing the truth (idem). During Syria’s uprising, reports of arrests of hundreds of internet users, some of whom were tortured or even killed, were made (Committee to Project Journalists, 2016; Freedom House, 2012).
    International journalists have grown wary of government statements leading to challenging news investigation and verification measures. In some cases, government censorship also involves content manipulation. The Syrian Electronic Army, currently under the FBI’s most-wanted list, “was ordered to discredit any anti-regime content and also to spam popular social media pages with pro-Assad content (Atallah Bidart, 2019, p. 328). International websites, including that of international organizations and governments, were hacked leading to content manipulation or event site inaccessibility.

The Sights and Sounds of the Syrian Uprising and its Aftermath

47This research has identified 5 specific dimensions that can be considered by both researchers and newsrooms so as to facilitate intercultural comprehension through the media. These include: (1) the narrators/storytellers (2) the location of the storytellers (3) the pictures (4) the language of culture and (5) cultural participation in storytelling.

The narrators of the Syrian story

48The news video corpus was analyzed to seek for international representation in Syria’s events. It was believed that the representation of a significant amount of international representatives would mean that Syria’s stories were told by foreigners rather than themselves. Only 12% of the news videos on Syria’s cabinet resignation featured international (French) representatives. The news on the sarin attack in Ghoutta featured US personalities in 20% of the news videos collected as well as British and Russian representatives in 6% of the news videos; French accounted for only 3% of Ghoutta’s news videos. These figures show that although there were international personalities present in the news videos on Syria, it was quite minimal and therefore the events were not necessarily reported from the point of view of other countries. The news story that featured the highest percentage of international representatives was the sarin attack on Ghoutta. It is not surprising that this news video featured more international representatives than the others as the event itself was inaccessible by most. Much of the images that were broadcast were not even taken by journalists, but rather by witnesses. Any network owned footage on this event would feature non-Syrians and mainly be outside of Syria.

Telling the Syrian story from Syrian soil

49The news videos collected on Syria’s events mainly featured locations in Syria. Coverage on Assad’s first post-uprising speech featured Syria in 86% of the news videos. The remaining 14% featured footage from Turkey and other undisclosed locations. This was one of the most significant news stories covered by international media on the Syrian uprising. International audiences had started getting accustomed to the Arab uprisings in neighboring North African countries such as Tunisia and Egypt; it was as though the world, including journalists, were waiting to see the domino effect catch on. Assad’s speech, post-uprising was a crucial moment to share sights and sounds of Syria to the world; Assad was re-introduced to the world, what was once a modern, British educated doctor and ally to the US, was suddenly portrayed as an iron-willed dictator unwilling to cooperate with the Syrian people. The images of the Syrian president addressing parliament as parliamentarians stood up to applaud from time to time and eventually giving him a standing ovation, only emphasized the almost comical dictatorship regime of the country to international audiences. It was more crucial to show such images coupled with the views of Syrians against the dictator than it was to get an international opinion. Intercultural comprehension is more successful when people understand the opinions, the fears and the desires of another culture.

50A total of 100% of footage in news videos on the civil war declaration in Syria included footage from Syria. Here too, it is necessary to show images of Syria when breaking the news that what once was a Syrian uprising had become a Syrian winter and broken into a civil war.

A Picture worth a 1000 words

51To go further into the footage featured in the news videos in our corpus, the content featured was also studied. The news videos on Assad’s first speech post-demonstrations revealed a total of 71% of the news videos with images of peaceful demonstrations, 57% featured press conferences, 43% featured public speeches and 14% showed footage of violent riots. As the majority of the footage featured peaceful demonstrations, this also leaves room for intercultural comprehension as one culture may understand another through footage of people rather than that of their governments. As stated earlier, footage of press conferences and public speeches were, in fact, the televised parliamentary address as well as other public speeches with strong symbols of dictatorship. The violent demonstrations, though minimal, provide insight into the tense situation in the country that exists amidst peaceful demonstrations.

52News videos on the cabinet’s resignation featured peaceful demonstrations in 63% of the news videos, destruction in 38% of news videos, press conference footage in 25% of the news videos, and 13% of news videos featured military equipment. The news videos on the first cabinet resignations amidst the uprisings highlighted the peaceful demonstrations as a means to guide viewers to comprehending the resignations in response to the protests. Images of destruction and military equipment convey a warning message to audiences who will understand that the Syrian context is no longer democratic and hopeful uprisings, but rather the country is suffering.

53News collected on the declaration of civil war in Syria featured images of destruction and explosions in 75% of the videos. There was no footage on riots, speeches, press conferences, peaceful demonstrations, military equipment or even death and suffering.

