How Does Technology Transform Media and Public Opinion? A Conference with the Swedish Embassy in Den Haag at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht

HU Poster Digital Platforms conference

Last week I had the great privilege to host an event in collaboration with the Swedish embassy in Den Haag, Netherlands, on the highly urgent and somewhat controversial topic of ‘How Does Technology Transform Media & Public Opinion?” at the University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht.

Seven prolific speakers discussed current developments and challenges that come with the digitalisation of public communication and the rise of online platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter.

The program was based on ‘fireside talks’ between the invited experts from academia, governments, and media; emphasis was placed on three aspects:

 

  1. Technological Foundations and the Revolution of Communication – How Big Tech Changes the Public Sphere

The first section deals with how the rise of Internet technology first provided seemingly endless potentials to new modes of communication and access to the public for individuals and marginalised groups. News Media is no longer the sole source of mass-distributed information.

The mass distribution of Internet access enabled the rise of big tech companiessuch as Google and Facebook, that responded with constantly evolving services to the needs of a highly interconnected digital society. Leading Internet companies have turned into complex multi-purpose platforms that aim for binding users to their brands with a diversity of functions. They create spheres of increasing economic, cultural and political influence.

The implications for freedom of expression become apparent in transformations in media consumption and production. Traditional news media find themselves in a tough spotbetween ethical considerations, political missions, business goals, and an increasingly sceptical audience with access to countless alternative sources for information. Finally, there is the emerging trend to rely more increasingly on artificial intelligence in many web services which comes with an additional baggage of ethical and political questions.

 

  1. Potentials vs. Threats – Assessing the Pro’s and Con’s for Free Speech

On one hand, there are progressive social movements such as #metoo and Black Lives Matter, that make use of the open accessibility of the Web and highlight how marginalised groups apply freedom of expression in the digital public sphere. On the other, the Web is often a highly toxic place where racism, misogynism, trolling, hate speech, misinformation, and cyberbullying thrive; the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ and current forms of right-wing populism partly originated from or made intensive use of online platforms. Groups apply the technologies in order to organize their members, spread the message, contest mainstream politics and media, and thus framing issues from their world views.

Fake news and filter bubbles are often-cited downsides of the rise of social media and personalised web experiences. But is the situation that black and white? It’s a fact that trust in mainstream politics and media is undermined and questioned and the fact that political factions engage in trench warfare and hate speech in various forms is a widespread problem.

Today, when determining freedom of expression one has to consider that no one really lives a completely private life in the age social media and search engines.

The question is also what the role of businesses, journalists/media and governments is in all of this? There are different levels of ‘public’ communication that are affected by current tech trends and obviously all three play central roles the digital public sphere but the relationships between them are changing.

 

  1. Responsibilities and Remedies

The question of responsibility where different social, economic and political factors need to be considered. Tech is not going away; the Internet is not some separate place we got to but has become an integral part of our daily lives in various ways. What is the role of journalism in a data-driven age? How can companies be creative and innovative without losing sight of mid- to long-term consequences? How can they balance ‘what they can do’ with ‘what they should do’? What is the role of regulators and governments? Finally, what are the responsibilities of the user?

You can watch a recording of the session here!

 

 

 

 

Publication Project II: Censorship, Online Media, and Digital Culture

As stated in an earlier post, I am currently working on a number of research projects alongside my PhD. In the first of these ventures I collaborate with Tomi Oladepo from Warwick University for an analysis of transnational online public spheres in Africa and Europe. A second one will deal with forms of and conditions for censorship in digital culture.  This second project will be conducted in cooperation with my colleague Jennifer Eickelmann from the Ruhr-University Bochum (Germany). She is also a PhD student (as well as lecturer) and currently works on (postmodern) modes and techniques of content production on the Internet. Before that, she finished her MA in 2010 with a high quality thesis on performance, resistance, and Youtube. You can read one of her articles here (in German).

We will discuss in our article contemporary forms of censorship in cyberspace –  i.e. the multidimensional practice of information control that often combines social, cultural, and political modes of sanctioning content production as well as -distribution. It will focus on the disciplining of the expression of utterances as a mode of power, so to say. Forms of ‘censorship’ need thereby to be assessed against their specific cultural and historical (i.e. discursive) background since they emerge in various different contexts and are subject to constant change; the same goes of course for the definition of concepts like ‘classified information’ or ‘political correctness’. As Wikileaks and the follow-up discussion it caused have shown, the issue of controlling what can be made publicly available and what not is an urgent matter today – not only as regards criticism on totalitarian regimes but especially when it comes to assess the extents of freedom in liberal democracies. However, one has not necessarily to discuss extraordinary political events to address and discuss the issue. In fact, censorship is an inherent part of our everyday live and determines our communicative behaviour both off- and online in multiple ways. Each culture displays it own laws and rules to control what an individual can say and which utterances have to be sanctioned. The historical background and actual context of a statement (as an umbrella term for any sort of text) is in this respect often the determining factor for the implementation/non-implementation of censorship. Regarding contemporary practices of postmodern content production, censorship -as an instrument of monopolising ideas- can also thwart and impede the creation of the “new” by artists, users etc. To create something new, the practice of quoting and reassembling the already available is indispensable (Mathy/Dietrich 1998). Yet many professional content producers try to protect their ‘intellectual property’, sometimes with relatively harsh measures. Hence,  censorship is also a powerful tool for established hegemonies to diminish the creative (subversive) potential of the “networked information economy” (Benkler 2006).

We will provide a taxonomy of modes of censorship and discuss to what extent the Web actually provides the means for genuine social, cultural, and political resistance. Some of the main questions we have to address are: Who does exert control on the Web? What technological and what cultural sanctions exist? What legitimations and justifications do governments (or corporations) refer to when they attempt to apply forms of censorship (i.e. under what circumstances does it emerge)? What factors determine the current notion of ‘political correctness’ in societal discourses? The project is still in a very early stage and the theoretical framework, methodology, as well as actual subject-matter-of-consideration still need to be defined.

Literature:

Benkler, Yochai (2006): The Wealth of Networks. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Mathy, Dietrich (1998): “Vorab ergänzend”, in: Hilmes, Carola/Mathy, Dientrich (eds.): Dasselbe noch einmal: Die Ästehtik der Wiederholung. Westdeutscher Verlag.

The PhD Proposal

UPDATE: This PhD proposal secured me a full scholarship – stipend and fees – at the University of Hull, where I completed my doctoral degree in March 2015. Though much of the methodology and empirical part changed over the course of the past three years, the basic research motivation(s) remained largely the same (but it was of course further refined to more precise research goals). Read the original below.


I’m pretty busy applying for PhD programmes these days and I have already sent some applications to universities throughout Europe. Though it still takes a few weeks before I get official responses, I have already received unofficial feedback – which has been quite positive. At the moment, my personal favorite is the City of London University (it offers great funding opportunities).  Read my proposal, i.e. the research project I would like to work on in the next three years:

Proposal for a Ph.D. Research Project

Area of Studies: Media and Communications

Europe Online: Towards a Digital Transnational Sphere or Isolated Web Spaces?

 A Comparative Study on the Structure, Function, and Scope of Contemporary Online Discourses in regards to Participation and Segmentation in the European Union

1. Introduction and Research Motivation

In 2011, the European Union faces substantial social, economic, cultural, and political challenges: The continuing economic crisis, increasing migration problems, environmental issues, and a shift towards the political right in various member states are only the most prominent ones. The EU is forced to communicate each political decision carefully to the continent’s population, particularly in such times of crisis; it actually needs to address a European public. Assessing the chances and limits of transnational public spheres within the geographical, political, and cultural spaces of the European Union is a recurring topic in academic discourses – most notably in communication and media studies (Bee/Bezoni et al. 2010; de Vreese 2010; Triandafyllidou et al. 2009). Various articles, case studies, and research projects on the issue exist. However, the majority of these approaches mainly focus the role of conventional mass media in ‘European’ public discourses (e.g. Balcytiene/Vinciuniene 2010; Berkel 2006; de Vreese 2002). Only a few academic contributions pay attention to online media and their relevance to processes of cultural, political, and social convergence in the EU (e.g. Jankowski/van Os 2004; Koopmanns/Zimmermann 2003). In fact, no larger empirical study has focused the Internet and its actual impact on European self-perception and public discourses beyond national frames yet (Risse 2003: 2).

As the distribution of the WWW continues to spread on the continent, examining online phenomena could yield important insights on tendencies towards ‘trans-nationality’ and a common ‘European’ identity. After all, citizens, the media, and political institutions have access to unprecedented technologies for communicative interaction that theoretically facilitate public debate and cultural exchange.

