Naureen Aqueel

Posts Tagged ‘media

Reshaping the media narrative about Islam and Muslims

An edited version of this was published in The Message International magazine. 

It seems that every time an act of terrorism is performed in the name of Islam, reporting and discussions in the mainstream media and social media tend to follow a predictable pattern – almost as if there were a template that journalists and analysts pull out when discussing the incident. The media often gets its groupthink going on “Islamic terrorism”, “Islamism” and “jihadism”. A familiar discourse of linking Islam to violence unfolds and talk shows on television and radio channels and comment sections in newspapers and websites are inundated with debates discussing what drives Muslims to violence; questioning Quranic injunctions often specific to war time; and examining the existence of blasphemy laws in various Muslim countries among other topics.

There have been a number of studies done in academia which have found Muslims are often negatively portrayed in popular media discourse. Such negative portrayals, though in existence for a long time, increased after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. A recent study done by a group of social science researchers in 2014 titled “The rise of anti-Muslim prejudice: Media and Islamophobia in Europe and the United States” found that media coverage surrounding the issue of the building of the Islamic Community Center in New York in 2010 was predominantly negative and those exposed to this coverage had negative attitudes about Islam and Muslims.

In 2012, Christopher Bail, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan conducted a study which found that negative portrayals of Muslims received more media attention than positive ones. Bail’s study also found that press releases from many Muslim organizations condemning acts of terrorism got lesser attention in the mainstream media than emotional messages from these organizations in response to acts of discrimination against Muslims.

It is unfortunate that positive everyday stories happening in the Muslim community rarely, if ever, make the headlines in the mainstream media. However, when negative incidents do happen and crimes are perpetrated by those who describe themselves as Muslims, the mainstream media are quick to pick on the Muslim or Islam association and promote a narrative about “Islamist violence” and “Islamic radicalism”. A study by Charles Kurzman in 2011 found that the kind of terrorism incidents by self-described Muslims that are reported in the media account for less than .0002 percent of murders in the United States since the September 11th attacks and .0003 percent of deaths each day worldwide. Yet, sadly, these are the stories that would pop up if one were to search for “Islam” or “Muslim” on the website of any popular mainstream media outlet.

Discussing the media narrative about Islam, Nabil Echchaibi, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Colorado Boulder, in a chapter on American Muslims and the media in “The Cambridge Companion to American Islam” writes: “Most probably, the suspicion of Islam and Muslims is also bred and animated by a media framework that reduces Muslims primarily to the role of the reactive, reinforcing thereby a perception of either complacency and indifference or powerlessness in the face of an overwhelmingly brutal religious force that is Islamic radicalism.”

Anyone familiar with the workings of the newsroom would know that the practices, news values and deadlines in newsrooms facilitate this stereotypical discourse. Stereotypes become the common understandings journalists turn to when making sense of events as they happen. Misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge fuel negative portrayals. Under tight deadlines and the frenzy that accompanies breaking news events, it becomes increasingly easy to draw on these stereotypes. Add to that a lack of voices to correctly represent the Muslim community and you have the perfect recipe for misrepresentation.

Muslims like any other community in the world have a number of positive things happening within the diverse worldwide community every day. Why, then, do a few negative incidents come to define the overarching narrative about the community? Why do discussions about Islam in the media always tend to focus on issues of violence, terrorism, oppression and radicalism? Why does no one talk about the incredible spirit of volunteerism present in the Muslim community? Why aren’t there reports of achievements by Muslims in mainstream society? Why aren’t there discussions about campaigns and new projects in the community?

Part of this can definitely be attributed to mainstream media news values and a newsroom culture that has been shaped by years of similar practices driven by stereotypes and misunderstandings. But part of the blame also lies within our own community. The fact is, very few of us step up to try to change this narrative either by engaging with the mainstream media or by producing our own. Some of the ways we can try to change this narrative include having discussions with and sending letters to those in the mainstream media; by providing the mainstream media access to authentic Muslim voices to represent us; by working with the mainstream media either as journalists, producers, anchors, writers, commentators and analysts; and by producing and supporting our own media.

Communicating with the mainstream media

This is one of the most common strategies Muslims have used to counter and respond to negative stereotyping of the community in the mainstream media. Individuals in the community and representative organizations have often written letters to the editor to be published or letters to media management to complain about the misrepresentation of Muslims in the media and suggest areas of improvement.

National advocacy organizations like the Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) have often issued statements, sent letters and press releases to mainstream media organizations to complain about or respond to any misrepresentations of Muslims and Islam. These statements have often followed events in the national and global news for example, the terrorist attack at the Charlie Hebdo office in France and the Ottawa shooting at Parliament Hill, as well as responding to specific statements in the media or specific coverage in the media that was found to be biased. Among some of the aims these organizations mention is the goal of monitoring local and national media to challenge stereotypes about Islam and Muslims.

In addition to national and local Muslim advocacy organizations, individuals have also often written to the mainstream media to complain about or clarify misperceptions about Muslims. As readers and viewers of mainstream media and as active members of society, we should be more active in our engagement with the mainstream media when it comes to identifying and correcting misreporting and misrepresentations about Muslims. When negative events bring Muslims or Islam in the spotlight, one role we can play as individuals and as organizations is to condemn these acts and issue statements about them. We can also respond to specific mainstream media coverage that negatively represents Islam or Muslims in general by drawing attention to problems in such reporting or commentary and clarifying or correcting these misunderstandings. This would involve writing letters/emails to various mainstream media organizations, participating in online and offline campaigns to promote awareness and respond to mainstream media coverage and interacting with these media to draw attention to problematic coverage.

Providing access to authentic Muslim voices

Some journalists and scholars, however, argue that this traditional mode of Muslim engagement with the mainstream media is ineffective. Canadian Muslim journalist, Nazim Baksh, a broadcast producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) wrote an essay suggesting a strategy of moving beyond what he calls this traditional method of “confrontation and accusations”. His essay titled “Beyond Flak Attack: A New Engagement with the Newsroom” discusses how this strategy whereby Muslims “launch letter-writing campaigns, file complaints to the media-licensing bodies or the Ombudsman, and initiate boycotts and protests” serves to “deepen the chasm between Muslims, whether they live in majority or minority societies, and the Western mass media.”

Baksh writes: “To get past this impasse Muslims must abandon a media strategy that targets journalists with allegations of bias, lies, bigotry, racism and prejudice. Such accusations are usually interpreted as deeply personal in nature and perhaps will, more often than not, force journalists to defend their reports, even when they contain a mountain of factual mistakes, innuendos, generalizations, and stereotypes.”

Baksh does not advocate a complete end to what he calls media flak, but he proposes the strategy of establishing a Muslim equivalent of the Institute for Public Accuracy (IPA) to effectively get alternative messages into the mainstream media. The IPA, which was set up in the late 1990s with the aim of ensuring that certain issues of public policy were addressed in the mainstream media, utilized the media’s dependence on a body of experts to provide analysis and commentary. The organization maintained a detailed and constantly updated database of producers, commentators and journalists at media organizations across North America and whenever there would be a breaking news event it would send out a list of experts that it wanted to promote to provide comment on a number of issues in the news. Baksh says that a Muslim equivalent of such an organization would be able to shape stories in the mainstream media by providing its own body of experts to the mainstream media.

A somewhat similar suggestion was recently put forward by renowned Islamic scholar Yasir Qadhi on his Facebook page where he encouraged members to e-mail mainstream media organizations with the names of Muslim voices they think represent them. Qadhi pointed to the fact that the media often do not know who to choose to interview as experts and commentators from the Muslim community and most of the time pick people who have been in the spotlight often for negative reasons. “If you want more mainstream voices to be heard on national media, such as CNN, NPR, and others, then YOU the people must tell these agencies who you want. Rather than having some crazy fanatics, or people with strange views, or people who don’t even believe in our faith, represent us, we need to pressure these news agencies to put on mainstream Muslims who can vocalize what we believe,” Qadhi wrote on his page.

By drawing the mainstream media’s attention towards experts that we think represent us, we can try to prevent the misrepresentation and misunderstandings that often result from the lack of authentic Muslim voices in the mass media.

