Thursday, January 11, 2007

analysis of a Saddam execution media log

In the book Journalism: Ethics and Practice, professor Frank Morgan asked the question “what is journalism”? For him, the answer is a complicated entity that must ultimately be expressed as theory. The theory should be a coherent set of ideas that explain not only the media form, its contents but also crucially the audience and the culture they share. This paper therefore is a study not only of a week’s worth of media consumption, it is a study of the consumer and the culture the consumer resides in. This essay will therefore concentrate on the discourse of seeing the media log in terms of theory of journalism. It will examine how log items display characteristics of several aspects of the Four Theories of the Press. The paper will also examine how these theories are now fusing into one comprehensive theory of communication by finding examples of collaboration, surveillance, facilitation and criticism in the week’s media consumption.

The media log tracks the Saddam Hussein execution story from Thursday 29 December 2006 to Wednesday 3 January 2007. The consumption log of 69 media items is shown in Appendix A. In Australian media terms, this period between Christmas and New Year is called the “silly season”. Because many news outlets are on holidays or skeleton staffing, the stories that dominate in this period tend to be time dependent such as the Boxing Day Test and the Sydney to Hobart race. Apart from the random pure news events such as the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, this period does not have the usual newsmakers dominating. The Sydney to Hobart race and the test cricket are usually the only stories that last all week. However on Tuesday 26 December 2006, the Iraqi appeal court announced they had turned down Saddam Hussein’s appeal against his execution. This looked to be a story that had a good chance of lasting all week.

Saddam Hussein has long been a newsmaker. A member of Iraq’s ruling Arab Sunni elite, he came to prominence in the 1970s on the back of Iraq’s oil profits. He was de facto ruler well before becoming president in 1979. Iraq grew wealthy after the 1973 oil crisis and Saddam became a Pan-Arab hero for spending much of his country’s wealth on economic development and education. But he also spent big on arms. Saddam’s most fateful decision came in 1979 when he used Iran’s new Islamic regime as the excuse to renege on a four year old agreement to set the border as the thalweg (midpoint) of the Shatt Al-Arab waterway. The resulting eight year war crippled both countries. This war eventually led to the invasion of Kuwait, which in turn led to the first Gulf War, UN sanctions and then the second Gulf War, leading to capture and trial. Saddam has strong news value of prominence and it made him one of the most talked-about people in Australian media in 2004.

The story of his death took three major phases in the week under examination. The first phase, lasting three days, was the story of whether he would be executed at all and if so when. The second phase was the coverage of his death, a review of his life and immediate reaction to his death. This phase lasted approximately two days. The third phase is analysis and reaction to video footage of his final moments. This phase lasted three days and overlapped with the end of phase 2. See appendix B for the key daily points in the story development.

The story of Saddam’s execution was major news across the world. It not only had the three core news values: interest, timeliness and clarity but it also had five of the six major news criteria: Consequence, Conflict, Human Interest, Novelty and Prominence. Many Australian media built the sixth criteria, Proximity, into the story. On Thursday, the story was in phase 1 and the news was Hussein “could be marched to the gallows any day now” (Australian, 28 December 2006, p.6). For some media, phase 1 did not fit the news criteria. According to the gatekeeper model of journalism a news story must survive a series of discriminating filters in a news organisation. Most TV news stories are visual and much Australian news is local and trivial. However the Saddam story was happening mostly beyond the glare of cameras in a foreign country. As a result, the phase 1 story did not survive the Thursday TV news gatekeeping process on Sky News, Channel Nine and the ABC. Only SBS, established with the specific purpose of countering the myth of monoculturalism picked it up. In the written media, there was more coverage. Saddam had written a goodbye letter to Iraqis. Legal arguments persisted as to whether court needed the signature of the Iraqi president (Sydney Morning Herald 2006, online). On the Friday, speculation continued despite the Iraq’s justice ministry denying he was about to hang. All these stories show the surveillance and facilitation role of the media. The media also played critical roles with opinion pieces taking sides on the merits of capital punishment.

The story shifted dramatically into phase two on Saturday with news of his death. The news broke in the early afternoon which was too late for the daily newspapers and too early for the evening news. The internet broke the story. The online Age told the story in classic hard news format with the most important information first and with verifiable facts and identifiable sources: “Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been executed, Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi told the BBC.” (Age online) The sources used demonstrate an example of the authoritarian theory of news where authority rests in the state. The story has immediate credibility due to the Government source revealing the news to one of the world’s most respected media, the BBC. The story also shows the complexity within international news. The average international news item has been through as least four separate newsrooms. In this case, the Government tells the BBC, the story is picked up by Reuters who then forward a copy to the Age for publication in Australia. News Corp immediately found a local angle with the story of a Sydney man who fled Saddam’s regime (News.com.au). Proximity acknowledges that the impact of an event is subject to how close the audience is to the event. This angle was followed up by all the TV evening news services who showed pictures of joyous Iraqis celebrating in the streets of the Sydney western suburb Auburn.