My research project will bridge this gap by analysing participatory online media and their potential for open transnational discourses, i.e. public spheres, in four stages:

I. The development of an elaborated theoretical framework for analysing and understanding transnational public spheres in the age of digital globalisation; this includes an in-depth revision and discussion of already existing notions of the public sphere (e.g. Habermas 1962, Noelle-Neumann 1998, Luhmann 1992, Sunstein 2007, Dahlberg 2007). By comparing and combining theoretical approaches from different academic cultures1, I will try to examine the subject-matter-of-consideration from a pluralistic perspective. Integrating theories on political communication, information societies (Webster 1995), digital democracy (Dean 2005; Lovink 2008), media convergences (Jenkins 2006; 2003), media audiences, and the formation of (transnational-)identities through discourse (Hall 2004) is crucial for achieving this. It is indispensable to include an analysis of the dominant discursive formations that determine the structure and outcome of online debates on and in the EU, i.e. the politics of in- and exclusion as regards participation in web-based discourses.

II. An extensive, comparative content analysis of EU-related online media and -debates in both quantitative and qualitative respect; this requires the development of a complementary methodological approach and the compilation of an appropriate text corpus.

III. Interviews with a selection of professional content providers in EU-related contexts (e.g. online journalists, EU-PR writers, popular bloggers), which I will conduct either off- or online (e.g. Skype); this allows me to evaluate the utilization of web technologies to ‘communicate’ Europe .

IV. Based on the findings of the previous steps, the establishment of a detailed taxonomy of EU-related online media, a characterisation of European ‘netizens’, and a map of transnational online networks of public spaces within the Union. Finally, I will be able to give substantiated answers to the question whether the Internet stimulates the emergence of transnational spheres or it rather promotes the demarcation of (nationally) isolated web-spaces – an important aspect in regards to the future course and success of the “European project” (Tisdall 2010). Ideally, the outcome of my research will also provide a methodological model that might be used to analyse similar phenomena in other web-based contexts.

2. Research Questions

In order to assess the structure, scope, and function of online content regarding the EU, I will approach and answer the following  research questions, which are divided into three categories:

I. On the Potential of Transnational Public Spheres in European Information Societies: What online content on the European Union is available and does it add up to networked, digitalised public spheres across national borders, i.e. does the Internet actually facilitate the emergence of transnational, ‘European’ public debates? Where do they occur, what does their structure look like and what function do they have? What are the differences between the various online platforms (e.g. blogs, websites, Twitter, social media) as regards their potential for public debate in EU-contexts?

II. On the ‘Providers’ of Public Forums Online: What issues do professional content providers perceive to be ‘European’? What differences in identifying and evaluating ‘European’ issues do exist (e.g. national vs. transnational interests)? Where do the providers of content allocate themselves within Europe and its web- based environment? How does the EU communicate to the populations of its member states online?

III. On the Recipients/Users (and therefore possible ‘Europeans’): Who is participating in online discourses? Do the discussants reflect a certain ‘European’ self-conception? Who regards him-/herself to be European and where does this transnational self-perception collide with national identities? Do multilateral, deliberative-democratic discussions on controversial issues – such as climate change, migration, economy etc. – occur? Where do crucial short-comings in terms of openness and inclusion become apparent?

3. Data and Methodology

The core of this research project is an elaborate content analysis of online media platforms that focus the European Union and relevant trans- or international issues:

  • Websites and forums provided by the institutions of the EU (e.g. European Commission 2010)
  • Decidedly transnational, European news media online (e.g. European Voice 2010)
  • A selection of ‘Europe sections’ from popular news media online, located in three important member states: the UK (e.g. Guardian.co.uk), Germany (e.g. faz.de), and France (e.g. lemonde.fr)
  • A selection of blogs, Twitter-accounts, homepages etc. provided by decidedly ‘pan- European’ groups and organisations The text corpus will mainly consist of articles and posts, i.e. discourses, on websites, blogs, forums, and social networking sites.

To delimit the sample, I will set a temporal frame covering the years of ‘European crisis’ 2008 to 2010. The analysis aims for two levels: The “content-level”, i.e. the articles, blog-posts, Facebook-messages, Tweets etc. and the “comment level”, i.e. the direct responses from users/readers. The instruments for the data survey are a detailed codebook and data entry forms. Since it is not possible to gain satisfactory insights from a quantitative examination only, I will also analyse a sample of texts qualitatively by applying an adjusted form of critical discourse analysis (Richardson 2006). The second part of the data collection consists of interviews which will provide additional information for a deeper understanding of the intentions for utilising online media to address a public audience.

4. Conclusive Remarks

Ideally, my research project will develop an applicable theory to understand and analyse the structure, scope, and function of (transnational-)public spheres in contemporary, digitalised information societies and provide a complementary methodological approach to assess such phenomena both qualitatively and empirically. It could become a model to analyse similar phenomena in other web-based context.

By establishing a detailed taxonomy of EU- related online media and analysing the Web’s potential for transnational discourse, I will be able to highlight aspects in ‘communication on Europe’ that need further improvement on the side of professional content providers (e.g. EU-PR writers and online journalists focusing the EU). Moreover, it can bridge the gap between different academic cultures, i.e. connect and combine theoretical and methodological concepts from German Communication Sciences and Anglophone Communication- and Media Studies. Since I had the chance to study in both systems (and to receive both degrees), I am well aware of the different perspectives and approaches on one and the same field of study. Especially in regards to research on the public sphere, public opinion, and political communication, there is good potential for a productive exchange of findings and experiences.

 

5. List of References

Balcytiene, Aukse/Vinciuniene, Ausra (2010) ‘Assessing Conditions for the Homogenisation of the European Public Sphere: How Journalists Report, and Could Report, on Europe’, in: Bee, Christiano/ Bozzini, Emanuela (eds.): Mapping the European Public Sphere. Institutions, Media, and Civil Society. Farnham/Surrey: Ashgate: pp141-159.

Bee, Christiano/ Bozzini, Emanuela, eds. (2010): Mapping the European Public Sphere. Institutions, Media, and Civil Society. Farnham/Surrey: Ashgate: pp83-99.

Berkel, Barbara (2006) Conflict as a Catalyser for a European Public Sphere. A Content Analysis of Newspapers in Germany, France, Great Britain, and Austria. Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.

Dahlberg, Lincoln (2007) ‘The Internet, Deliberative Democracy and Power: Radicalizing the Public Sphere’, International Journal of Media and Cultural Politics. Vol. 3 (1): pp.47- 64.

Dean, Jodi (2005) ‘Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics’, Cultural Politics 1 (1).

De Vreese, Claes (2010) The EU as a Public Sphere. http://europeangovernance.livingreviews.org/Articles/lreg-2007-3/ (21/01/2011)

De Vreese, Claes (2002) Framing Europe: Television news and European integration. Amsterdam: Aksant Academic Publishers.

Erbe, Jessica, (2005) “’What Do the Papers Say? How Press Reviews Link National Media Arenas in Europe”, in Javnost – The Public, 12(2): pp75–92. European Commission (2010), http://blogs.ec.europa.eu/ (21/01/2011)

European Voice (2010), http://www.europeanvoice.com/ (21/01/2011)

FAZ (2010), http://www.faz.net/s/Rub99C3EECA60D84C08AD6B3E 60C4EA807F/Tpl~Ecommon~SThemenseite.html (21/01/2011)

Guardian (2010), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/europe/roundup (21/01/2011)

Habermas, Jürgen (1996) The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. An Inquiry into a Category of Burgeois Society. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Hall, Stuart (2000) ‚Who needs identity’? in J. Evans / P. Redman eds. Identity: a Reader. London: Sage.

Jankowski, Nicholas/van Os, Renée (2004) “The 2004 European parliament election and the internet: contribution to a European public sphere?”, Conference on internet communication in intelligent societies, Hong Kong, conference paper.

Jenkins, Henry (2006) Convergence Culture. New York and London: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry / Thorburn, David (2003) ‘Introduction: The Digital Revolution, the Informed Citizen, and the Culture of Democracy’, in Jenkins, Henry / Thorburn, David, eds. Democracy and New Media. Cambridge/London: MIT Press.

Koopmans, Ruud/Zimmerman, Ann (2003) “Internet: A new potential for European political communication?”, WZB Discussion Paper, SP IV 2003-402, Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, Berlin Le Monde (2010), http://www.lemonde.fr/europe/ (21/01/2011)

Lovink, Gert (2008): Zero Comments. Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. New York/London: Routledge.