Working with the mainstream media

While there are very few authentic Muslim voices contacted as commentators and experts by the mainstream, there are fewer Muslims who work in the mainstream media as journalists, reporters, producers, editors and writers. In order to have Muslim perspectives in the mainstream media, we need to have Muslims working within those media.

When Muslims work as journalists, editors, writers, reporters and producers we have more chance of having the correct representation of Muslims and their issues. If we always have someone else telling our stories, as outsiders looking in, we cannot expect the correct representation of our issues. This applies as much to the entertainment media as it does to the news media. For many ordinary North Americans who do not know Muslims in real life, their only source of having any perception about this community is shaped by what they see in the media. If they always see Muslims as terrorists, ignorant oppressors and criminals, this is how they will be viewing us. Changing these perceptions involves working on representing the average Muslim to the average reader or viewer. We need the media to cover more stories about everyday happenings in the Muslim community. We need them to cover Muslim charities doing commendable work in their communities. We need them to cover Muslim members of congress and councillors and the work they are doing for their communities. We need them to cover Muslim sportsmen and sportswomen and their struggles and achievements. We need them to represent Muslims as ordinary Americans and ordinary Canadians and as beneficial members of society. We need ordinary Muslims featured in films, movies and sitcoms. We need to see more Muslims as neighbours, friends, store owners and chefs etc. in the movies and shows that are broadcast in the average North American household. And this would only be possible when we have Muslims working in the media who can bring out these stories and depictions from within their community with the correct perspective.

More Muslims need to train as journalists and work in the mainstream media. We also need members of our community who may be experts in their field like Islamic scholars, human rights activists, lawyers, academics, sociologists, psychologists, diplomats etc. to work with the mainstream media as commentators and analysts. This would include giving interviews as experts and writing features and op-ed pieces when comments are needed in their area of expertise.

Producing and supporting our own media

In addition to working with the mainstream media, we must also have our own media. It is true that ownership and established practices have a major effect on the goals of different media and consequently the kind of content they run. And that is why, even if we try very hard to engage with the mainstream media and even work with them, we will be unable to have a complete representation of all our issues in their proper context.

The mainstream media with their wide audience are not interested in covering the day to day stories of different communities. One cannot even realistically expect them to cover all the issues and stories of each different community in the world or a given region of the world. Stories that are important to our community, like for example, the opening of a new mosque or Islamic center in an area or a national Islamic convention in the country may not necessarily be of interest to the mainstream media’s wide and diverse audience. Therefore, in order for our stories to be told and in order to have a place where we can discuss and debate issues of importance specifically to our community, we must have our own media. Having our own media lets us have a platform to write our own narrative, tell our own stories, and to tell them the way we want to tell them, discuss and debate issues of importance to our community and foster a sense of identity and unity among its members. In addition to this, our own media can help counter stereotypes and misrepresentation promoted in the mainstream media and address specific cases of misrepresentation in the mainstream media. Our own media can in this way serve as effective alternatives to the mainstream media.

Although there are a number of such Muslim media in existence today, and a number of them have populated the Muslim media landscape in the past but have been discontinued due to sustainability issues, the need for more such media is always there. Muslim media like newspapers, magazines, websites, blogging websites, radio shows, television shows, podcasts and video streaming sites have performed important functions in the communities they served. They have given a voice to the marginalized, countered stereotypes, educated, informed and raised awareness about important issues, triggered valuable debates in the community, negotiated identity, fostered political and social engagement and simply provided a platform for a number of stories that would otherwise have not been read or heard.

However, many of these Muslim media that have existed in the past were unable to survive the financial and workforce challenges that are a part of the journalism industry and the history of the Muslim media in North America has been spotty and inconsistent with very few long lasting initiatives. That is where our second role comes in with regards to these media: that of supporting our own media. Why are Muslim media so inconsistent and financially unstable? Why do they find it so difficult to survive? Why do most of them close down due to “financial problems”? Without support from the community, these media are bound to run into such problems. Our community has a number of successful businesses and members who are working with major multinational corporations and those that have been blessed with many resources and skills. Why do we not support our own media by allotting a portion of our advertising budgets to them? Why don’t we support them with donations? Why don’t we volunteer our time and services to helping our own media?

Until we as a community take responsibility for our media and for representations of our community in the mainstream media, we will not be able to change the narrative about Islam and Muslims. It is easy to sit and complain and have armchair discussions about how the media is misrepresenting us, but it is difficult to actually do something about it. As individuals, organizations and communities we need to step up and play our part.

An edited version of this article was published in Spider magazine, Dawn, April 2012. 

New communication technologies have always driven change in the media world. From Guttenberg to the internet – the media realm has undergone drastic transformations with each new medium bringing methodologies and techniques that have contributed to defining and shaping the nature of journalism itself.

Come the age of the internet and web 2.0 and we are witnessing a media metamorphosis like none other before. Not only has the digital age made information dissemination faster and more efficient, it has fundamentally altered the direction of this information-flow. Gone are the days when information used to flow in a one-way stream “top-down” from the powerful media barons to the passive audiences. Now, thanks to the social media boom, the audiences are actively influencing the kind of content that is aired and published in addition to producing that content themselves. A technologically empowered public has given birth to a new form of journalism all together, popularly called “participatory journalism”, “grassroots journalism”, “citizen journalism” or “crowd sourcing”.

Social media platforms like blogs, micro-blogging sites like Twitter and social networks like Facebook, MySpace, Reditt etc are at the pinnacle of this new media revolution. The development of user friendly, low-cost or free online content management tools like Blogger, Blogspot, WordPress, Tumblr etc have helped facilitate the rapid growth and popularity of independently managed websites that are now sharing the role traditionally occupied by the mainstream media.

While some established media owners and professionals have responded to this new “invasion of the audiences” with suspicion, skepticism and even derision, others have gladly accepted it and integrated new media into the newsroom. For those not willing to embrace technology and the change it seeks in methodology and content, the future appears bleak. Audiences, readers or subscribers are now empowered by the multiple choices available in the marketplace that are faster at disseminating news. Add to that the collapse in advertising revenue faced by a large number of media organizations globally and you have the perfect formula that spells the demise of traditional print. Internet journalism in the form of news websites utilizing multi-media platforms, blogs and citizen journalism are now taking the place of mainstream print media.

The diminishing importance of print has been abetted by the competition from television news. News that makes it to the next day’s newspaper has already been broken and repeatedly broadcast on television and news websites. What little role of analysis and in-depth reporting print provided over television news from yesterday is now being taken over by news websites and blogs. By the time a story makes it to the newspaper the next day, it has already been covered with all possible angles on television and print.

Anyone with even a little exposure to today’s social media would be able to vouch for how social networks and micro-blogging platforms like Facebook and Twitter have been effective mediums for breaking news along with providing discussions and analysis. A number of major news events have been broken and reported in-depth on the social media by citizens. A major example is the news of Osama bin Laden’s killing which was first reported on Twitter by a Pakistani blogger Sohaib Athar when he unknowingly live tweeted the entire episode as US helicopters raided Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Upset by the noise of helicopters in his neighbourhood late at night, he tweeted “Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM”. After a number of tweets that served as a live report for the entire raid, Athar tweeted “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who live blogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”

Similarly, reports of a number of bomb blasts have often made it to Twitter first before being reported on the local media. The Mumbai terror incident was also reported first on the social media. Describing the role played by Twitter in breaking the news, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone described how the first Twitter report of the ground shaking during earthquake tremors in California came nine minutes before the first Associated Press alert. “During the earthquake I am referring to, there was a lot of depth reporting as well – 36,000 separate updates on Twitter, which is the equivalent of a fifty thousand word book in terms of content size. And I’m confident that had the quake been worse, the next step would be in journalists using it to find human-interest stories.”

Other incidents that deserve special mention are those concerning the role of Twitter in the Iranian election protests of 2009 and in the Arab Spring movement. When protests broke out after the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in Iran, the government moved to suppress dissent and censor the traditional media. However, tweets by Iranian citizens evaded that censorship and delivered to the world real time updates happening on Iran’s very streets. U.S. State Department officials also asked Twitter to delay a scheduled network upgrade in order to keep receiving information about the protests inside Iran. Mainstream media outlets, facing reporting constraints due to the media crackdown in the country, turned to social media to gather information. News websites like those of The New York Times, The Guardian and CNN incorporated Twitter feeds into their reports with unverified information and videos from citizens in Iran. The Arab Spring was also chronicled via tweets from the people themselves many of which were utilized by the mainstream media.

