Reporting Diversity
Case Study Three

Terrorism raids November 2005


Introduction

ASIO raids on the homes of people in Sydney and Melbourne in November 2005 resulted in charges being brought against 17 Muslim men. The reporting of four major newspapers shows that the papers made concerted attempts to be balanced in their reporting by running stories not only about the accused and their alleged crimes, but also about what were termed “moderate” elements of Islamic communities in Australia. The analysis shows that attempts to achieve balance by providing reports on “moderate” and “radical” elements of any community tend to oversimplify the character of the community. Indeed, the major problem such an attempt encounters is the perception that a community is monolithic, when in fact there are many Islamic communities in Australia. Additionally, the news media’s traditional reliance on conflict as a way of telling a story limits the capacity for explanation and contextualisation of issues; an increased reliance on News of Consequence as an approach would provide improved contextualisation of issues.

In the second week of November 2005, ASIO raided the homes of alleged Muslim militants in Sydney and Melbourne. The raids resulted in the arrests of 17 people and their later appearance in courts. This report looks at 271 news articles appearing in four newspapers from November 1 to November 14 in four discrete periods.

The articles show that the four newspapers attempted to deal with the issues by taking standard news approaches. For example, the newspapers attempted to provide balance by differentiating between “the Islamic community” in general and “extreme” or “militant” elements of Islamic communities. Further, the newspapers placed the accused squarely in the second category of extremists. While this separation may have benefited moderate Islamic communities, or Muslims in general, in terms of their perception in the wider national community, it may also have had the unfortunate effect of “convicting” the accused before their court appearances could be completed. Excerpts from alleged surveillance recordings and headlines like “Osama’s Aussie offspring” skirt dangerously around the laws of contempt of court.

In general, the reporting of issues during these periods can be loosely categorised into themes of stories dealing with the suspects themselves, stories dealing with Islamic communities in Australia, and the nation’s new counter-terrorism legislation. In the first category, a further subset of stories dealt with issues of radical Islam. Stories in the first category tended to take a News of Conflict approach, in which the “angle” or introduction to the stories was invariably based on issues of conflict: conflict between militant Muslims and the wider community; conflict between militant Muslims and moderate Muslims; conflict between militant Islam and Christianity; and conflict between individual suspects and their family members. News of Conflict-type approaches to news events can lead to sensationalisation if they are not well contextualised.

Reports in the two other categories generally took a News of Consequence approach, attempting to explain how members of Islamic communities felt about the “terror raids” and how their communities reacted to the revelations. In these categories, an attempt was made to explain Islam to the wider community and to show commonalities in attitudes between Australian Islamic communities and other Australian communities. News of Consequence approaches tend to try to explain issues in the news and generally lead to better understanding by audience members of issues behind the news.

However, the attempt to show the newspapers’ audiences the face of Islam in Australia also tends to result in a portrayal of Islam and Islamic communities as monolithic and fails to show diversity or richness. Such reporting can lead to misunderstanding about issues such as “the reaction” of “the Islamic community” when context is lacking to such an extent. Journalistic approaches to community issues necessarily rely on verbal shorthand to make the most of limited space in newspapers’ columns. The Australian Arabic Council’s Roland Jabbour, in one report, asks the Australian media to be responsible in reporting arrests, as “ethnicity and religion should not be the focus”. In many cases, however, ethnicity and religion are interwoven into the issues, and untangling them can be time-consuming and editorial space-consuming and are either not addressed or insufficiently addressed in the stories under review. Under these circumstances, a News of Consequence approach, which attempts explain issues to a greater degree than a News of Conflict approach, is vital to audience understanding of complex issues.

This analysis of newspaper content also notes the use of value-laden terms to describe what are deemed to be radical elements of the Muslim community in Australia – in particular references to sermons being “shrieked”, clerics “preaching hatred” and repetitive use of the words “extremist” or “extremism”. Such terms require precise use in the context of stories providing limited contextual information.

The four reporting periods:

  1. Preceding week (November 1-8)
  2. The story breaks (November 9)
  3. Aftermath (November 10 & 11)
  4. The dust settles (November 12-14)

Newspapers sourced from Newsbank:

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Member : Murdoch UniversityMember: Griffith UniversityMember: University of South AustraliaMember: Media MonitorsMember: SBSMember: University of CanberraMember: Journalism Education AssociationMember: University of Western Sydney
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