Luhmann, Niklas (1992) “Observing the Observers in the Political System: On the Theory of Public Opinion”, in: Wilke, Jürgen (Hrsg.): Öffentliche Meinung, Theorie, Methoden, Befunde, Beiträge zu Ehren von Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann. Freiburg: pp77-86.

Noelle-Neumann, Elisabeth (1998) Public Opinion, in: Jarren,Otfried/Sarcinelli/Saxer(Hrsg.): Politische Kommunikation in der demokratischen Gesellschaft, Wiesbaden: pp81-93.

Risse, Thomas (2003) An Emerging European Public Sphere? Theoretical Clarifications and Empirical Indicators. Nashville: Paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the European Union Studies Association (EUSA).

Sunstein, Cass R. (2007) Republic.com. Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press.

Tisdall, Simon (2010) Has the Whole European Project Peaked? http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/11/european-union-euro-reform (21/01/2011)

Triandafyllido, Anna/ Wodak, Ruth/ Krzyżanowski, Michal, eds. (2009) The European Public Sphere and the Media. Europe in Crisis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Webster, Frank (1995) Theories of the Information Society. London: Routledge.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It is not allowed to copy the contents – also in extracts – of this post/proposal. This text is, like any other content on this weblog, property of the author.

MeCCSA 2011 Review – The First Official Conference Paper

It has been a while since I have posted the last article – so  many things happened in the meantime, that I am hardly able to keep pace with all these interesting developments and events in and around the media (especially as regard Wikileaks but I will focus this in another post; however, there is a very interesting article in the current issue of the New Statesman I can recommend). There was just to much to do, for instance preparing my conference paper for this year’s Media, Communication, and Cultural Studies Association Conference (MeCCSA) at Salford, Greater Manchester. I just returned from this very interesting, informatory trip to Northern England and will provide here a summarization of my experiences and impressions. Let me begin with some information on MeCCSA: It is an international organisation for academics in media-, communication-, and cultural studies with a keen interest in stimulating intellectual exchange across all relevant disciplines. However, “international” only to a certain extent as it is mainly based in the UK. Its main aim is to promote the diversification of influences on as well the professionalization of research in the relevant field of subjects. Since 2000 it holds an annual conference, each year at another of Britain’s universities. Former places of event included for instance the London School of Economics, University of Cardiff, University of Leeds etc. etc. MeCSSA 2011 was hosted by Salford University’s department for Communication, Culture, and Media, which organized a warm welcoming to and professional course of the conference in the very appealing Lowry, a huge, postmodern theatre builiding at the Salford quays – right beside the BBC studios and MediaCity UK. This year, around 140 researchers presented their current or recently finished projects on topics ranging from digital culture, media and democracy, visual- and film arts, gaming, media education, media discourses, journalism – you name it. Many of the contributors have a long professional career in academics, and I knew quite a few names from publications I had read during my studies (e.g. Stuart Price). I listened to delegates from New York, Toronto, London, Copenhagen so on and so forth. Interestingly, I was the only contributor from Germany…I think here is a clear lack of communication between the German and the international academic discourse on the respective issues detectable. In fact, I think I was the only one without a Ph.D and who had not published any article or a monograph (yet), too. Hence it was a great opportunity to get in touch with some bigger and smaller “grandeurs” of this specific academic branch. Besides, I gathered some impressions from other research projects and their perspectives on relevant issues. I thereby primary attended panels which dealt with topics of my personal academic interest, such as political communication, democracy and media etc. Especially the delegates from Cardiff University, Goldsmiths, London Metropolitan, and East Anglia provided some really interesting papers. During my panel, I was allowed to present the results of my MA research project on political communication online during last year’s general election. My audience was rather small but consisted of genuine experts in this area of research – luckily, they liked what I showed them and I was able to establish important contacts with possible supervisors for my Ph.D. After my presentation and the subsequent discussion, which provided further stimuli for future research, I took the chance to visit the Imperial War Museum North – after all I’m a student of history, with particular interest in the events of the 20th century of which war is an inherent part. Here I got a glimpse on the commodification of British and world military history. But that will be the topic of another post. Altogether, it was a very interesting and pleasant experience – I will definitely apply for next year’s conference again. I can only recommend to those of you, who see their future in academics, to do so as well! It is a great chance for professional exchange and to make some interesting connections. It is also a very satisfying experience to receive positive feedback and recognition for your own research. Next MeCCSA will be held at the University of Bedfordshire.

Wikileaks and the (alleged) “Diplomacy-Crisis”

Though I should actually be working on an oral presentation on Maoism, I cannot restrain myself from commenting on the latest “Wikileaks-Coup”. Once more, the (allegedly) “subversive” website attracted an incredibly intense media coverage. I will spare you an elaborate recap of what has happened – you can read, watch or listen to the story on each and every media channel.  All major newspapers, news websites, and broadcasters have put the story on the publication of 250.000 “sensitive” diplomatic documents on the top of their agendas; you can find background information on the issue almost everywhere. Sensational headlines  speak of a “real” diplomacy crisis. Another catchy term is “cablegate”, an allegory to the infamous Watergate-scandal of the Nixon administration in the 1970s. Well, I have my doubts here.

Especially the last comparison seems to be far from being appropriate. In the original scandal, the then government was directly involved in illegal surveillance and monitoring activities; of course, similar things happen today all the time (in partly much more sophisticated manner), too. However, today’s “cablegate” documents have not shown yet, that the US administration did anything particularly “deceptive” or “evil”. Even if some notes on certain politicians are rather embarrassing. But are they really that surprising? Would secret, diplomatic notes from other countries look any different? Let’s see: Arabia has a problem with a possible Iranian hegemony – tell me something new. Putin is Batman, Medwedew resembles his sidekick Robin and Ahmadinedschad reminds people of Hitler – well, I kinda knew that before Wikileaks told us. And to realise that Berlusconi loves parties you do not have to be a diplomat. Moreover, when I read what the US diplomats think of Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, I literally had to laugh out loud – because the characterizations are simply true (well, at least from my political perspective); nothing “sensitive” here. As regards spying on the UN, history has shown that diplomats had always been involved in rather shady forms of information gathering. That’s scandalous to very naive people only.

The whole issue appears to be a bit overblown and serious consequences for the diplomatic relationships between the involved nations remain to be seen. This has already been proven all day, when the different involved statesmen and -women downplayed the impact of this “revealment”. There is no real diplomacy crisis, just a few blushing faces (and some flattery damage containment). However, I am only mocking about today’s “over-emotional” coverage of the issue – I am not thinking that there is nothing truly surprising or maybe even shocking in this 250.000 documents. All I am saying is: It’s a bit too early to draw any hasty conclusions. We have to wait – and contemplate advantages over disadvantages of a force like Wikileaks in our current information environment. This applies to various dimensions of the issue:

1. The most basic question is of course: When does the monopoly on information of a (democratic) state end – and when do activities of organizations like Wikileaks violate  a government’s right on secrecy? I am far from being an enemy of a “free” information flow and I do not believe that contemporary democracies are the most perfect political system to live in (though, and here I agree with Churchill, all others are still much worse). But I am also convinced that too much transparency can be harmful for a collective, i.e. a nation-state in certain truly sensitive respects.

2. Wikileaks fulfills an important function by keeping debates on information, censorship, the media and the role of the Internet alive. In the case of the Afghan and Iraq War Logs, it confirmed what critical observers already assumed: That there is a another, far more complex and difficult reality to both wars. It has also shown that online media can truly circumvent and stimulate traditional media. Hence, there is a moral and political justification for a platform like Wikileaks  – to break established hegemonies. However, in the very moment an “independent” organisation accumulates the strength to challenge the establishment, it is not far from becoming a hegemonic factor within a certain power discourse itself. It is today the no. 1 source for classified information; there are no other notable Wikis for political leaks. In order to hold its position, it actually needs to “produce” constantly new breaking stories. It needs the media and vice versa. This encompasses certain demerits. Therefore, I sometimes doubt that Wikileaks always remembers its enormous responsibility every time it publishes masses of governmental documents – I simply cannot believe that its staff reads and evaluates every single piece appropriately before pushing it over to the media and the public, respectively. So how does who in Wikileaks actually decide which information goes out? I am not the first who questions the organization’s inner and outer transparency. One should never trust 100% in what a government is announcing – the same applies to its antagonists.