Media around the world and in Pakistan too have begun to realize the importance of technology and the social media. In addition to introducing citizen journalism segments like CNN’s iReport and DawnNews’ ‘Citizen Journalist’, many news organizations have begun monitoring Twitter for news updates, trends, feedback and to find and create stories. Some journalists have also turned to Twitter, Facebook and other social media to find sources for stories along with its use to report the news and share links. There is also a relatively recent trend being witnessed in the Pakistani media of incorporating Tweets into news reports. Major news events are being live reported with tweets and social media reactions forming a sizable part of such reports.

While these trends show how new technologies and new journalism concepts are being embraced by the mainstream media, there is a need for the media to be cautious in its use of social media. Concerns about credibility and ethics are not unfounded. There is always much risk of inaccuracy, deliberate misinformation and spin. As one of the fundamental principles of journalism holds, being right trumps being first. Only organizations that are able to adapt themselves to changing technology and at the same time hold on to the essential principles of journalism will be able to survive in the future.

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, May 20, 2011.

I remember the general reaction in the newsroom the day the news of the operation that killed Osama bin Laden broke. There was relief, felicitations of ‘Mubarak ho!’ and the excitement of covering what was perhaps one of the biggest stories of the year.

Throughout the day, and the days following the incident, I noted people’s reactions. While some openly celebrated the news, others quietly welcomed the news with relief, adding however that it was against their principles to celebrate death.

Sure, there was shock and anger against the political and military leadership and condemnation about the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty, but I did not come across a single person who hailed Bin Laden as a ‘hero.’

Sure, there were some who questioned the media’s account and said that if the media’s portrayal and reporting about this terrorist figure were true, then it was indeed good news, but no one I met or spoke to supported the al Qaeda kingpin’s ideology or praised his actions which led to the killing of thousands of innocent people.

Sure, there were conspiracy theories questioning whether Bin Laden was really dead, but there was no one who vowed to become another Bin Laden and avenge his death.

Interestingly however, when the international media tried to find out how Pakistanis were reacting to the news, the world saw an entirely different picture from what was just related above.

There were reports of “scores of people” taking to the streets to pay homage to the al Qaeda chief and calling for war against America.

There were pictures of enraged people shouting anti-American slogans and burning down US flags.

There were quotations from children calling Osama their hero and wishing to grow up to be like him.

Many of us were baffled by the coverage of reactions to the killing – they were completely misrepresenting the general viewpoint of Pakistanis. Pakistani newspapers welcomed the death in Op-eds and editorials, but news reports showed that the general population was idolising Bin Laden and were angered by his death. The same reports barely mentioned the other side of the story. There were no quotes from people who had welcomed the news or more so, were indifferent to it. The media seemed to be giving the impression as if all of Pakistan was supporting Bin Laden barring a few “intellectual elite” who were celebrating his death.

The incident taught us something about balanced reporting and media agenda setting that often tends to ignore this. Most media organisations (and wires services specifically) often have conventional patterns of reporting that they operate under, consciously or subconsciously. The dominant narrative and the underlying motive to have a “juicy” story that “sells” lead them to focus on a small pocket of people who support that narrative.

Why did no reporter speak to people who cared less whether Bin Laden was dead or alive because it made no difference to their daily lives?

Why did no reporter speak to the victims of terrorism whose lives have been ruined by terrorists supporting al Qaeda’s ideology?

Why did no reporter speak to investors and businessmen whose interests are hurt every time there is a terrorist attack in the country?

One wonders if there really is any such thing as objective journalism.

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, November 28, 2011.

When the Airblue flight ED 202 crashed into the Margalla hills, there was a barrage of criticism against the media reportage of the incident. Sensationalist, unethical and downright insensitive were the allegations against the Pakistani media, and to be honest, they were not misplaced.

From boasting to be the first ones to have broken the news to showing gory footage of blood and body parts, running after families of the victims for juicy soundbytes depicting their pain and giving false hope by airing incorrect reports of survivors, the media certainly had a chargesheet of complaints against it, and justifiably so.

Bloggers and Twitter users in the Pakistani cyberspace were the first ones to jump up and attack the media for its insensitivity and lack of ethics. Twitter was awash with criticism and so were blogs. There were calls to rein in the media and complaints that the freedom everyone had so passionately fought to get for the media was being misused. But yesterday, when another plane crashed in Karachi, I saw the whole situation in an entirely new light. When I logged on to Twitter to check tweets about the crash while updating the story on the website, I realised that it is not only the media that was unethical and insensitive.

People jump at tragedy, and they jump at conspiracy and spicy bits of information all the more. Amid the chaos of sifting through tweets that carried information and perspective about the crash I also came across numerous tweets like these:

Who cooked up the name CHIPA 😉 its a weird name for an ambulance service #karachi – still cant stomach it

This guy says he heard heavy gun fire just b4 plane crashed in #Karachi / w00t now the fun starts, UFOs?

no it wasn’t a UFO. it was HAARP or probably a missile by militants or blackwater

me likes the Blackwater twist > do you think Blackwater had anything to do with #Karachi 😉 [jking]

I do not blame the entire Twitter community nor would I judge thesebloggers based on a single incident. There were indeed a lot of serious and helpful updates on Twitter that helped spread awareness and possibly assisted reporting and rescue efforts. But, one thing that I did realise after this experience was that media’s sensationalism does not exist in a vacuum. Media barons and decision makers prefer to air gore, tragedy, sex and controversy because the readers and audience like it. Spicy bits of information are highlighted because those are things the readers and viewers jump at. Masala and sensationalism gets the highest number of hits because readers enjoy it. So, can we blame the media for what people want to see and read?

Perhaps all of us need a dose of ethics.

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, November 9, 2010.

The last few days have been busy for people in the news media, with bomb blasts, a plane crash and the tragic final homecoming of a prominent political leader. There was a lot happening and it wasn’t all good news. Yet, paradoxically, the days were what we in the news media have come to term ‘good news days’.

Before you start shooting at me for being another one of those insensitive journalists who cash in on people’s miseries, let me assure you we in no way consider the news to be good.

Covering and reporting such tragic events is no easy feat. We have to keep our personal feelings and emotions aside. We don’t have time to be shocked at the enormity of a disaster or show disbelief at who in the world would target worshippers at a mosque.

No sir, we have to be on our toes and get to work immediately. The reason – because, you, the readers and the viewers expect us to deliver all the information we have as soon as we can and in the best way we can. And it is you who anxiously seek the ‘bad news’.

So, days with a lot of bad news become days that people turn more to the media, and that gives us a chance to deliver – hopefullyresponsibly.

Hence by extension, ‘bad news’ equals a ‘good news day’ for the media. It’s when the flow of the news is fast enough to fill the airwaves, the news space and get more hits on the website.

It’s the day when you do not have to go hunting for new and exciting stories; when your boss isn’t angry at you for not keeping things moving and when you have the maximum number of visitors on the website.

It’s the day when the old maxim ‘bad news sells’ is proven true. But it’s also the day when despite the buzz and excitement of working on a big story, there is a nagging sensation inside, hoping that as you write those stories, you do not lose the human that was once sensitive to the pain and shock that accompany such news events.

Published in The Express Tribune – blog, July 15, 2010.

Recent happenings on the US media front have once again raised the debate about media freedom. The sacking of CNN Middle East Editor Octavia Nasr is one case in point. Who would have thought a 140 character tweet on a popular micro-blogging website would rule out 20 years of a journalism career? But it did. All hail freedom of speech.

Senior Middle East Editor for CNN, Octavia Nasr was forced to resign following a controversial tweet she made extolling the Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. In the tweet Nasr said “Sad to hear of the passing of Sayyed Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah… One of Hezbollah’s giants I respect a lot.”

