GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Covering 9/11, Terry Jones and anti-Islam groups

Friday, September 17, 2010 | 12:34 p.m. CDT

Charles Davis, associate professor, Missouri School of Journalism: Saturday marked the ninth anniversary of 9/11. Much of the coverage in the United States and abroad focused on the controversy over the proposed mosque at ground zero and one pastor’s canceled plans to burn the Quran. Today we’ll take a look at 9/11 coverage from a global prism. Was the media frenzy surrounding the Quran burning and the ground zero mosque unwarranted, or were these legitimate news topics? How should news organizations nearly a decade after 9/11 talk about it? Is it too recent to call it history or to analyze it historically? How did media outlets around the world decide to cover 9/11? To discuss these questions, we have Manal Alafrangi, opinion page editor of Gulf News in Dubai; Barcin Yinanc, managing editor, Hurriyet Daily News, in Istanbul, Turkey; and Dr. M.Syafi’I Anwar, executive director, International Center for Islam and Pluralism, Jakarta, Indonesia. Manal, we were talking a little before the show that leading up to the 9/11 anniversary, there was real recognition in your newsroom that that date was coming and you had to do something a little different this year. Can you talk a bit about the context of the coverage?

Manal Alafrangi, opinion page editor, Gulf News: This year, 9/11 was preceded by very large and noisy events in the lead-up to the anniversary, so we knew that was going to get bigger as the day approached. Coupled with that is the story of the pastor whose name I will not mention because I don’t think he needs any more attention than we already gave him. It is the ninth anniversary, so it is not too close to the actual event, but we did prepare editorially. We covered the events on the day and the very next day with the speech of President Barack Obama.


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Davis: Barcin, how did your newsroom approach Sept. 11 this year? What was the coverage like?

Barcin Yinanc, managing editor, Hurriyet Daily News: In our case, the anniversary was overshadowed by two very important internal events in Turkey. That was the Sept. 12 referendum that Turkey was supposed to vote just one day later, and we were in a very polarized situation. Second, on Sept. 11, the Turkish basketball team played Serbia in the quarterfinals and won, which meant that it would be playing the United States in the finals on the next day. So this year, because of these two events, the anniversary of Sept. 11 was not the highest priority. But more than an analysis of why it happened and how it happened, our coverage was also based on the discussions in the States about the location of the new mosque or the pastor that was planning to burn a Quran.

Davis: Interesting how the news has a way of sort of intervening. Barcin, please talk about the referendum that just took place in Turkey.

Yinanc: Well, the Turkish nation was out to vote for constitutional changes. There were approximately 25 changes in the constitution. The majority of Turks believe that Turkey needs a new constitution because the current constitution was written after the military coup on Sept. 12, 1980. But there was a lot of controversy over the proposed amendments that were made by the ruling party, because the opponents of the ruling party thought these constitutional changes were not to make the Turkish constitution more democratic but rather to increase the power of the ruling Justice and Development party. So in the constitutional changes, there were some articles that would make Turkey more demilitarized, but some opponents would say this is taking Turkey from a military-dominated system to a civilian dictatorship. At the end of the day, nearly 60 percent of the Turkish voters said "yes" to the constitutional amendments.

Davis: From the coverage I’ve seen, it seems like the Turkish referendum was presented as a uniformly good thing. What is your reaction to that? Is it being conveyed internationally the way it actually is on the ground?

Yinanc: Well, looking as an outsider, it might be quite difficult to understand the complexity of Turkey, even though we sometimes have difficulty analyzing the reactions coming from society. On one hand, we want reform, but on the other hand, some have suspicions as to where these reforms can take the country. Will it take it to a more pluralistic society, or are there some hidden dangers in proposed amendments that can make the country less democratic? So it was controversial, and some people oppose it because they want to oppose the ruling party. It doesn’t come as a surprise that it was presented as a positive thing, because the majority of the proposed amendments would be making Turkey more democratic, but there were one or two articles that really raised some suspicion, especially the ones on the constitutional court and the judiciary.

Davis: Manal, I also wanted to ask you about proportionality, from the coverage I have been reading across most of the rest of the world about 9/11. We hear that in Turkey, there were other events that subsumed it at some point. It was clearly not the case in much of the rest of the world, and the fact that a pastor in Florida with about 30 people in his congregation was able to generate that sort of attention frustrates many of us in the international news media. One would hope that we would be able to look at the interfaith tolerance message that was being espoused from tens of thousands of pulpits across the world last week. Instead, it seems like we got a pastor in Florida. Do you share that sense of frustration?