3. There is also the question of the actual political impact – I have already touched the problem above. For instance, though there had been a loud and vital discussion on the war logs, the number of anti-war protests did not really increase. As so often, the “scandal” arose broad attention for a relatively brief moment. The new media, the mass media, governments and the public – all factors influence each other, but the actual outcome of each debate needs to be evaluated and scrutinized anew. However, some rather unwelcomed effects of this one are already tangible: Restrictive governments can misuse the whole issue to justify their strict information policies, less restrictive ones will revise their information security policies.

To make one thing clear: Being critical towards Wikileaks here does not mean that I am fully supporting the different official governments’ stands in this debate; I would define my position as a neutral, extremely sceptical one. What I wanted to point out is: It is important that such events are accompanied  by sober, balanced discussions which consider all positive and negative factors; and that it is not enough to throw out a stack of controversial documents and then see what happens.

Ethics, Journalists, and the Use of New Media

Media producers of all branches or genres, respectively, increase their efforts to use the Internet and the various forms of social media as both a new communication channel and a source for research. Contemporary journalistic work not using new media became almost unthinkable – certain forms like “citizen journalism” or online news (all genres) would not even exist. A modern and successful news/media producer must be aware of the opportunities  but also limits of the world wide web.

Though the digitalised environment of today’s information societies creates and demands different, new modes of  news/knowledge production as well as distribution, there have to be certain guidelines and rules, basing on traditional perceptions of this ‘media craft’ – at least according to some professionals. Especially ethics, which always have been a often heatedly discussed issue in journalism, seem thereby to be an important topic in online media production discourses, too. How to handle social network media sources? How to treat statements made on blogposts, comments or in fora? How to sustain fairness – and guarantee ‘accuracy’, ‘truth’ (or at least ‘objectivity’ – if this is even possible) online? Though some of the basics behind those questions are long known points of contention (especially on ‘truth’ and ‘neutrality’), the Internet confronts the critical observer with various new and complex problems in this context. Especially concerning the alleged freedom of information, property rights, and privacy issues.

To find an interesting example for such ethical guidelines, please visit Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA). Here, media professionals postulate rules for using and treating online sources – and try to approach crucial questions like the ones mentioned above. It shows how those who are directly involved in the production process of online content attempt to meet the challenges of a changed information economy.

Thanks to my colleague Tomi, who passed me the link – visit her blog here.

One Story, three Perspectives – The Dubai Assassination 2010 and the Media

The following essay uses  critical discourse analysis (CDA) as a qualitative method to examine differences between media producers and -platforms. I use the assassination of the Palestinian military leader Mahmoud al-Mabouh in January 2010 as an empirical example. The text provides an comparative  analysis of three different media outlets concerning their coverage  of the story. This might be of interest to people focusing on journalism and communication sciences.

“Who killed Mr. Al-Mabhouh?”

A Comparative Critical Discourse Analysis on the News Coverage of the Dubai Assassination 2010

1. Introduction

On 19th January 2010 Mahmoud al-Mahbouh, a Palestinian Hamas military commander, was killed in a hotel in Dubai. Evidence gathered during the investigation hint to the possibility that the assassins were members of the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. It later emerged that the alleged agents used stolen passports of residents from the UK, France, Germany and Israel. The findings of the investigations conducted by Dubai’s police department aroused a broad media coverage, especially in the United Arab Emirates, the UK and Israel. Until today, the issue remains ‘newsworthy’ and numerous articles, commentaries and reports have been published. Hence, it became the focus of different media discourses around the globe. The involved governments, organisations and individuals have very different perspectives on this incident. The same applies to the different news media producers, which observed and covered the issue as well as the subsequent developments. The controversial debates on this incident are transported and, to a certain extent, formed by the media.

A comparison of “hard news” (e.g. Tran Thi/Thomson 2008: 51) on the issue, produced by news media allocated in the involved cultural and political spheres, can reveal important differences in several dimensions: in the used “news language”, applied agendas, argumentations, sources and the ideological/political backgrounds; therefore, the media portrayals and implicit evaluations of the incident are subjects of analysis. Furthermore, the representation of the victim and the alleged assassins are crucial aspects as well; here, the construction of identity plays a considerable role. Distinctive techniques of news presentation on different media platforms are of particular interest, too, as for each channel varying content production processes apply. In sum, three forms of news media texts have been chosen for this analysis: Comparing a newspaper, an online article and a TV news clip; this choice of subjects allows to ascertain and highlight structural differences. The present analysis applies a form of critical discourse analysis (CDA, e.g. Richardson 2007) as a qualitative method to  approach selected media texts. Several basic theories of news text research are also part of the theoretical framework, most notably those on ideology, identity construction in media discourses (e.g. Hall 2000 & 2006), gatekeeping and agenda setting (e.g. McCombs/Shaw 1994 & 1999). However, the present paper only provides a limited, relatively cursorily analysis of the chosen topic in regards of its media coverage; it still highlights the most striking differences between communicators and formats in this extremely controversial political discourse.

2. Methodology and Sources

2.1  Methodology and Theoretical Background

To examine the selected media artefacts the critical discourse analysis (henceforth CDA) provides an appropriate methodological approach: this critical in-depth reading of the source material allows to draw conclusions on the different “news languages”, argumentations and priorities of the texts; it thus opens the way to examine and identify differences and certain tendencies. Especially social and discursive practices (Richardson 2007: 178 et seq.; Scollon 1998) play an important role in this respect, i.e. the relationship between the texts and their social, political, cultural and ideological context (Richardson 2007: 27). It is crucial to identify who produced a statement/description/depiction in a text and who the same communicator tries to address, and which position either of them takes towards the issue in focus. A critical analysis of the discursive structure also facilitates the comparison of different forms of media texts, as it puts its emphasis on the semantic level. Nevertheless, CDA has certain limits and more substantiated conclusions on the approached issue would require a broader empirical basis. Thus, all conclusions are somewhat limited to the few examples of this analysis. Epistemologically, the author applies a constructivist perspective, in which news media construct ‘realities’ which consequently have an affect on the recipient’s ‘world perception’. They “construct and express meanings” (Gillespie/Toynbee 2006: 2) or to put it in other words: by applying discursive techniques, they provide knowledge (e.g. Gillespie/Toynbee 2006: 122).

2.2 The Sources: Three Different Perspectives

The text sample includes an article from the British Guardian newspaper, an online article from the Israeli Jerusalem Post, and a news report broadcasted on Al-Jazeera. Each one represents a different perspective on the highly controversial issue. This choice of sources provides the basis for comparisons on at least two different levels: Firstly, it is possible to contrast different ideological and political agendas. Secondly, it allows to point out differences between media platforms in regards of the structure of their news products. The articles and the clip were all ‘published’ on the 17th of February and cover the ”identity theft” (The Guardian 17/02/2010) committed by the alleged “assassination squad”. Apart from the attack itself, especially this issue caused diplomatic disgruntlement between Israel and a range of European countries[1];  in the case of the UK it lead to serious tensions between high level representatives from both countries.

The Guardian is one of the oldest and most popular newspapers in the UK (http://www.guardian.co.uk/gnm-archive/2002/jun/06/1 23/03/2010). It reaches around 335000 readers and represents politically a centre-leftist position. It has constantly covered the events, often as a ‘top story’ and in detailed, long articles, providing background a lot of  information, similar to the BBC and many other British media producers. The usage of British passports by the alleged assassins and the subsequent diplomatic scandal between the UK and Israel made the incident a highly newsworthy issue to British news media. Hence, this news source becomes to a certain extent representative for one of the British positions in this specific media discourse. However, even though the Guardian is a widely read publication, it is only one among various perspectives within the UK’s media landscape. Other important print media such as the Times or popular tabloids like the Sun and the Daily Mirror may cover the same story quite differently. The same applies for the other two chosen news texts, too: they represent only one of the perspectives in their cultural space. Due to the limits of this paper, these differences cannot be further outlined. A more elaborate research project would have to pay more attention to this aspect.

The Jerusalem Post might not be the most widely read Israeli newspaper but still reaches a broad audience worldwide, especially in Israel, the U.S.A. and France (Britannica,http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/302951/ The-Jerusalem-Post 23/02/2010). Since its takeover by the Hollinger Group in 1989 it shifted its political preference from a leftist to a right-wing position, often expressing a “tougher line on issues such as security and the Palestinian territories” (BBC NEWS, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/ middle_east/4969714.stm 23/03/2010).  The publisher also provides a daily updated news website. The assassination of a Hamas leader such as Mabhouh is a highly newsworthy topic to an Israeli news source like the Jerusalem Post, due to reasons of proximity, relevance, ‘recency’ and the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Al-Jazeera English is a 24-hour news channel located in Qatar, which is accessible both on TV and the Internet. It is part of the bigger Al-Jazeera satellite television network which launched in 1996 and incorporates several special TV channels and news websites (DocStoc, http://www.docstoc.com/docs/6294775/Al_Jazeera 23/03/2010). Al-Jazeera reaches,  especially in the Arabic-speaking world, a large international audience. It regards itself  as a ‘counter balance’ to the hegemony of Western media networks (Al-Jazeera, http:// english.aljazeera.net/aboutus/2006/11 /200852518 5555444449.html 23/03/2010). Due to the very same reasons named above, the Dubai incident has special news value to an Arabic news producer; unsurprisingly,  Al-Jazeera provided constant coverage of the events as well.