After the tweet drew a raucous reaction on Twitter and ultimately the media landscape, Nasr followed it up with  a blog post on expressing “deep regret” for her tweet about the man considered the spiritual guide of Hezbollah and who figured on a US “terrorist” list. She admitted that it was an error of judgment for her to write such a simplistic comment and apologised that it conveyed that she supported Fadlallah’s life’s works.  “That’s not the case at all,” she wrote.

However, CNN had already decided that Nasr would be leaving the company as her “credibility had been compromised.”

While one can debate whether the comments Nasr made were appropriate or not or whether admiring some of Fadlallah’s work would indeed reflect support of the terrorist ideology, one cannot deny that the incident has revealed fault lines in a media that prides itself for being free.

Last month, White House correspondent Helen Thomas retired after her comments about Israel brought her under fire. And we are all too familiar with the sacking of General Stanley McChrystal for speaking against US President Barack Obama’s policies in Afghanistan.

These incidents have raised important questions about media freedom and journalistic ethics. How free are journalists to hold their own opinions? How free are they to voice these opinions in forums other than those in their respective media organisations that demand objectivity as a requisite of their professions? Should media persons be fired just for stating their opinion on private or alternative forums?

What I see is a blurring of boundaries between the private and the public; the merging of a journalist’s media identity with his/her private identity; and the setting up of a system Orwell described as the ‘Thought Police’ that effectively filter out all conflicting viewpoints such that all ‘thought’ that is allowed to exist is only that which supports the dominant viewpoint.

Is objectivity being used to justify the elimination of all opinion? Are journalists allowed to hold and express their own opinions?

These are questions that need answers and the answers must come from the media itself. Because, this time, that is where the problem lies.

Published in South Asia magazine, June 2010.

Television in Afghanistan has taken a big leap forward and there are reasons to believe that it has a bright future ahead. It was viewed with suspicion before and it still is by some. Television in Afghanistan has managed to make its mark in a country that has been devastated by years of conflict and war, with an economy and infrastructure that place it among the poorest countries of the world.

Afghanistan depends on international aid for 90 per cent of its expenditure, with approximately 53 per cent of its population living below the poverty line. Yet, television has managed to touch the lives of many people.

A study of Afghanistan’s five urban provinces in 2007 found that about two-thirds of the population watched television every day or almost every day. From virtual scratch that broadcasters started in 2001 to the new array of channels and programs that the country boast of today, television in Afghanistan is no doubt a phenomenal development. Official figures in 2009 showed that there were 16 broadcast channels in the country, including one state-run and 15 private channels.

The television channels operating within the country provide a variety of programs for their audiences. Afghans have the opportunity to choose between cooking shows, reality shows, news, cartoons, crime shows, Turkish soap opera, Iranian drama and the popular Indian soaps that have managed to attract a great following even in this conservative Muslim society. Many foreign programs are dubbed in the local language.

The content of these channels comprises a mix of locally produced programs as well as foreign recorded ones. Indian music, films and soaps are the most popular. Viewers usually settle down after 7:30 pm to watch the stories of conniving female protagonists of Indian soaps in saris and clothes considered to be immodest in Afghan culture.

But here is where the restrictions step in. According to official censorship policies, Afghan television channels are not allowed to show immodestly clad females. But since Indian soaps are the top-rated programs, broadcasters have worked out a crude yet practical method to get around the government restrictions without taking these most watched shows entirely off air – they employ pixilators whose job is to add a blotchy strip of camouflage to obscure bare arms, midriffs and legs.

There remain, however, television channels that ignore government restrictions and have drawn the ire of the authorities as well as religious elements who view foreign as well as some locally produced shows as contravening religious, cultural and social norms. Media freedom bodies and many media organizations themselves complain that in Afghanistan media continues to be “under the government’s thumb.”

Nonetheless, the current state of the television industry in Afghanistan is indeed a big leap from the days of the Taliban when, according to reports in the Western media, even owning a television was a crime.

A particularly commendable initiative in Afghan television is the reality show “Fikar wa Talash” (Dream and Achieve) in which contestants pitch in business ideas before a panel of judges and get cash rewards to start their own business if they win. By encouraging Afghans to start their own businesses, the show contributes positively to country’s economy and society.

The mushrooming of television channels in Afghanistan, in addition to providing locals an escape outlet from the monotonous drudgeries of everyday life, has also contributed to this underdeveloped economy. Advertising revenue has started coming in and new job opportunities have sprung up. There is no doubt that international investors are also eyeing the opportunity to jump into this lucrative market.

Media owners in Afghanistan must focus on creating a lasting media in the country that serves a constructive role by contributing positively to the society and offering more than just frivolous content.

A cross-national analysis of 108 non-news articles from nine newspapers across the world


Extremism, fundamentalism, terrorism and other related terms are at the heart of global media discourse since the past few years. The press has been fundamental in shaping our attitudes and perceptions regarding these issues by effectively defining and redefining these concepts for us. This research attempts to explore how the global press is defining and framing extremism and its variants by using a quantitative and qualitative analysis of texts of 108 non-news articles picked up from nine newspapers across the world. Findings revealed that a variety of loaded terminologies were being used to define extremism and its opposing concepts and that media definitions were often influenced by dominant political discourse. Extremism was found to be talked about majority of the time in relation to Islam and Muslims. A growing trend of associating extremism to religious adherence, symbols and education was also found. Western newspapers from the U.S. and U.K were often found to associate extremism to being anti-West and moderation to being pro-West and had among the highest instances of association of extremism to Islam.


The media play a fundamental role in educating audiences about various social realities. The question of how the media mediate between the external objective reality and our perception of social reality has been one of the major themes of Mass Communication research. There has been particular interest in the ‘reality definition’ function of the press. The press has been instrumental in educating readers, creating awareness about issues, defining our perceptions of reality and changing attitudes.

The role of language in reporting and discussing particular topics is also one of importance in media studies. How the use of terminologies and language in the media is in accordance with dominant political discourse in society and how this subsequently shapes media portrayals and definitions is another important aspect of this debate.

Of late, there has been a lot of focus on topics like extremism, moderation and terrorism in the media. The press has been at the centre of shaping our perceptions and attitudes regarding these issues. The media not only report incidents of terrorism and militancy, they have also come to define these concepts for us.

The purpose of this research is to examine how the global press is defining extremism and its various linguistic variations. The sample comprised a collection of 108 non-news articles (including columns and editorials) picked from 9 publications across different countries from different regions of the world. 12 write-ups were selected from each newspaper on the basis of a convenience sample with the criteria of selecting articles using one or more of a variety of terminologies relating to extremism.

The newspapers were selected on the basis of circulation figures as well as off-record hegemony. A further limitation that emerged in determining selection was the condition that the newspaper that was to be used had to have a website and subsequently, an online archive providing free access to the ‘Comment’ or ‘Opinion’ section of that publication for the period of time covered in the study. The comparative cross-national analysis allows for a study of differing perceptions and concept frames in different countries and different contexts. The study uses a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis of the media texts selected in the sample.

Extremism, fundamentalism, radicalism, fanaticism, terrorism etc are elusive terms and it is difficult to attach one single meaning to them. We know that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter and we have also seen that yesterday’s terrorists can be today’s statesmen.

While a search fails to bring up much about the origins of the term ‘extremism’, there seems to be some amount of material available on the origins of the term ‘fundamentalism’. The term ‘fundamentalism’ has been used in so many contexts that its origins have been obscured. Like other scholarly terms that have entered general usage (‘Charisma’ for example), popularity has resulted in a degradation of the meaning of the term as well as questionable applications (Weinberg and Pendahzur, 2004). The origins of the term ‘fundamentalism’ lie firmly in American Protestantism. After a lengthy debate about evolutionary biology and creation, the Protestant denominations gradually separated into ‘modernists’ who argued that believers needed to adapt to the findings of science and scholarship, and ‘traditionalists’ or anti-modernists who insisted upon maintaining the older views of revelation and biblical inerrancy. As the struggles between the two groups progressed, the views of anti-modernists were articulated in a set of pamphlets published between 1910 to 1915, under the title of ‘The Fundamentals’. Gradually, those who supported this position began to term themselves ‘fundamentalists’ (Weinberg and Pendahzur, 2004).