54The sarin attack on Ghoutta was reported with equal footage (37%) of press conferences, military equipment, and death/suffering. Additionally, images of destruction and peaceful demonstrations accounted for 3% and 3% of news videos. One cannot argue that the images of the death and suffering post-Ghoutta were not paramount for the world to understand the Syrian context, however, in terms of intercultural comprehension, it is most probably extremely difficult if not impossible for people to identify with victims of sarin. All journalists interviewed for this study shared their outlet’s policy on not sharing images of perished people, however, they all admitted that there were times, such as the Ghoutta attack, where the press had to step out of policy, so as to show the tragic truth to international audiences. Although such images were necessary in communicating the seriousness of the situation, these images were probably completely incomprehensible for some viewers, too far away from their daily reality. If this is really the case, then such raw footage will only emphasize the barrier between “us” and “them”.

Language and Communication

55Languages spoken in the news videos were also noted during data collection. The use of other languages may inform or remind other cultures on the languages spoken in a country. A difference in language may inspire feelings amongst spectators that there would be a communication barrier between cultures. Arabic spoken either in the background or in an interview was only noted in 13 news videos, 12 of which presented the Ghoutta attack. This is perhaps representative of multilingualism in various Arab countries, leading to representatives addressing the media and international community in English, which when spoken well may give connotations of an educated culture, but when not spoken well may give negative connotations of culture and even lead to communication misunderstandings.

Syrian Participation in Intercultural Comprehension

56In seeking Syrian participation in intercultural comprehension, an analysis on amateur content was conducted. In the Syrian uprising and conflict, Syrians had two possibilities: some entered the conflict to physically participate in the construction (or destruction) of their revolution. Others decided to participate by communicating to international communities about the events in Syria. Some of the media footage provided by Syrian activists was posted and then shared on social media. Others were used by traditional international news outlets to recount the Syrian story to their audiences. The other major Syrian participant in intercultural comprehension (or incomprehension) was the Syrian State media.

57Up to 36% of the news videos featured footage by amateurs and 24% of the news videos featured Syrian state television footage. This means that much of the news stories were reported using outlet owned footage.

58Syrian participation in the representation of their stories can facilitate intercultural comprehension. However, storytelling by both activists and state journalists has its challenges: activists may prefer to share information that may promote or help their cause and State media may share news enforced on them by the government, especially in the case of Syria.

59The use of interviews in the news videos was also analyzed so as to understand who told the stories of Syria. Interviews were used in only 1 news video to report Assad’s speech and this interview took place between the studio and foreign correspondent. The news correspondent is also interviewed in the majority of news videos on the cabinet resignation event.

60The cabinet resignation was represented using interviews in 63% of news videos. Amongst these news videos, interviews featured were mainly between studio anchor and international correspondent (40%) as well as relevant event actor profiles (40%). Relevant event actors are Syrians and therefore are recounting their story in 40% of news videos on the cabinet resignation event.

61All the news videos collected on the declaration of civil war featured interviews with correspondents (50%) and relevant event actors (50%).

62The news videos collected on the sarin attack in Ghoutta used interviews in 67% of news videos. Most of these news videos featured interviews with topic experts (67%). Interviews with relevant event actors (33%) and international correspondents (24%) were also used to report the events. Gathering expert insight into sarin so as to educate audiences on the history and effects of sarin is necessary in terms of being informational but also in terms of intercultural comprehension, as sarin had been used outside Syria as well.

63With regards to the journalist location in the news videos collected, only 5 videos out of 5 clearly presented the journalist in Syria. This is worth highlighting, as it means that the relayed news was not directly witnessed by the foreign correspondent and this, of course, affects the way in which the news was interpreted before being broadcast.