3. Analysis of Media Texts

The comparison of the chosen media texts reveals several striking differences concerning their form, narratives, usage of sources, argumentations and (indirect) evaluations of the incident. The Dubai assassination, its media coverage, and the political implications must be examined against the background of the general conflict in the Middle East.

3.1 The Guardian (17/02/10, Newspaper article/Appendix1)

The article “Dubai killers stole identities of UK citizens: Real British nationals named among suspects deny role in Hamas murder“ was published on the front cover of the issue. This media text is a classic newspaper article, including a catchy headline, a pre-text, quotations, sources and some background information. It is structured into three parts: 1. Headline and introduction, which provide the most important information; 2. The main section that describes and explains the actual event as well as related developments, and it cites statements and sources; 3. Background information and explanation of  the broader context. Compared to the other texts, this is the longest one and contains the most information. In terms of agenda setting the issue was given top priority at the time. The misusage of UK passports and possible diplomatic tensions between the involved governments contributed significantly to the news value of the story. The article describes the operation as well as the including ‘identity theft’ rather negative, and implies that it actually is a full diplomatic scandal. It refers to various Arabic and European sources, which criticise the attack or hint to similar, past incidents (see appendix 1). Furthermore, the authors name Israel as the most likely originator of the attack. Analysing the description of the “hit squad” in this article, there seems to be virtually no doubt that the Israeli secret service is responsible for this attack[2]: The authors write about “which role Israel plays” and do not question if its government is involved at all. However, in the last sentence of the article a former Mossad agent is cited, who expresses his doubts on Israel’s involvement, but this point is not further elaborated or commented on: “A former Mossad official, Rami Yigal, told Israel Army radio the assassination‚ doesn’t look like an Israeli operation’“ (The Guardian 17/02/2010). On the contrary, this brief statement on the whole issue appears in the context of the article as if it was a flimsy denial. Furthermore, the attack is depicted as an “elaborately orchestrated plot“ and the Dubai police is quoted, describing the incident a “meticulously planned killing”. This portrayal further implies that the whole operation must be the work of a professional organisation that operates on this level in the region, which is most likely to be the Mossad. Past Israeli actions, using stolen passports, are listed as further evidence for this assertion, too.

Concerning the issue of ideology, the Guardian represents a Western European, centre-leftist perspective, which condemns – at least officially – such secret execution operations, especially when their citizens’ passports are misused. Hence, the article emphasises the unlawfulness of this incident. It also cites one of the victims, who expresses his anger and fear. This quotation fulfils several functions in this text: 1. Showing another important perspective in this discourse, 2. Highlighting the criminal character of the very incident (and consequently of the alleged assassins themselves), 3. Contributing to a more interesting, diversified narrative. Quantitatively, the text mentions the “the killing” and the “assassins” in considerable frequency (see appendix 1). Only a few bits of information are given about Mabhouh himself. In the first line, the authors refer to him rather neutral as a “Hamas official”. Though the article briefly hints to his involvement in the killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989, the Palestinians representation remains cursorily: „Mabhouh was one of the founders of Hamas’s military wing and had been wanted by Israel for his role in the 1989 kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers on leave. His participation was acknowledged by Hamas last month.“ (The Guardian, 17/02/2010). Despite this short contextualisation, Mabhouh’s representation appears restricted to the role of a victim in an unlawful attack. This aspect in particular differs strikingly with the depiction of the Hamas commander on JerusalemPost.com.

3.2 Jerusalem Post (17/02/10, Online article/Appendix2)

The online article’s headline is “Mildiner: I woke up a ‘murderer’”. It diverges significantly from the other two text-types, especially in comparison to the newspaper article, the other ‘written’ text in the sample. Generally, new media texts can potentially benefit from a range of technological advances: most notably interactivity, media convergence[3], and high speed distribution of information (Hall 2008: 216 et seq.). However, in terms of form and structure information products on news websites are still often shorter than their printed counter-parts and keep the level of coverage on an issue comparatively cursorily. This is mainly result of their economic nature, i.e. that they are mostly for free; viable ways of selling professional online news products are just emerging (e.g. Hall 2008: 219 et seq.). Though many publishers of print products constantly improve their online derivates, they still do not provide the same amount of information as in the newspapers. The specific value of print products is primarily constituted by the provision of more details and background information.

The article mainly focuses on Melvyn Mildiner, one of the victims, who provides his personal reaction to the issue. In contrast to the Guardian article, the Israeli author uses the term “alleged assassination” to refer to the event, and this only three times, while his British colleague names the “killers” and “the killing” at least twelve times (see appendix 1). By doing so, this text actually emphasises that it is not clear who really conducted the murder, yet. Though not directly justifying the assassination of Mabhouh, the article tries to dismantle his representation as a mere ‘victim’, too:

„In a video made two weeks before his death, and broadcast on Al-Jazeera earlier this month, Mabhouh said he kidnapped and murdered two IDF soldiers, Ilan Saadon and Avi Sasportas, in 1989. Mabhouh said he disguised himself as an Orthodox Jew during the terrorist attack. Israeli defense officials said Mabhouh was tasked with smuggling long-distance Iranian rockets into Gaza.“ ( http://www.j post.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=168901 12/03/10)

In opposition to the Guardian and Al-Jazeerah, the Jerusalem Post explicitly describes Mabhouh as the actual murderer of the two Israel soldiers. Gatekeeping is another interesting and important aspect: by providing further information about his activities against Israel and selecting this representation of Mabhouh, the author decides how his identity is shaped in this discourse. This inevitably affects the portrayal and interpretation of the whole incident: the assassins killed not a simple Palestinian politician but a combatant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who is potentially still dangerous. Consequently, even if the assassination might have been an unlawful act of violence, it could be interpreted as an understandable military action, at least from a right-wing Israeli perspective[4]. One could argue that this viewpoint i rooted in Israel’s direct involvement in the conflict with the Palestinians and organisation such as the Hamas, which declares itself an sworn enemy to the Jewish state. This aspect reflects the news producers right-wing position towards security issues and highlights that ‘gatekeeping’ is also determined by ideological and cultural factors (e.g. Tumber 1999: 74-79), aside from economical ones; it further highlights how identities are constructed and distributed by media.

3.3 Al-Jazeerah (17/02/10, TV Clip/Appendix3)

This news clip titled “Hamas Murder in Dubai: Police say Suspects Passports are Fake” was broadcasted on Al-Jazeera and focuses mainly on the reactions of the people whose “identities have been misused” (Al-Jazeera, http:// www.youtube.com/user/AlJazeeraEnglish#p/search/5/qnT174njNYM 23/03/2010). The clip seems to to provide an apparently ‘neutral’ audio-visual news report which informs briefly about a single issue. The given information is thereby reduced to a minimum, as the structure of this text-type prohibits excessive descriptions and explanations. Due to its short duration of only 1:58 minutes, including three statements, it can only provide basic background information. As this is a visual news medium, ascertaining the used pictures is pivotal to understand this text. The clip starts with takes of Israeli newspapers which headline the ‘identity theft’; pictures of the victims are shown and the captions are cited; CCTV footage, showing the alleged assassins is used, too. The three statements of the identity-theft’s victims are played in via voiceover while the filming shows pictures of the stolen IDs. This stylistic devices contributes to an authenticity effect to the news story. However, except for allegedly hard facts little more information is given. A clear ideological position is not detectable in this text, which could be a consequence of the news item’s structure[5]. However, though the producers try to use a prosaic language, there are some judgemental expressions: for instance, the voiceover explains that some of the victims fear that “something more sinister is going on” (see appendix 3), which implies a negative evaluation of the incident. While the Guardian’s and the Jerusalem Post’s text somehow contradict each other on the question of the Mossad’s involvement, the selected Al-Jazeera news item can be allocated in between both positions; it actually names both possibilities.