The absence of one agreed meaning for the aforementioned terms in current usage is readily apparent. But in the presence of such a case, these terms lend themselves to more manipulation and engineering by the dominant political and media elite of a society. In the post September 11 scenario, these terms have acquired more political connotations and are actively being defined and redefined by the media. These definitions are not always correct as the media have a tendency to be shaped by dominant political discourse. In the present day scenario, these terms have in fact become political terms to create hysteria against certain groups.

Well-known journalist, Robert Fisk, the London-based Independent’s Middle East correspondent describes this quite well when he writes:

““terrorism” no longer means terrorism. It is not a definition; it is a political contrivance. “Terrorists” are those who use violence against the side that is using the word. The only terrorists whom Israel acknowledges are those who oppose Israel. The only terrorists the United States acknowledges are those who oppose the United States or their allies. The only terrorists Palestinians acknowledge—for they too use the word—are those opposed to the Palestinians.” (Fisk, 1990)

The content of newspapers is not really facts about the world, but in a very general sense ‘ideas’ and in this, language is not neutral but a highly constructive mediator (Fowler, 1991). The language the media use can help shape opinions and perceptions and consequently influence action against certain groups in society. By repeatedly associating certain phenomena through use of language and terminology, the media are able to shape definitions of phenomena. And with the immense power and ubiquity that the media have acquired today, it becomes increasingly important to monitor how the media are defining certain terms and what stereotypes and notions they are creating.

A principle that has been long understood by propagandists is that a lie which is repeated often enough becomes widely accepted as truth (Rampton and Stauber, 2003) and that by repeated associations of two or more phenomena the desired concepts tend to acquire commonsense status in a society.

Walter Lippmann’s concept of ‘manufacturing consent’ (a term popularised by the works of Noam Chomsky) is an interesting angle that can be applied to this debate. The concept contends that in democratic societies, the less the state is able to employ violence in the interests of the elite groups that effectively dominate it, the more it becomes necessary to devise techniques of “manufacture of consent” (Chomsky, 1986).

Chomsky (1986) puts forward that one way of “manufacturing consent” is to devise an appropriate form of “Newspeak” in which crucial terms have a technical sense divorced from their ordinary meanings. The term “newspeak” was coined by George Orwell to describe words “deliberately constructed for political purposes: words, that is to say, which not only had in every case a political implication but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them.”

Orwell was an ardent observer of the relationship between politics and language. In one of his collections, he wrote: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of atom bombs in Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” (Orwell, 1970).

Chomsky (1986) uses the example of the phrase “peace process” to explain the idea of “newspeak”. According to how the term is used in the mass media and the U.S. scholarship, “peace process” means peace proposals advanced by the U.S. government in the context of the Middle East crisis. If the Palestinians, for example, refuse to accept the U.S. terms of the peace process, they are in effect described as rejecting peace in accordance with the “newspeak.” The desired conclusion follows, whatever the facts (Chomsky, 2007).

Similarly, Chomsky (2007) uses the example of another pair of “newspeak” concepts very relevant to the current study: “extremist” and “moderate”. U.S. policy is by definition “moderate” so that those who oppose it are “extremist” and “uncompromising.” The Israeli Labour coalition position then (in 1986) according to Chomsky’s description of “newspeak” was also “moderate” as it conformed to the position of the U.S.

“The terms “terrorism” and “retaliation” also have a special sense in U.S. “newspeak.” “Terrorism” refers to terrorist acts by Arabs, not Israel or the U.S.” (Chomsky, 1986). Terms like “preventing” or “reducing” violence also have another special sense in the context of Arab-Israeli conflicts. In one case for example, the Israeli and U.S media defined the attempt by villagers to run their own affairs as “violence” and a brutal attack to teach them who rules as “reducing violence.”

In his book ‘Imperial Ambitions: Conversations in the Post 9/11 World’, Noam Chomsky (2005) gives another example of an American journalist (a Middle East correspondent with tremendous experience) who writes in his article that the U.S. must be the only country in the world where someone can be called a terrorist for defending his own country from attack.

Media portrayals of concepts in many cases are influenced by the dominant cultural meanings attached to them, what in other words Orwell described as political language. People’s opinions and conceptions are often shaped by the mass media and the mass media themselves often follow dominant political discourses that support the actions of hegemonic powers. At the same time, media discourse often plays an important role is establishing and maintaining power relations in societies.

The media often have set conventional patterns of reporting and even opinion and analysis that they follow in covering events. Van Dijk (1988) calls these set patterns cognitive scripts and models of behaviour shaped by the experience and narration of previous events. These cognitive structures are shaped by dominant cultural, political and religious worldviews and the media often follow them even when covering some of the most atypical of occurrences.

The media play an important role in lending salience to various issues. We have all heard of terms like “media frenzy”, “media hype” and “moral panic”. While popular mass communication theories like Agenda-setting theory contend that while the media may not be successful most of the time in telling us what to think, they are stunningly successful in telling readers or audiences what to think about (Cohen, 1963), there are other theorists who are now arguing that media are stunningly successful in telling us not only what to think about, but how to think about it (McCombs, 2003).

We see that certain events and issues tend to become fodder for newspapers and the electronic media with reporting, commentary and analysis about them being done at unprecedented levels. In this way, the media become active participants in the course of events, shaping and creating events as they report. At many times, media involvement in the sense of reporting can have a significant effect on the event itself and even the outcome. The media therefore, are said to be actively involved in what Thompson (1995) called “constituting the social world.”

The media thus often generate news waves by lending an issue increased attention, amplifying it and creating ‘hype’ about it, subsequently influencing action regarding it. Pakistani society has often seen this sort of media generated news wave at incidences of violence in the city and those relating to threats to law and order etc.

The Pakistani media just like the global media have been giving a lot of attention to extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism. If one takes a look at any edition of any newspaper in this day and age, one will undoubtedly come across some mention or the other of extremism and terrorism. In this age of the ‘looming threat of terror’ and increased focus on the fanaticism and extremism that causes it, it is almost impossible for a day to go by with no mention of these phenomena in the media.

A Google search of Dawn’s (Pakistan’s topmost English daily newspaper) website turns up some 5400 results for ‘extremism’. A similar search for ‘fundamentalism’ turns up some 782 results on the Dawn website. Similarly, a Google search of the website of The News (Pakistan’s second most prestigious English daily) turns up 1490 results for ‘extremism’ and 203 for ‘fundamentalism’. A Google search of the American most prestigious daily, New York Times, turns up 61800 results for ‘extremism’ and 4950 for ‘fundamentalism’. A similar search done on Britain’s prestigious daily, Telegraph, turns up 3450 results for ‘extremism’ and 1790 for ‘fundamentalism.’ The amount of press coverage and mention given to these issues then is readily apparent.

What propelled the researcher to take up this topic for research was the relatively new debate in Pakistan about progressive liberalism versus religious adherence and conservatism and the tendency among the media and intellectual elites to label all signs of religion as ‘extremism’, ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘radicalism’ etc. The elite press and media of the country have relatively recently engaged themselves in this debate which tends to label all signs of religion as extremism and radicalism. This is done either directly, or indirectly, by associating religion and religious practice and conservatism with the aforementioned terms.

As an example, consider two articles that appeared in the year 2009 in one of the top monthly newsmagazines of Pakistan, Newsline: ‘The Power of the Pulpit’ and ‘The Saudisation of Pakistan’. Both these articles are representative of the popular intellectual discourse about extremism and fundamentalism that is prominent in the elite media of the country.