Alafrangi: Definitely. I think media coverage, especially in the U.S., fanned the flames for ideological, religious interests, and it was picked up immediately by the likes of the Sarah Palins and caused a lot of damage. Everyone jumped on the bandwagon. But at the same time, there was recognition that this was caused by an outsider, like you said, and there was a conscious decision to downplay such recklessness.

Davis: It is just amazing to watch the coverage worldwide and for such a small man with such a small church to dominate the global news media agenda. Dr. Anwar, I know that you have stood very strongly in favor of a pluralistic tolerant religious community. For things like the threatened burning in America, how much more difficult does that make your job?

Anwar: Because my center is the Center for Islam and Pluralism, I remind people that this is action by a limited person and not the U.S. policy. I try to give such an explanation to the people, especially the Muslim community.

Davis:  An extremely difficult task, isn’t it? Manal, do you feel the global news media has a responsibility to meet when providing the sort of proportionality we’ve talked about earlier?

Alafrangi: Absolutely. There has to be awareness that there are ramifications to such reckless coverage. It is unhealthy and unrepresentative of American values. Mainstream media should think twice before giving coverage to unwarranted and dangerous opinions.

Davis: And yet we’re fascinated with extremist opinions, aren’t we? It is a tough balance, because the news media has always been somewhat fascinated with extremist opinion.

Alafrangi: To a certain extent, it is an exploitation of certain fears. There has to be awareness that there are agendas out there.

Davis: That is so true. People are trying to take advantage.

Yinanc: The press might be fascinated by the extreme rhetoric, but there is danger of the extreme rhetoric becoming mainstream. So it is very important how we convey extremist messages. If they are extreme rhetoric, they should be treated as something to be condemned. And unfortunately, we witness this in Europe against Muslim people, that something people should be extremely ashamed of becomes normal. When extreme rhetoric becomes mainstream, it becomes extremely dangerous.

Davis: There is a lot of talk about the growing anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. Do you think it is a good thing that we are at least talking about it?

Alafrangi: In my view, it is a reflection of what the politicians in Europe or even the U.S. are perceiving as popular, but it is just very reckless.

Davis: There are real repercussions to things that take place on the other side of the globe. Barcin, what could we have done differently? Are there directions of the coverage, particularly the anti-Islamic movement around the world, that we’re not taking at the moment?

Yinanc: Fundamentalist groups within the Islamic world come out saying that they want to destroy this and that, so for the ordinary people who see a guy on TV from al-Qaida saying they are going to destroy Israel or Americans, they might be scared of what Islam is about. So I don’t put the blame on the ordinary man in the street. The responsibility is on leaders, journalists, academics and politicians on conveying the message that there is not one Islam. The Arab world does not equal terrorism. Islam does not equal terror. Unfortunately in the West, the opinion makers are choosing sometimes the easy way around, and they jump into these simplifications of seeing Islam as just one thing.

Davis: How do we fight the oversimplification of opinion? It seems like something that the news media are really wrestling with these days. Manal, can you talk about the conversations in your newsroom preceding Sept. 11? Were there debates over the coverage and arguments and what were they about?

Alafrangi: Before I get to that, I would just like to point out that much of resistance has to do with ignorance. According to specifics published in the U.S., you find that 46 percent of Americans believe that Islam preaches violence against non-believers. You had nearly 20 percent of Americans saying that President Obama is a secret Muslim. This kind of ignorance is very pertinent to this conversation, and there has to be awareness brought in not just from the generalists in the professional side but also from the community side. There is a challenge for Muslims in America to try to resist the exploitations that are coming their way but also to try to inform and enlighten. That is not to say that it is in any way their fault for falling into this situation.

Davis: It is very hard to move American public opinion, especially when it gets settled in a way that is factually challenged. Manal, talk a bit about the environment of your newsroom during the week before Sept. 11. What were the major themes emerging?

Alafrangi: There were plans in New York City to commemorate the anniversary, so that was obviously to be covered. We were looking at whether or not there were going to be speeches made from the White House. We made a conscious decision not to go too big with the Quran burning campaign because we didn’t want to overplay it. Editorially speaking, many of our writers wanted to write about the 9/11 anniversary. Many of them had strong views, looking back, analyzing, looking ahead. It is all tied in to the regional situation.

Davis: Well, it is probably too soon to call 9/11 history, especially since the resulting wars are still being fought today, but maybe next year the international news media can take a step back and consider what is this post-9/11 world we live in and how can we move forward peacefully.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Rebecca Wolfson and Kuba Wuls. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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