4. Conclusion

This very brief analytical glance at the Dubai assassination implies that a news media product is the result of complex  cognitive and discursive processes that are largely determined by a shifting conglomerate of economic, political, and social factors; in certain sense, news items could be described as dynamic constructions. In fact, a closer look on this particular media discourse shows that one actually has to deal with multiple discourses connected to each other: the diplomatic and judicial discourse between the UK (and other European states) and Israeli government, the cultural and political discourses (or rather tensions) between Israel and the Arabian world, and the discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Discourses about secret service activities of the Mossad and historical developements play a major role, too. It also shows that the narrative of an issue, as well as the contained representation of individuals or collectives, also depends on very subjective factors, such as the cultural and/or political background; while the Guardian only cursorily hints to Mabhouh’s role as a Hamas military commander, the Jerusalem Post calls him de facto a murderer. As the Israeli government remained silent on the Dubai incident, it gave space for contradicting interpretations; thus, it played a key role in the course of the discourse(s) on the issue.

A more extensive research project may combine quantitative and qualitative methods[6] and use a bigger sample of articles for in-depth analyses. Approaching this media discourse in greater detail may also include further semantic and linguistic examinations of the selected news texts (e.g. Khalil 2000; Montgomery 2007; Dean et al. 1999: 162 et seq.).

5. List of References

Al-Jazeera, http://www.youtube.com/user/AlJazeeraEnglish#p/search/5/qnT174njNYM (13/02/10)

BBC Newshttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4969714.stm (23/03/2010)

Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/302951/The-Jerusalem-Post (23/03/2010)

Bruhn Jensen, Klaus (2002) ‘The Complementary of Qualitative and Quantitative Methodologies in Media and Communication Research’ in: Bruhn Jensen (ed.) (2002) A Handbook of Media and Communication Research. Qualitative and Quantitative Methodologies. London and New York:  Routledge.

Dailymail.com, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1251604/Hamas-assassination-Dubai-Mossad-killing-come-thriller-novel.html (23/02/2010)

Dean, David et al. (1999) Researching Communications. London: Hodder Arnold.

DocStoc, http://www.docstoc.com/docs/6294775/Al_Jazeera (23/03/2010)

Hall, Jim (2008) ‘Online Editions: Newspapers and the ‘New’ News’. In: Franklin,Bob (2008): Pulling Newspapers Apart. Analysing Print Journalism. New York: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart (2000) ‚Who needs identity’? in J. Evans / P. Redman eds. Identity: a Reader. London: Sage.

Hall, Stuart (2006) ‚The Whites of their Eyes’, in: A. Jawoski / N. Coupland, eds. The Discourse Reader. London: Routledge.

JerusalemPost.com, http://www.jpost.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=168901 (12/03/10)

Gillespie, Marie / Toynbee, Jason (eds.) (2006) Analysing Media Texts. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Gulfnews.com, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/crime/more-british-and-irish-passports-used-in-killing-1.587632 (23/02/2010)

The Khaleej Timeshttp://www.khaleejtimes.com/ DisplayArticleNew.asp? section=theuae&xfile=data/theuae/ 2010/february/ theuae_february504.xml (23/02/2010)

Khalil, Esnam N. (2000) Grounding in English and Arabic News Discourse. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub.

McCombs, Maxwell E. (1994) ‘New Influence on Our Pictures of the World’. In: Bryant/Zillmann (1994) Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. London: Routledge.

McCombs, Maxwell E. / Shaw, Donald L. (1999) ‘The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media’. In: Tumber, Howard (1999) News: A Reader. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Montgomery, Martin (2007) The Discourse of Broadcast News: A Linguistic Approach. Abingdon: Routledge.

Richardson, John E. (2007) Analysing Newspapers. An Approach From Critical Discourse Analysis. Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Scollon, Ron (1998) Mediated discourse as social interaction :a study of news discourse. London: Longman.

The GuardianHamas Murder in Dubai: Police say Suspects Passports are Fake (17/02/2010)

Thomson, Elisabeth/Tran Thi Hong Van (2008) ‘The Nature of ‘Reporter Voice’ in a Vietnamese Hard News Story’. In: Thomson, Elizabeth A. /White, P.R.R. (2008) Communicating Conflict: Multilingual Case Studies of the News Media. London: Continuum.

Yonah, Tamar (2009) The Tamer Yonah Show: Who Dunnit? & Biblical Novels, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Radio/News.aspx/1970(21/02/2010)


[1] E.g. France, Germany and Ireland.[2] This evaluation of the incident is in other British new items observable, too: e.g. Dailymail.com, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1251604/Hamas-assassination-Dubai-Mossad-killing-come-thriller-novel.html 23/02/2010.

[3] E.g. being a print and video product simultaneously, embedding links etc.

[4] Several other Israeli news texts share this depiction of Mabhouh, e.g. Yonah, Tamar (2009) The Tamer Yonah Show: Who Dunnit? & Biblical Novels, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Radio/ News.aspx/1970(21/02/2010)

[5] In other Arabian news products ideological tendencies are more obvious – which is again reasoned in the text’s structure. E.g. http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/crime/more-british-and-irish-passports-used-in-killing-1.587632 or The Khaleej Times, http://www.khaleejtimes.com/ DisplayArticleNew.asp? section=theuae&xfile=data/ th euae/ 2010/

february/ theuae_february504.xml (23/02/2010)

[6] On the complementary use of both method-types in media and communication studies see Bruhn Jensen 2000: 254 et seq.

PEW INDEX: Gaza Flotilla Incident dominates the Blogosphere

The Israeli attack on supply ships heading for Gaza on May 31 sparked a lot of heated discussions – and lead to serious diplomatic tensions between Israel and Turkey, once one of its very few supporters in the ‘Islamic world’ . Like many other outer events, this tragedy caused also an enormous echo among political bloggers. At least according to a study conducted by the well-known PEW Research Center’s for Excellence in Journalism. In the context of its regularly published New Media Index, the researchers compared the top stories among bloggers – and they found out that the Gaza incident dominates the (US) blogosphere.

The index also lists top stories in the traditional mass media. US broadcasters and newspapers are thereby mainly focusing the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving the international incident far behind on a second rank. The study provides a ranking of top stories in the so-called twitterverse, too. The attached bar chart shows that sports (football in particular) and the controversial decisions by US mobile phone provider AT&T are the most important stories shared via twitter.

Find the study on this issue on here on journalism.org. The research mechanisms behind the index are explained at the bottom.

AIDS is a Mass Murderer – a Failed Campaign

This essay was part of the coursework for an seminar which is called ‘Applied Communications’.  I analyze and criticize in this text an infamous information campaign on AIDS which has been launched last year in Germany. As it turned out, the creators failed with their approach. This might be interesting for people who mainly focus on PR studies.

1. Introduction

In today’s media culture nothing seems to be impossible – an immense diversity characterises the current range of media content. Information enters the ever flowing data stream of mass media continuously. Thereby, plurality[1], as postmodernist philosophers described it (e.g. Lyotard 1984), has apparently become pivotal for the process of generating media content. Borders are set off, symbols are no longer bound to one specific meaning exclusively; quotation becomes an essential technique especially in film and advertising. Symbols and citations are often taken out of one context to be put into another, which can possibly be a completely different one. References are allocated arbitrarily to achieve a certain effect which is defined by the media producer alone. This artistic freedom is an important source of creativity in today’s media ‘industry’. However, there still are certain limits: When ethical principles are violated it can cause controversial discussions. Then a media product may easily meet not only criticism but also refusal.

Especially in advertising transgressions were often made to generate a shocking moment only for the purpose of obtaining attention of a wider public[2]. An information campaign concerning AIDS designed by the German ‘Regenbogen e.V.’[3] in liasion with the advertising agency ‚das comitee’ could be added to this category: In an advertising clip and on posters AIDS is personalised either as Hitler, Saddam Hussein or Stalin, calling it a mass murderer (das comitee http://www.aids-ist-ein-massenmoerder. de/typo3/index.php?id=aids_kampagne 06/10/09). Due to the provoking content of the presented media artefacts the initiators and creators have been heavily criticized, in- and outside Germany. Ascertaining this example leads to some important as well as interesting questions concerning communication processes and strategies in contemporary media culture: What are the limits of creativity in media? Which factors do media producers have to consider in conceptualizing and realising a project? What happens when the content of a media artefact collides with ethical beliefs of one (or more) collectives? Why did this communication concept actually fail? To approach answers to these questions, the conceptualization and realisation of the campaign shall be described and analyzed in this essay. The reactions of other AIDS organisations, the public, and the media have to be explored, too. Thereby different aspects of communication strategies in today’s (mass) media shall be highlighted in regards of culture, hegemony, identity construction and postmodernism. Finally, some basic ideas for a less polarizing, more appropriate information campaign concerning AIDS / HIV are suggested. But: Within the limits of this paper, an extensive, in-depth discussion on the raised issues cannot be offered – some aspects can only be described cursorily. For instance, an extensive philosophical discussion on ethics cannot be provided. Anyhow, the effects and the problems of the chosen media artefact shall be illuminated and assessed.