‘The Power of the Pulpit’, the cover story for that month, by popular journalist and novelist, Muhammad Hanif, stands critical of the growing trend of religious adherence in the society and associates it to ‘Talibanisation’, a neologism that is said to have been coined by the media to describe the increasing influence of the Taliban in the society. He calls the growing trend of religious preaching on Television as a precedent to the rise of militancy in the country. He writes:

“In Karachi, there are frequent warnings that the Taliban are headed this way. There are posters warning us about Talibanisation. Altaf Hussain thunders about them at every single opportunity. But nobody seems to warn us about the preachers who are already here: the ones wagging their fingers on TV always tend to precede the ones waving their guns, smashing those TVs and bombing poor barbers.” (Hanif, 2009, ‘The Power of the Pulpit’, Newsline)

The article, ‘The Saudisation of Pakistan’, by Pervez Hoodboy goes along the same lines, arguing that radicalism is not only a problem in FATA and that Madrassas[1] are not the only “institutions serving as jihad factories”, rather “extremism is breeding at a ferocious rate in public and private schools within Pakistan’s towns and cities”. Hoodboy associates this to the ‘Saudisation’ of the country, its educational curriculum, the building of hundreds of mosques, and the rise in the trend of women wearing the abaya[2] or burqa[3]. By linking religious practice and symbols repeatedly to the debate about rising extremism and militancy, Hoodboy like many other writers in this dominant intellectual discourse in the elite media of the country, includes these elements into the definition of the term extremism and its variations. He writes:

“While social conservatism does not necessarily lead to violent extremism, it does shorten the distance. The socially conservative are more easily convinced that Muslims are being demonised by the rest of the world. The real problem, they say, is the plight of the Palestinians, the decadent and discriminatory West, the Jews, the Christians, the Hindus, the Kashmir issue, the Bush doctrine – the list runs on. They vehemently deny that those committing terrorist acts are Muslims, and if presented with incontrovertible evidence, say it is a mere reaction to oppression.” (Hoodboy, 2009, ‘The Saudisation of Pakistan’, Newsline)

As another example, we can consider an article by popular columnist, Nadeem F. Paracha, in the most prominent daily of the country, Dawn. In his article titled ‘Nauseous mumblings’, Paracha is again critical of the trend of religious preachers on television and the growing trend of young men and women adorning beards and hijabs[4] respectively, and practising religious rituals. He calls these trends an exhibition of ‘extreme beliefs’. He writes:

“There have been recorded cases against many petty-bourgeois shop-owners and traders of financing jihadi[5] organisations; whereas many sections among the more ‘modern’ bourgeois class have largely exhibited their own version of extreme beliefs by passionately patronising (as supporters and clients), a number of Islamic televangelists and drawing-room preachers whose number has grown two-fold from 1990 onwards.

Consequently, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of young men and women from the middle-class now preferring to adorn beards and hijabs, and taking religious rituals a lot more seriously (compared to the situation till the late 1970s). But this class still constitutes a large number of westernised youth as well.” (Paracha, 2009, ‘Nauseous Mumblings’, Dawn, Images on Sunday)

This trend in the dominant intellectual discourse however is not a feature limited only to Pakistan, although it does come somewhat as a surprise that it is dominant in a majority Muslim country like Pakistan. Karim (2002) in his paper ‘Making sense of the Islamic Peril’ notes how the Northern mass media have the tendency to declare manifestations of Muslim belief such as wearing the hijab and performing the communal Muslim prayer as certain signs of “Islamic fundamentalism,” whereas the wearing of Christian religious apparel or attending church in their own countries are not usually considered signs of fanaticism. “The generalisation and polarisation of all Muslims as “fundamentalists” and “moderates,” “traditionalists” and “modernists,” “fanatics” and “secularists” serve to distort communication. They tend to make the Muslims who are interested in constructive dialogue with non-Muslims apologetic about their beliefs or, contrarily, disdainful about any interaction.”

Karim (2002) also discusses how such situations have been a recurring feature of crisis situations in the relationship between Northern and Muslim societies. He quotes Ahmed (1992) on the example of the “Rushdie Affair” when Muslims who dared criticise any aspect of Salman Rushdie’s controversial book, The Satanic Verses, risked being branded an “Islamic fundamentalist.” After the September 11 terror attack many Muslims living in Western societies were fearful of wearing traditional clothing in public, let alone engaging in discussion with others for fear of being labelled extremists or fundamentalists.

Although some Northern journalists, academics, and politicians do go against this dominant discourse and state repeatedly that Islam is not synonymous with violence or terrorism, their alternative discourses are usually overshadowed by many other opinion leaders who continue to frame information within dominant discourses (Karim, 2000). With such repeated media associations of terrorism, fundamentalism and extremism with symbols of Islamic practice like the hijab and beard, it came as no surprise then that journalists who had made much of turbans and hijabs being symbolic of “Islamic fundamentalism” were baffled that a number of people whom the Taliban had oppressed chose to continue wearing these traditional garments even after the regime was deposed (Karim, 2002).

The purpose of this research, however, is not to come up with a definition for the term extremism or other related terms. It is merely to explore how the global press is defining the term and what meanings are being associated to this concept. Although it may appear that this research is focusing only on the definitions of extremism, fundamentalism and radicalism in the context of Muslims, the research was not designed only with this aspect in mind. The plan was to examine how extremism and other related terms are being defined by the global media in the context of all religions and nationalities. However, a point worth noting—and one having other implications as well—is that most articles found discussing extremism focused on Muslims and most research literature found on the subject was also in the context of Islam and Muslims.

[1] Maddrassa, literally meaning place of study, refers to a traditional Islamic school of higher study  where the Quran and other related sciences are taught.

[2] Abaya refers to a cloak covering the body and clothes worn by Muslim women in public

[3] Burqa refers to a cloak and head-covering worn by Muslim women which often covers the face too

[4] Hijab, literally meaning veil, refers to the adherence of certain standards of modest dress by Muslim women, often referring to the head-covering

[5] Jihadi, literally meaning struggle, in popular discourse has come to refer to those who take up war for Islamic causes

Full thesis

Published in Media Post (University magazine), October 2009.

For Aamir Latif who graduated with a Masters degree from the Department of Mass Communication in the year 1996, his journalism career has been one of numerous achievements. As a student who ‘accidentally’ landed in the Department of Mass Communication, Latif describes himself as “not a journalist by choice”, but one who realised that journalism was his “true calling” once he started studying it. “Actually, I intended to become a Civil Engineer,” recounts Latif. “I had applied at NED University, but did not get in by just a few points. Then, I applied at the University of Karachi (KU) for Applied Chemistry. At that time, all those who did not get into NED had applied at the Department of Applied Chemistry at KU. I had put in Mass Communication as my second choice in the admission form, so I ended up getting into the Department of Mass Communication. When I started studying journalism however, I really enjoyed it and I continued my education and work in this field.”

Today, Latif holds positions in the field that any journalist would aspire for. Not only is he the Bureau Chief for Sindh of Online News Agency, he is also the Pakistan correspondent of US News and World Report, CBS radio and He shares that he has worked for the Washington Times as well.

So, how did he start such an impressive journalism career? Latif was not one of those students who work while completing their degree. He says the only prior experience he had was what his teachers had taught him. “I did write letters to the editors but I did not take up any part time paying job then,” he says. “I started my journalism career from Pakistan Press International (PPI) after completing my degree. At first, I was hired as a reporter there. I was a reporter for health, education, local bodies, political affairs etc. After that, I was promoted to the position of the Bureau Chief.”

When I asked how he got the job at PPI, Latif wittily remarked, “I just barged into the PPI office and met up with Fazal Qureshi who was the Chief Editor at that time. He interviewed me and asked me to translate a report and after that he hired me.” Latif is quick to give credit to Farooq Moin, then Bureau Chief, for having trained him and made him what he is today.

“In 2000, I got a scholarship from George Washington University for a one year diploma in Media and Public Affairs. When I returned to Pakistan in 2001, I joined Online News Agency as Bureau Chief. I was also appointed as Pakistan correspondent of US News and World Report, the third largest magazine in the US, and for CBS radio as well.”

Latif speaks with pride and an overwhelming sense of nostalgia about his alma mater, the University of Karachi. He very fondly recounts his experience at the Department of Mass Communication, remembering teachers like Shahida Kazi, Inam Bari, Sarwar Naseem, Mahmood Ghaznavi, Zakariya Sajid, Tahir Masood and Saleha Bilal for their love and care and for their contribution in making him what he is today.

He advises students to give full respect to their teachers. “They can take you from the earth to the sky,” he says.