Human-Computer Interaction and Intercultural Comprehension

64It is in our interest to underline the role that online communications can play in intercultural comprehension. Studies on Human-Computer Interaction and culture warn that despite that technological advancement in terms of communication interfaces, culture remains an “obstacle to communication if cultural characteristics are ignored” (Kyriakoullis & Zaphiris, 2016, p. 629). The use of Social Media interfaces is unique in the HCI domain because unlike many other tools, they are aimed at an international public’s simultaneous usage, meaning that interface designers will have to compromise cultural requirements in terms of usability in exchange for more universal solutions. The offering of a common meeting point for various cultures takes away traditional forms of intermediaries found on other mass media communication apparatus. In their review of literature backing the use of social media on the Shahghasemi and Proser emphasize the significance of social media in representation: “As social media give individuals the power of online participation based on –with some reservations- equal opportunities, marginalized and isolated groups are no longer oppressed in silence and they can reach out to the wider society and even bring their plight before the global audience” (Shahghasemi & Prosser, 2019, p. 2). But lack of intermediaries does not necessarily bring down all intercultural obstacles. Shahghasemi and Prosser warn that the impact of social media has been “twofold”, whereby amidst opportunities for intercultural comprehension with a potential to “demystify their intercultural beliefs”, Social Media has also been used as a platform for “poisonous hate speech and xenophobic comments communicated to other cultures […] This will cause a chain of increasing hate speech with eventually finds its way into practice” (Shahghasemi & Prosser, 2019, p. 3). Also, a report on the State of Social Media in 2018 in the Middle East detected another issue with Social Media that affects inter-cultural comprehension: Fake News. For example, Reuters found at least 53 websites “posing as authentic Arabic-language news outlets”, which “spread false information…” (Radliffe & Bruni, 2019, p. 22). Cultural constructs based on false information will of course influence perception possibilities of comprehending a culture. Even more dangerous use of Social Media is the “communications business” occupied by terrorists, for example ISIS’s attempt to expand their ideology on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr. Reaching intercultural comprehension via Social Media is a challenge, to say the least when groups like ISIS publish content “against the international community”, which includes “beheadings of western hostages…” (Iosifidis & Wheeler, 2016).

Discussion

65In terms of representation, the news videos revealed that the Syrian uprising and conflict were largely relayed by Syrians with footage of Syria and minimal international representation. However, the news videos only marginally featured interviews with relevant event actors and when they did, the questions were always unheard. Another limitation of cultural representation is that the journalist was almost never in Syria when reporting the Syrian story. Almost half of the news videos featured images of instability, either in form of violent riots, destruction or death or simply military equipment; a smaller percentage of news videos featured peaceful images. All the variables studied are significant as they are the elements that will inform worldwide audiences about Syria, its story and its people.

66Culture encompasses all areas of communication and we envisage that it is a continuous social process that may contradict production, diffusion, and cultural communication. It is necessary to further this research topic to study cultural appropriation by finding the fine line between cultural engagements as opposed to cultural activism. This may be done by studying how social media content is shared by one culture about itself as opposed to other cultures producing online content about other cultures. It might also be interesting to study community participation online; do people of like-cultures interact together or are people willing to interact with people from other cultures online? And if so, using what medium other than open or closed online groups and forums.

67The selected methodology, framed by theories grounded in data, may compel researchers to construct or develop theories that emerge from the collected information, so as to ensure that they are applicable not only to academics but also to professionals on the field and laymen alike. The use of critical discourse analysis in media and cultural studies may also highlight the quintessence of interdisciplinary research, whereby various branches of knowledge cooperate and complement one another allowing for less rigid hermeneutics in the analysis of texts so that researchers can provide feasible recommendations that are practical in the real world. Meaning enriched with diverse interpretations may ethically engage media and communications researchers in collaborative research methods leading to more holistic analyses and recommendations.

68It is important to understand that although the media can facilitate participation and intercultural comprehension, what this article is able to prove is how the media can lead to “cultural” and not “intercultural” comprehension.

69Intercultural appropriation, today largely takes place through interfacial, where media technology interfaces allow humans to interact and form new types of interactions, whilst also identifying with others to build groups and communities. Communication made possible through new media that use their interfaces and algorithms to mediate communication will affect intercultural appropriation, a notion that we are vigorously studying, so as to identify solutions for intercultural comprehension in relation to interfacial (Pascal et al., 2019).

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To quote this document

Sawsan Atallah Bidart et Catherine Pascal, «Challenges and Stakes in Syrian Representation and Participation in International Media», French Journal For Media Research [online], Full texts/Numéros en texte intégral, 13/2020 Médias : acteurs clés pour une compréhension interculturelle, last update the : 25/01/2020, URL : http://frenchjournalformediaresearch.com/lodel-1.0/main/index.php?id=1969.

Quelques mots à propos de :  Sawsan Atallah Bidart

Sawsan Atallah Bidart

Marketing and Communications Teacher Kedge Business School | INSEEC

Associate Researcher MICA Research Lab |
Université Bordeaux Montaigne

susieatallah@hotmail.com

Quelques mots à propos de :  Catherine Pascal

Catherine Pascal

Maître de conférences

Langues et Civilisations, Participation and cross cultural media

Université Bordeaux Montaigne

MICA Research Lab

Catherine.Pascal@u-bordeaux-montaigne.fr

 

 

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