The language used by TV media on the night of Saddam’s death bears exploration. Each television network carries its own bias inherent in the choice of language used. Language is not a mirror of reality but a “shaper of reality” for those who use it. Channel Nine led with the headline “Death of a Tyrant” and they framed the narrative as the just death of a hated despot. Saddam was the “butcher of Baghdad” who “met the same fate as his victims”. For Iraqi history it was a “dark chapter” that had now closed. These examples show the media not only defining what significant events are taking place but also offers powerful interpretations of how to understand these events. Channel Nine left the viewer in no doubt that Saddam’s execution was just and proper.

Both SBS and ABC followed the Channel Nine lead in terms of proximity and also of government collaboration. All three had the cheering Auburn footage as well as a sound byte from John Howard. But SBS and the ABC also presented more complex reactions to Saddam’s death. They both interviewed Professor Clive Williams an intelligence analyst at the Australian National University. Williams suggested that the real reason for his early execution was to “silence Saddam before he could talk about his links to the US and in particular to chemical suppliers” in the unfinished Kurdish massacre trial (Williams on SBS News World Australia 30 December 2006). This is critical and dialectic journalism that provokes debate about society’s prevailing political order.

SBS demonstrated an example of the social responsibility theory of the media on the day after the execution. They had procured unauthorised mobile phone footage of the execution however the newscaster warned viewers that they, like “other major broadcast media” would not be showing the exact moment when Saddam died. In the libertarian tradition of John Stuart Mill, this could be construed as censorship or “the peculiar evil of silencing an opinion”. However the wording of SBS decision to edit the footage was framed in terms of their status as a major broadcast media. In this example absolute liberty to show shocking footage is moderated by social responsibility.

Due to cultural factors, phase 2 ended after just two days. Although Gerald Ford and James Brown both died a week before Saddam, reactions to their death continued due to a long period before interment. Saddam, however, was buried according to Muslim tradition within a day of his death. While immediate international reaction was still coming in on the Sunday, Saddam’s early burial left the newsmakers quickly moving on the next phase of the story. Phase 3 moved the story on to higher levels of inquiry where journalists challenge initially “authoritative” accounts of events.

A slightly more sympathetic portrait of Saddam was emerging. The unauthorised video of the execution had shown him defiant as his executors hurled insults at him. On Monday night, the ABC 7.30 report had an in-depth interview with John F Burns, a multi-Pulitzer Prize winning journalist of the New York Times. Burns notes that Saddam acted honourably in death unlike the “bullying thugs” that executed him (Burns on ABC 7.30 Report, 1 January 2007). By the end of the week, the execution video became the story as criticism increased around the world and Iraq conducted an enquiry into how it was filmed (Sydney Morning Herald 2007, online).

Although this study is by no means a comprehensive account of media coverage of the story of over the week (only one radio program featured in the log), the coverage shown demonstrates that journalism is inextricable from international politics interacting with society via collaboration, surveillance, facilitation and criticism. Future media log studies should include newer news media. Many weblogs, video logs and podcasts covered the Saddam execution. These newer technologies demonstrate a media convergence as ‘the crossing of paths that results in the transformation of each entity as well as the creation of new ones’.

Appendix A:
Chronological index of news consumption 28/12/2006 to 03/01/2007
Number Date Time Source Format Headline
1 28/12/06 am Australian Newspaper Saddam to die within a month
2 28/12/06 am Australian Newspaper Editorial: Saddam Hussein’s fate
3 28/12/06 am Courier-Mail Newspaper Saddam to die ‘any day now’
4 28/12/06 am Sydney Morning Herald Internet Saddam’s goodbye letter
5 28/12/06 am Al Jazeera Internet Saddam hanging date unclear
6 28/12/06 am BBC Internet Saddam lawyer in last ditch plea
7 28/12/06 0900 Sky News Australia TV No coverage
8 28/12/06 1800 C9 Brisbane TV No coverage
9 28/12/06 1830 SBS World News TV European human rights concerns
10 28/12/06 1900 ABC Brisbane TV No coverage
11 29/12/06 0800 ABC RN news Radio No coverage
12 29/12/06 1000 Sky News Aus TV No coverage
13 29/12/06 am Australian Newspaper Opinion: Hanging Saddam will make it worse
14 29/12/06 am Courier-Mail Newspaper No coverage
15 29/12/06 pm Sydney Morning Herald Internet Saddam farewells family
16 29/12/06 pm IHT Internet Saddam’s execution date uncertain
17 29/12/06 1800 Sky News Aus TV Breaking news: Saddam handed over to Iraqi custody
18 30/12/06 am Australian Newspaper Saddam could die within days
19 30/12/06 am Courier-Mail Newspaper Opinion: Don’t hang Saddam
20 30/12/06 am Courier-Mail Newspaper Saddam execution date doubt
21 30/12/06 pm Age Internet Saddam executed, officials say
22 30/12/06 pm Nine MSN Internet Saddam execution too late for expat
23 30/12/06 pm NPR Internet Iraq executes Saddam; challenges remain
24 30/12/06 1800 C9 Brisbane TV Tyrant executed
25 30/12/06 1830 SBS TV Saddam dead, Iraq high alert
26 30/12/06 1900 ABC Brisbane TV Saddam dead
27 31/12/06 am Sunday Mail Newspaper No Remorse
28 31/12/06 am Sunday Mail Newspaper Revenge Fears after hanging
29 31/12/06 am Al Jazeera Internet Saddam buried in Awja
30 31/12/06 am Al Jazeera Internet Iran welcomes Saddam execution
31 31/12/06 am CNN Internet Hussein buried in same cemetary as sons
32 31/12/06 am Sydney Morning Herald Internet Saddam laid to rest
33 31/12/06 am Age Internet Hanging one man won’t fix the mess
34 31/12/06 am Age Internet World divided over Saddam’s death