Offering further advice to the students, he says, “Never underestimate theory education. Practical education is incomplete without theory in any discipline. Whatever you have been inculcated by your teachers is your strong footing and that will be your asset when you enter the practical field.” Latif also advises students to participate in extra-curricular activities. “Journalists who participate in extra-curricular activities, irrespective of whether it is debates or political activities, have better command over current affairs.” Agreeing that most students are afraid of joining political organisations, Latif says, “Most student organisations do not qualify for the basic criteria of student politics. The criminal element has penetrated our student organisations. Student unions are an inseparable part of education—they make you cognizant, more confident and visionary than other students.”

Asked what qualities he thinks are required to reach the top, Latif promptly replies, “Hard work and vision. The man who is more involved in extra-curricular activities and more in touch with the happenings around him and current affairs will rise.”

Being a journalist involves a lot of hard work and dedication. For Latif, the everyday change element is the most appealing feature of his work. “Every day there is a changed atmosphere and changed ideas,” he shares. “I really enjoy my work. I feel privileged—I have access to the corridors of power and the normal people. I am the bridge between the ordinary people and those in power. Through me, the problems of the ordinary people are communicated to those at the helm, therefore I feel privileged.”

With alumni like Latif out there in the field, the Department of Mass Communication can sure hold its head up high among all the other institutions in the country.


Our conceptions and ideas about life and the things that make up what we call life are shaped not only by our first-hand experiences, but also by the images and ideas we receive through other sources like the media. These media can vary from newspapers and magazines to television, radio, billboards etc. The media play a central role in shaping our conceptions about things. Advertisements are a crucial part of today’s media messages as no form of media is free of their presence.

This paper aims to explore one major area of advertisement portrayals, those of families and family life. The family is an important target market, one of the basic market units. It is due to its strategic importance that marketing management strategy suggests analysing and adapting marketing communications to the family lifecycle, household decision making, consumer socialization, and gender roles in domestic groups, households or families (Arnould, Price and Zinkhan; 2004 as cited in Borgerson et al.; 2007). However, despite the family’s strategic importance, very few studies are found that look explicitly at family as portrayed in marketing communication (Borgerson et al.; 2007) as compared to the exhaustive amount of research into gender and children portrayals.  References to the family are often found within studies into the aforementioned topics.

Advertisements aim to inculcate meanings and according to Fowles (1996), since “meaning exists only in a human context, it makes sense that the majority of advertisements contain images of people…Because advertisements are messages designed to instigate sales, a visitor from another planet might well ask if they are selling people, since images of people typically occupy more of the purchased time and space than do images of commodities.”  In fact, Fowles (1996) cites research by Bretl and Cantor (1988) which shows that an analysis of both morning and evening network commercials determined that 87% contained human beings.

The primary grouping of these human beings is the family, and indeed family is the setting in many advertisements, especially in Pakistan. There are trends, however, in Pakistan and more pronounced in Western societies, of ads being increasingly devoid of any signs of family or family life, with an emphasis on individualism or other reference groups. The non-commodity material or symbolic elements that constitute the appeal in the advertisement, make an ad a compound ad (Fowles; 1996). “The task of the advertisement is to get consumers to transfer the positive associations of the non-commodity material onto the commodity, so that freedom and ruggedness equal Marlboro cigarettes, and friendship equals Bud Light.” Fowles (1996) says that the imagery should thus be congenial as its “meanings are intended to glide over onto the product. Unpleasant imagery is risky and hence rare.” Most often the images therefore, represent idealized depictions.

Sociologist Erving Goffman argued that families are “well adapted to the requirements of pictorial representation. All of the members of almost any actual family can be contained easily within the same close picture, and, properly positioned, a visual representation of the members can nicely serve as a symbolization of the family’s social structure” (Goffman; 1979 as cited in Borgerson et al.; 2007). He suggested that the presence of at least one girl and one boy enables the symbolization of the full set of intra-family relations, including the presumed special bonds between the mother and the daughter as well as between the father and the son (Borgerson et al.; 2007). This description is that of a more conventional family, which is often used in advertisements. However, there are non-conventional families that exist in society and whether or not they are portrayed in advertisements and how, are important questions that will be explored in this paper.

Portrayals of families, family types, the roles and relationships in families, the activities and sense of happiness and bonding in advertisements all affect the perceptions, expectations, relationships and sense of happiness of the viewers and thus, it becomes ever more important to analyse and check what kind of images are used.

Literature Review

Theoretical groundings

Much has been written about family life, its forms and structures, and its representations in the media.  I will first examine some theories that come closest to my study, and then explore the research into portrayals and representations of family life in the media and advertising in particular.

Family forms and images

The family is considered the bedrock of society. In all types of societies, the family has been seen as the most basic unit of social organization and one which carries out vital tasks such as that of socializing children (Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). Although the family is a dynamic social phenomenon varying historically, geographically and culturally, in market societies we tend to be bombarded with images of a particular type of family (Abbott, Wallace and Tyler; 2005).

“Edmund Leach (1967) called this the ‘cereal packet image of the family’ (Leach; 1967 as cited in Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). The image of the happily married couple with two children is prominent in advertising, and the ‘family-sized’ packets of cereals and other types of product are aimed at just this type of grouping. It tends to be taken for granted that this type of family has its needs met by the male breadwinner, while the wife has a predominantly domestic role.” (Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000)

Describing the image of a typical or conventional family, Ann Oakley says “conventional families are nuclear families composed of legally married couples, voluntarily choosing the parenthood of one or more (but not too many) children” (Oakely; 1982 as cited in Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). This sort of nuclear family is considered a ‘basic structural unit of the society’ (Rosser and Harris; 1965 as cited in Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). In such families, “far fewer children are permanently looked after by relatives other than their own parents” (Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). Other family types mentioned by Haralambos, Herald and Holborn (2000) are modified extended family, which is a coalition of nuclear families in a state of partial dependence; the modified elementary family, in which an inner ‘elementary’ family consisting of wives and husbands, their parents, children, brothers and sisters often help each other in difficult times; and the dispersed extended family,  consisting of two or more related families cooperating with each other even though they live some distance apart.

These basic forms of families are considered the typical families, but recent research has suggested that modern industrial societies are characterized by a plurality of household and family types, and the idea of a typical family is misleading (Haralambos, Herald and Holborn; 2000). The other forms of families like single-parent families, same-sex families, couple-without-children households and extended families, although increasingly common in different parts of the world are not seen as normal or desirable (Abbott, Wallace and Tyler; 2005).

A number of changes have also been seen in the structure of the family, including increases in age at marriage, decreases in number of children, and increases in divorce (Kaufman; 1999). By the mid 1980s, only 10% of families in the US were traditional families in which the father worked while the mother stayed home to take care of the children (Levitan, Belous, and Gallo; 1988 as cited in Kaufman; 1999). Women have been expanding their roles to include working outside the home as well as being wives and mothers. At the same time, men’s involvement in more domestic roles has increased (Gershuny and Robinson; 1988 as cited in Kaufman; 1999).

The definition of family thus, as we can see, is relative. What an individual perceives as family may vary depending on his or her ideological and cultural background. Lived experience typically demonstrates more diversity than a ‘traditional family’ definition (Borgerson et al.; 2007).

Media Framing and Social Expectations Theory

“Goffman (1974) proposed that humans make sense of the world using cognitive filters, or frames, and that commercial typifications literally construct popular meanings” (Coltrane and Adams; 1997).  Media analysts use the word “frame” to explain the importance of television imagery. “Generally speaking, a frame acts much the same way in media analysis that a schema does in cognitive psychology by selecting out certain aspects of a perceived reality and making them more salient than others” (Coltrane and Adams; 1997).

Research has shown that media frames help to define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgements, and suggest specific remedies (Snow & Benford; 1988 as cited in Coltrane and Adams; 1997). The extended and repeated exposure to the patterned media framing of events contributes to the perception that what we are viewing is ‘natural and inevitable’. This is how these frames become a part of our taken-for-granted assumptions about how to conduct our lives. (Coltrane and Adams; 1997)

“The mass media are a major source of patterned social expectations about the social organization of specific groups in modern society. That is, in their content they describe and portray the norms, roles, ranking, and sanctions of virtually every kind of group known in contemporary social life”. These portrayals of stable patterns of group life in mass communications, define what people are expected to do when they relate to each other in families, interact with fellow workers, worship, study, purchase consumer goods, and in many other ways take part in community life.  (DeFleur and Ball-Rockeach; 1989)

Portrayals of things like mother-child relationships to those of things like social observances of death help define the expectations that potential members of groups have prior to participation in organized social activities (DeFleur and Ball-Rockeach; 1989). The media frequently portray patterns of social organization in the form of norms, roles, ranking, and sanctions pertaining to specific types of groups. Whether these portrayals are trustworthy or misleading, accurate or distorted, members of the audiences assimilate such definitions and they become their learned sets of social expectations of how members of such groups are expected to behave, they provide guides to action as to how individuals should personally behave towards others playing roles in specific groups, and how others will act towards them in a variety of social circumstances (DeFleur and Ball-Rockeach; 1989).