2. The “AIDS is a Mass Murderer” Campaign 2009

Since mover than 25 years different groups from the social- and health-sector attempt to draw the attention of a wider public on AIDS. Various information campaigns were launched using a diverse repertoire of media artefacts. Also annual events like the World Aids Day (World AIDS Day, http://www.worldaidsday.org/ 01/12/09) shall point to the still existing and growing threat. Many of these organisations know about the importance of the media. It is thereby commonly assumed that the construction and representation of AIDS and HIV carriers in the mass media effects the general perception of the issue in the public[4]. The following  analysis of the chosen example will show how its content differs from previous information products and why it caused controversial discussions.

2.1 Basic Idea, Conception and Realisation of the Campaign

As the global interest in AIDS especially in Western countries seems to decline, the German ‘Regenbogen e.V.’ decided to start a campaign in September 2009 to point to the threat (Regenbogen e.V. http://www.aids-is-a-mass-murderer.com/ 06/10/09). The message to communicate was as important as simple: AIDS is still one of the deadliest diseases and until today ca. 25 million people died of it[5]. An estimated 14000 people are infected with HIV each day (BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/ 1779480. stm 02/12/09). In a 2006 study UN population researchers declared that by 2025 AIDS could cause 100 million deaths in Africa alone (worldrevolution, http://www.Worldrevolution.org/ news/article1857.htm 02/12/09). To remind people of this alarming development ‘Regenbogen e.V.’ ordered the German advertising agency ‘das comitee’ to create striking media artefacts for their new information campaign. Against the background of the named facts and estimations about AIDS the idea of the disease as a mass killing phenomenon emerged. Ultimately, the creators decided to personify the illness by calling it a mass murderer. As symbolic embodiments three of history’s worst dictators and factual mass murders were chosen: Hitler, Stalin and Saddam Hussein. The creators explained their decision as follows: “We asked ourselves what face we could give to the virus, and it couldn’t be a pretty face’ (Dirk Silz, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8240793.stm 02/12/09). To enhance the intended shock effect the three historical figures are shown naked, having sexual intercourse with attractive women – this connection of death and sexuality forms a powerful combination to evoke strong emotional reactions. The concept was realized in a video clip and on posters[6], using drastic scenes to draw the audience’s attention. In the clip a man and woman enter a dark room, starting to kiss and stripe their clothes off. ‘Dance’ music implies both could have met in a club or at a party i.e. they possibly are complete strangers to each other. Both persons are naked, groaning is audible. The sexual act is almost explicitly shown – despite the dark setting and blurred camera shots. Then the face of the male protagonist appears: It is the visage of Hitler, portrayed by an imitator. At this point the created tension collapses abruptly. In the end the phrases “AIDS is a mass murderer” and “Safe yourself” fade in and the link to the campaign’s homepage is given.

The main mechanism behind the clip’s effect on the recipients is the creation of sexual tension which is suddenly deconstructed by a surprising / shocking end. This unexpected turn in the ad’s ‘plot’ intensifies the shock effect. Only when the writings appear the caused confusion is dissolved and the actual message becomes clear. In the video clip Hitler occurs alone, the other two dictators are exclusively shown on posters. Here the same stylistic devices and role allocations are used: young attractive women having sex with either Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein. The despots are naked and seem to face the viewers of the poster directly. A lettering in front of the pictures contains the same message as the lines in the clip. The contrast of black and red contributes to the drastic aura of the media artefacts, too.

2.3 Reception, Reactions and Evaluation by the Public

„For a tough issue a tough campaign“ (das comitee http://www.das-comitee.de/ 06/10/09, own translation) – with these words the creators describe their provoking concept. Following this line the pictures rapidly aroused public interest and increased media coverage world wide[7]. But a large part of the reactions were rather negative and several groups expressed harsh criticism, most notably ‘Action Against AIDS Germany’ (AAAG) and the ‘Deutsche AIDS-Hilfe e.V.’ (DAH). The two biggest national organisations concerning the disease swiftly dissociated themselves from the campaign. They even successfully lobbied against broadcasting the clip in Television on the World AIDS Day ( AAAG, http://www.aids-kampagne.de/aktuell/news-detailansicht aktuell/datum /2009/09/11 /reaction -of-the -bzga -to-the-csf-letter-about-the-aids-is-a-mass-murderer/ 06/10/09). To them the reasons for disapproval are obvious: the presented media artefacts would lack adequate respect for the victims of the dictators as well as those of AIDS. Furthermore, men would be stereotyped as the circulators of the illness and HIV victims are stigmatised in general. Thus, AAAG and DAH characterized the clip and the posters as tasteless and disgusting. The EU HIV/AIDS Civil Society Forum (CSF) expressed the very same concerns in an open letter to the Federal Centre for Health Education in which it emphasized that “linking the risk of HIV infection to having sex with a mass murderer is immensely stigmatising of people with HIV“ (CSF, http://www.aids-kampagne.de/fileadmin/News /CSF_on_AIDS_campaign_in_ Ge r many_-_BZgA_let ter.pdf 03/12/09). Like AAAG and DAH it demanded an immediate stop of the campaign. Many foreign and international AIDS associations shared this position, e.g. UK’s National AIDS Trust ( NAT UK, http://www.nat.org.uk/ 02/12/09) or France’s AIDES (Aides, http://www.aides.org/node/105 02/12/09). Thus, most of the established organisations holding hegemony over information policies on AIDS opposed the unconventional approach. However, some individual voices of the professional health sector in the USA embraced the controversial, shocking conception and argued that it is effective as it raises awareness for the issue (ABC News,http://abcnews.go.com/Health/AIDS/german-hitler-ad-shocks-aids-charities-us-uk/ sto ry?id= 8516276 02/12/09). But such positions formed a clear minority – the reactions as well as the media coverage were in general very negative.

3. A Failed Campaign? Limits of an Unconventional Communication Strategy

Despite its quite reasonable intentions the ‘AIDS is a Mass Murderer’ campaign failed completely. To draw broad attention the initiators and creators decided to act in a quasi Machiavellian manner: the end should justify all means. Causing controversial discussions should put AIDS back on the agendas of public discourses. However, the used media artefacts (the means) ultimately missed this aim and mainly provoked harsh reactions of disapproval. As a result ‘Regenbogen e.V.’ stopped the campaign; the official homepage – containing the video clip and the posters – is no longer available. Solely the advertising agency still stands behind their creations[8]. Exploring the issue from a media and cultural studies’ perspective reveals some of the problems and allows an explanation for the negative reception by the public:  Following Aristotle’s communication model for instance, this campaign i.e. its media content, puts the emphasis on pathos exclusively. It uses the polarising comparison of human mass murderers from history and the AIDS disease to evoke emotional reactions. Facts and arguments are not used; the creators wanted to let the pictures speak for themselves, aiming for the shock value alone. Thus, logos is here a less important aspect. This had fatal consequences for the reception of the campaign’s media artefacts as some important voices criticised the absence of real advises for individual AIDS prevention. Hence, substantiated arguments are of immense importance for dealing with serious topics. The relevance of ethos is mainly determined by the initiator i.e. the NGO ‘Regenbogen e.V.’ In Germany the organisation is known for its social work concerning homosexuals. But the recognition as a serious and altruistic group did not contribute to a broader acceptance of the campaign. Instead it is assumable that ‘Regebogen e.V.’ suffered severe damage to its reputation and lost cultural capital. So, using extreme media content – which  can be perceived as unethical by parts of society – might  put a NGO in a very vulnerable position, as it can easily disappoint the moral expectations of the public. Outside the national borders the NGO is less noted; in the international context it seems to be more important that an AIDS campaign using Hitler originated from Germany. Thus, the creators grossly underestimated cultural and ethical sensibilities in various dimensions.