35 31/12/06 am Herald Sun Internet Saddam dies a broken man
36 31/12/06 1800 C9 Brisbane TV Iraqis celebrate Saddam’s death
37 31/12/06 1830 SBS TV Final taunts
38 31/12/06 1900 ABC Brisbane TV After Saddam
39 01/01/07 am Courier-Mail Newspaper No fanfare as tyrant buried with sons
40 01/01/07 am Courier-Mail Newspaper Buried at dawn but few mourn Saddam
41 01/01/07 am Australian Newspaper Saddam supporters vow revenge on US, Shiites
42 01/01/07 am Australian Newspaper I destroyed Iraq’s enemies: Saddam defiant until the end
43 01/01/07 am Australian Internet Nurse tells: Poetic Saddam
‘didn’t complain much’
44 01/01/07 am Australian Internet Millions watch images of death
45 01/01/07 am Australian Internet Countries divided on execution
46 01/01/07 am Sydney Morning Herald Internet Insults on the gallows for Saddam
47 01/01/07 1800 C9 Brisbane TV US death toll in Iraq above 3,000
48 01/01/07 1830 SBS TV Saddam reaction
49 01/01/07 1900 ABC Brisbane TV Insults at execution
50 01/01/07 1930 ABC 7:30 Report TV Interview with John F Burns
51 02/01/07 am Australian Newspaper Tyrant wrote poetry and fed birds in his final days
52 02/01/07 am Australian Newspaper My father a martyr, says dictator’s daughter
53 02/01/07 am Australian Newspaper Saddam taunted on the gallows
54 02/01/07 am Australian Newspaper Opinion: moral defeat at the end of a rope
55 02/01/07 am Courier-Mail Newspaper 3000th US soldier killed on Iraq soil
56 02/01/07 am Courier-Mail Newspaper Editorial: Another Iraqi death sparks more killing
57 02/01/07 am Courier-Mail Newspaper Opinion: No capital in hanging
58 02/01/07 am Sydney Morning Herald Internet Saddam’s last humiliating moments fire Sunnis
59 02/01/07 1730 Sky News Aus TV No coverage
60 02/01/07 1800 C9 Brisbane TV No coverage
61 02/01/07 1830 SBS TV Sunni anger
62 03/01/07 am Sydney Morning Herald Internet Iraqi inquiry into Saddam hanging video
63 03/01/07 am Age Internet Saddam’s race to gallows anger US officials
64 03/01/07 am Age Internet Saddam’s party faces upheaval
65 03/01/07 am Australian Newspaper Iraqi inquiry into Saddam gallows taunt
66 03/01/07 am Courier-Mail Newspaper Anger festers on Iraq streets
67 03/01/07 1800 C9 Brisbane TV No coverage
68 03/01/07 1830 SBS TV Saddam video
69 03/01/07 1900 ABC Brisbane TV Execution anger



Appendix B
Key points in Saddam story development 28/12/06 to 03/01/07
Phase 1: When will he die?
Thursday 28/12/06:
His court appeal is turned down, goodbye letter released to media, execution “soon”,
Friday 29/12/06:
lawyer pleads for clemency, Saddam says farewell to family, could die “within days”
Phase 2: Saddam is dead.
Saturday 30/12/06:
execution, obituary, immediate reactions.
Sunday 31/12/06:
burial, mixed world reaction
Phase 3: The consequences
Monday 01/01/07:
supporters vow revenge, unofficial video footage shows insults
Tuesday 02/01/07:
criticism of executioner taunts and insults on unofficial video
Wednesday 03/01/07:
growing anger around the world about video

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