The Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy began after editorial cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on September 30, 2005. Danish Muslim organizations staged protests in response. As the controversy has grown, some or all of the cartoons have been reprinted in newspapers in more than fifty other countries, leading to violent protests involving hundreds of deaths, particularly in Muslim countries.
I feel this is a suitable story to explore and analyze media bias and prejudiced reporting, as this is a highly controversial issue between a Muslim population sensitive over what they perceive as a global assault by the Western world on their religion and faith, and both liberals and right wingers alike who feel that freedom of speech is sacred and unassailable.
As such, I have included news coverage from 3 distinct sources – Al-Jazeera, commonly regarded as the media champion of the Arab world; BBC, one of the oldest and respected media institutions in the world; and finally, a random daily newspaper from the United States, to compare the news coverage regarding this controversial issue, and to identify any media bias, negative reporting or partisan reporting.
The link to the story can be found in the “Works Cited” section of this paper. We would expect from a preliminary basis that Al-Jazeera would typically play up the offensive nature of the cartoons, highlight the perceived insensitivities and double standards of the Western media vis-à-vis the cartoons and the Holocaust, as well as champion the rights of the Muslim world.
Surprisingly, this is not the case. The news article quoted seemed to be factual rather than opinionated in nature, quoting a variety of sources and viewpoints from both sides of the fence, from the Danish media and politicians to Hamas and other Islamic militant groups. No underlying or latent propaganda was detected; indeed, negative quotes were enclosed in double quotes, and attributed to its source. The language used was non-inflammatory, focused on facts and events, and there was no strong hint of an opinion piece.
The closest the Al-Jazeera piece came to being biased was when it was reporting on the nature of the cartoons (drawings) at the heart of the controversy. The descriptions used were accurate, non-misleading, and mildly strong. However, there was no mention of the Western world point of view, or of the fact that the combined cartoons at the heart of the controversy which were spread by Danish imams contained 3 additional (highly offensive) drawings not published by the Jyllands-Posten.
I conclude that the Al-Jazeera piece, when factual in nature and non-inflammatory, seems more interested in presenting the reaction of the Muslim world as well as the threats made by them, when ignoring the Western point of view. There seemed to be an unusual emphasis on the negative incidents such as attacks and boycotts that has occurred as a result of the backlash against the cartoons.
The report by the BBC is by far the most accurate and objective. It presents inconsistencies on the actions and words on both parties (the Danish media and the Danish imams who incited the controversy), reporting in detail how an editor of the Jyllands-Posten rejected cartoons of Jesus Christ with the reason that they would offend. Impressively, the particular section also included (in brackets) a update in which a reader pointed out that the paper did publish a cartoon of the biblical Joseph in 2000, and thus queries why the paper should be criticized over the rejection of the Jesus Christ cartoons, finally ending with the editor’s (of the BBC report) explanation of why the inconsistency was still valid.
A detailed account of how the initial cartoons failed to spark any major outrage, until a group of Danish imams made concentrated efforts to spark a controversy by adding 3 cartoons which were highly offensive and insulting (more so that the original cartoons) and were not published by the Jyllands-Posten to a portfolio and touring various Middle Eastern Arab leaders with them follows.
The report finally ends with a reflection of the viewpoints and the reaction of both sides. I was very impressed with the objectivity of the reports, and the lengths to which the writer went to portray the inconsistencies of both parties.
The report by the Washington Post is reminiscent of that by Al-Jazeera; non-inflammatory, factual in nature, no underlying propaganda or strong language, and drawing from a wide variety of sources. However, whereas Al-Jazeera’s report focused solely on the reaction of the Muslim world, Washington Post report carried a fair balance of the reactions of both the Western world and the Muslim world. There was a balance in the strength of the opinions and announcements from both side, and hence I find the Washington Post more balanced and objective, although the BBC outshines the Washington Post in this aspect.
Reynolds, Paul. Cartoons: Divisions and inconsistencies. BBC. Monday 13th February 2006 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/4708216.stm
Fury Grows Over Denmark Cartoons. Al-Jazeera.net. Tuesday 31st January 2006.
Sullivan, Kevin. Muslims’ Fury Rages Unabated Over Cartoons. The Washington Post. Saturday 11th February, 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/02/10/AR2006021001822.html
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