The radical concept of the media artefacts thereby differs significantly from the mainstream, i.e. the hegemony of less provoking, more factual ads and information programmes. But it falls short in the attempt to break the domination of the established AIDS organisations, which mainly define the discourse on the issue. Applying the theory of the circuit of culture, the hegemonic powers in the discourse on AIDS[9] could be described as the determining factors of regulation – the moment, which “comprises control on cultural activity” (Curtin 2006: 38); as the named organisations used their cultural capital and political weight to block the campaign, they regulated the cultural activity inside the discourse. ‘Regenbogen e.V.’ and ‘das comitee’ should have considered the possible influence of more powerful organisations on the public opinion in the planning process of their communication strategy. The main reason for the refusal is based on the representation of the disease and the patients. One of the most problematic aspects is thereby the construction of a certain identity[10] of HIV carriers, whether unintended or not: It puts them on the same level as the mass murderers, depicting them as the source of the problem. Ultimately, the campaign contributes – contrary to the initiators intentions – to a negative image of HIV carriers, which has been constructed in media[11] for a long time. Further, the example shows that the context determines the limits of creativity: the use of historical figures may not cause indignation in less serious contexts[12] but here this ‘stylistic device’ is the main reason for rejection. The chosen despots are reduced to mere symbols depicting death; the only relation to historical facts is the aspect of mass murder – the actual historical context is largely ignored. This was generally read as a ridicule of the victims of the Nazi regime, Stalinism and the military dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, women are depicted as sexual objects, completely helpless in the face of the male aggressor – so gendering can be added to the list of debatable aspects and problems of representation. In the end numerous groups felt offended by the content. Hence, there are still certain (ethical) restrictions to the idea of anything goes.

4. Conclusion

The examination of the chosen media artefacts highlighted different dimensions that need to be considered in the process of planning and realising a communication strategy. The factors can range from cultural, ethical and discursive to media political aspects. An imbalanced conception aiming for the shock value alone can cause various problems. It remains to be proven if such an approach really helps to inform about a specific issue. In this case it lead to heated but short living discussions, which shifted the focus away from the actual subject. Arousing broad attention by using drastic means does not necessarily lead to sustained public interest and a continuous examination of a social problem. To serve these goals an appropriate communication strategy would have to be more complex, paying logos the same attention as pathos. Most importantly: the construction of proper representations would demand a more elaborate planning.

List of References

ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/Health/AIDS/german-hitler-ad-shocks-aids-charities-us-uk/story?id=8516276 (02/12/09)

Adsoftheworld.com http://adsoftheworld.com/media/tv/world_aids_day_2009_mass_murderer (05/10/09)

Action Against AIDS Germany, http://www.aids-kampagne.de/aktuell/news-detailansicht aktuell/datum /2009/09/11 /reaction -of-the -bzga -to-the-csf-letter-about-the-aids-is-a-mass-murderer/ (06/10/09)

AIDES, http://www.aides.org/node/105 (02/12/09).

BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/ 1779480. stm (02/12/09)

BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8240793.stm (02/12/09)

Bild Online http://www.bild.de/BILD/news/2009/09/06/aids-spot/hitler-spot-fuer-safer-sex.html (06/10/09)

BR Online http://www.br-online.de/bayern3/bayern-3-der-mittag/aids-kampagne-massenmoerder-ID1252484191995.xml (04/10/09)

Civil Society Forum, http://www.aids-kampagne.de/fileadmin/News /CSFonAIDScampaigninGermany-BZgAletter.pdf (03/12/09)

Curtin, D. (2006), http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/13709_Chapter1.pdf (03/12/09)

Das Comitee http://www.das-comitee.de/ (06/10/09)

Deutsche AIDS Stiftung http://www.aidsstiftung.de/presse/pressemitteilungen/aidskampagne_regenbogen/ (05/10/09)

DNA Read the World, http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report_screaming-mass-murder_1289900 (06/10/09)

Fiedler, L. (1968) ‚Cross the Border – Close the Gap’, in: W. Welsch, ed. Wege aus der Moderne. Schlüsseltexte der Postmoderne-Diskussion. Berlin: Akademieverlag.

Guardian Online http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/07/germany-aids-advertisement-hitler-stalin (05/10/09)

Griffin, G. (2000) Representations of HIV and AIDS. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.

Hall, S. (2000) ‚Who needs identity’? in J. Evans / P. Redman eds. Identity: a Reader. London: Sage.

Kitzinger, J. (1998) ‘ Media Impact on Public Beliefs about AIDS’, Miller, D. / Kitzinger, J. / Williams, K. / Beharell, P. (eds.) The Circuit of Communication. Media Strategies, Representation and Audience Reception in the AIDS Crisis. London: Sage.

National AIDS Trust, http://www.nat.org.uk/ (02/12/09)

Regenbogen e.V., http://www.aids-ist-ein-massenmoerder.de/typo3/ (06/10/09)

Schreckenberg, E. (1998) ‚Was ist postmodernes Kino? Versuch einer kurzen Antwort auf eine schwierige Frage’, in D. Bordwell et al., eds. Die Filmgespenster der Postmoderne. Frankfurt a.M.: Verlag der Autoren.


[1] To the postmodernist idea of plurality in different media/art sectors see for instance Fiedler 1968, Lehmann 1999, Schreckenberg 1998.

[2] E.g. the infamous Benetton advertising campaigns: http://press.benettongroup.com/ben_en/about/campaigns/list/ (06/10/09)

[3] Regenbogen e.V. is a German association of homosexuals

[4] Griffin (2000) provides a in-depth discussion on the representation of AIDS / HIV in the media.

[5] These are more deads than in World War 1.

[6] A radio ad was also produced, but it was less relevant fort he reactions and follow-up discussions on the issue.

[7] Mainly in press and the Internet e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/07/germany-aids-advertisement-hitler-stalin; http://www.bild.de/BILD/news/2009/09/06/aids-spot/hitler-spot-fuer-safer-sex.html; http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,647497,00.html; http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report_screaming-mass-murder_1289900 (all 06/10/09)

[8] Hence, the media artefacts are still accessible on their official homepage ( das comitee http://www.das-comitee.de/ 02/12/09).

[9] AAAG, DAH, NAT, AIDES etc.

[10] On the complex relation between identity, ideology, discourse and the media see e.g. Hall 2000.

[11] For a detailed discussion on the media impact on public beliefs about AIDS, especially on stereotypes and myths see Kitzinger 1998: 174 – 192.

[12] For instance in a commercial for a car produced by Renault; here a wide range of historical figures from Fidel Castro to Karl Marx are used in an advertising clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOb1M14NYUU 06/10/09

Afghanistan War: Media Attention Drops Significantly

America’s longest military engagement has drastically lost the mass media’s attention – at least according to a study on journalism.org. Even though the conflict is far from being solved and NATO troops suffered relatively severe casualties this June (29 soldiers lost their lives).

Last year, signs were still pointing in a different direction: After attention peaked to an all-time high during 2009  (caused for instance by President Obama’s disputed decision to send more troops to Afghanistan), the possibility arose that the war would become a “major ongoing story“. However, the findings imply now quite the opposite. The authors conclude:

[…] this year’s coverage trajectory seems to suggest that the longest-running conflict in U.S. history is still having a difficult time getting into the headlines. (ibid.)

Unfortunately, the researchers do not explain the applied methodology for this study. Thus, their findings are not traceable in full detail. Nevertheless, the presented chart hints to a certain imbalance concerning the war’s ‘news-worthiness’. The Afghanistan Conflict surpassed  the Vietnam War by now as the longest American military involvement – in a foreign country and in general. It is remarkable that despite this fact and a wide range of economical, social, military, and political problems, which remain to be resolved (if they can ever be), media coverage is apparently subsiding.

An exploratory examination of the biggest UK news media websites might indicate certain differences to the U.S. – here, news stories on the Afghanistan Conflict seem to remain on top of the news agenda. Especially news items on fallen soldiers are regularly published or broadcasted, respectively. Prime-Minister David Cameron is currently visiting the country, talking about plans for a withdrawal of British troops. Thus, it is not unlikely that the issue remains on the front pages – at least for a while.

In Germany, the war in Afghanistan remains a contentious issue, the intensity of its media coverage thereby varies. The ‘news-worthiness’  seems to depend on highly controversial incidents involving German troops and – very often emerging from such events – domestic discussions on the justification and actual purposes of the engagement. A recent example would be the infamous airstrike on two tanker trucksordered by a German general back in 2009, which led to various heated debates on the conflict.

A research project on media outlets from different NATO countries on the war might highlight some important as well as interesting differences in the depiction and perception of the conflict among the participating nations. The industrialized as well as digitalized nations of the Western hemisphere may share the infrastructure of interconnected information societies but significant differences still exist on the content level.

List of References

Journalism.org, http://www.journalism.org/numbers_report/Americas_longest_war_fights_for_attention 10/06/2010

Times Online, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/afghanistan/article7147223.ece 10/06/2010

Spiegel.de, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,648925,00.html 10/06/2010