Social expectations theory is also close to socialization theory in that it accounts for the long-range and indirect influences of the media, and portrays the media as an agent of (unwitting and unplanned) instruction. Put short, social expectations theory is “based on the idea that (1) the media convey information regarding the rules of social conduct that the individual remembers and (2) that directly shapes overt behavior” (DeFleur and Ball-Rockeach; 1989).

Cultivation Analysis

Although relatively few media advertisements have the explicit purpose of teaching values, values are being taught implicitly, particularly by television commercials. The Cultivation Theory of George Gerbner is most useful with respect to answering how media affect social values. “As certain consistent values are repeated in a variety of specific instances, they then cultivate those values in the consumer. How strongly those values are cultivated may sometimes depend on the consumer’s particular uses of the media and what gratifications they are obtaining from that use” (Harris; 2004)

The central argument of this theory is that television ‘cultivates’ or creates a world view that, although possibly inaccurate, becomes the reality simply because people believe it to be the reality and base their judgments about their own everyday worlds on that ‘reality’ (Baran and Davis; 2003).

The ideologies offered in advertisements may not be real, but through constant exposure to them, they become a natural experience for us and we begin to accept them as real (Wilkinson; 2002). Television influences audience perceptions of social reality thereby shaping the audiences culture in terms of how individuals reason and relate with others. These effects include family communication among viewers (Rashid, Spahic and Wok; 2007). “Television contributes to people’s conceptions about family and family life” (Signorielli and Morgan, 2001). In one study, children who frequently viewed family shows were more likely to believe that real life families are supportive and compliant (Beurkel-Rothfuss et al.; 1982 as cited in Vangelisti; 2004).

“Television viewing and conceptions about the world are mutually reinforcing; certain cultural, social and ideological lifestyles and outlooks lead people to watch more television, and the messages they absorb tend to help sustain these outlooks. In short, media portrayals reflect and reinforce (i.e. cultivate) but do not cause changes in views about the nature of family in society” (Signorielli and Morgan, 2001)

Portrayals of Family in ads

The theoretical frameworks just examined offer different insights into how media—and advertising in particular—can portray certain things, lend different meanings to them and ultimately shape audience conceptions, attitudes and expectations. Let’s now take a look at research findings into the different portrayals of family life in advertisements.

Image of the complete and ideal nuclear family

Many advertisements tend to show a traditional or conventional nuclear family. This is especially true for ads in Western societies, where nuclear families are considered to be the ‘conventional’ type of family. Here in Pakistan, and societies like it as India, the more traditional or conventional family set-up is the traditional extended family with two or more families living together (Ejaz, 2008) I will discuss local ads later, let’s take a look first at how the conventional families of Western societies are shown in Western ads.

Most ads that show families in Western societies often picture ‘happy nuclear white middle class families’, with traditionally conventional representations of parents and their gender role divisions where the mother takes care of the house and children while the father works and relaxes at home on holidays. “They have romanticised family life to a point where any child watching could wonder, ‘Why does mummy not buy me that?’ or ‘where is my daddy?’ The truth is that there are no two families the same. The ideal image projected does not exist in such a way. So these representations are not reproducing reality, but representing a global ideal image of family” (Lloyd-Davis, 2002).

In another research, Watson (2001) discusses a British ad of a toy ‘Family Love Doll House’ which is a toy for young girls comprising a plastic mould representing the shape of a house, with miniature furniture and a family. The ad portrays a family in the form of a toy that is the product the ad is aimed for. The family in this toy shows a man, woman, young girl, smaller boy and a baby son, along with a dog. The family lives in a large suburban style detached house with large rooms and facilities. The family in this toy ad represents the ‘perfect family’ image. “The family is complete even down to the dog, and this completeness leads to connotations of fulfillment and happiness.  ‘Completeness’ in itself is in direct relation to fulfillment, which is one of our Western, commercialised, consumerist aims.” (Watson; 2001) Respondents to a study (Borgerson et al.; 2007) said that adults with children and dogs (or a dog) represented the portrait of a family in ads, with the inclusion of children signaling a key aspect of the family.

Watson (2001) states that if this family had only one parent the ‘completeness’ would be fractured and the ideal set up by the commercial would be harmed. Likewise, if the commercial had a gay couple as parents. Thus, Watson (2001) shows how ads represent the complete and perfect image of a conventional nuclear family. Data from numerous studies suggest that TV is far more likely to reinforce traditional models of family than to promote non-conventional configurations (Robinson and Skill; 2001)

Images of the ideal nuclear families like those described above have also been a central theme in central state advertising campaigns in countries like India (Fernanades; 2000) and even in Pakistan. The ideal modern Indian family with a father, mother, son and daughter is that visual image that has been a national symbol of the family planning programme in the post-independence period in India (Fenrnades; 2000)

Despite the differences that we see in families in Western ads and those of traditional societies like Pakistan and India, a study (Marquez; 1979) found that at that time the American and Asian advertisements were identical in their treatment of the family. “Almost all of the advertisements which used the family as a graphic device illustrated it as nuclear. This family type appeared in the American advertisements 91.3 % of the time, 95.2 % in Philippine advertisements, and 92.6 % in Thai advertisements. Both nuclear and extended family types were easily distinguishable in that the nuclear family consisted only of parents and their children, while the extended family included grandparents and other relatives.” (Marquez; 1979)

Although the idea of “the family” may be changing in a real-life social context, advertisements still do engage with old-fashioned values and stereotypes in their representations. Advertising executive Jerry Goodis says: “Advertising doesn’t always mirror how people are acting, but how they are dreaming…In a sense, what we’re doing is wrapping up your emotions and selling them back to you” In an ever progressing society, there is a tendency to be nostalgic about past values and ideologies and this is what most ads communicate to us (Wilkinson; 2002).

Happiness linked to family consumption and materialism

In advertisements family happiness is presented as the way of consumption. Children are one of the most basic consumers, for whom the family which is now restructured as the unit of commodity consumers, buys the children’s commodities in order for the children and family to become happy. Children’s happiness which is consumption related is equaled with the happiness of the family. Happy families are shown as those who buy goods and services for the children (Shiraishi; 2004).

When a family consists of the basic man, woman and children and dog, the presence of a big house, large rooms and other material possessions like the Television contributes to the sense of ‘completeness’ as they are whole in terms of relationships and material needs and wants (Watson; 2001).

Ads make people believe that the happy or over-contented families in the ads are so ‘together’ because of a certain type of milk that they choose to drink, a certain tea or cooking oil they opt for or the multi-purpose cleaner they use (Mapara; 2008).

Products are shown as an integral part of showing our love and caring for others. The more closely the advertiser can link the product with natural and positive emotions, the more successful the ad. “A car advertises itself as ‘part of the family’, not merely offering something to the family but actually being part of it.” (Harris; 2004)

Domestic commodities such as automobiles and refrigerators are often associated with gendered or family images. A series of automobile advertisements ‘Man, Woman and Child and Car’ in India (Fernandes; 2000), replaces the traditional or ideological ‘Man, woman, son and daughter’ with a commodity. The traditional or old depiction was one used by state sponsored family planning ads, while the new depiction gives an “association between an idealized tranquility of the nuclear family with status and material comfort” (Fernandes; 2000).

Gender segregation in family roles

Men and women in families portrayed in ads are often shown in stereotypical gender roles like those of the male bread winner and the female housewife. The woman is shown as the housewife in the kitchen or shopping, while the husband works (Lloyd-Davis, 2002).

“The father is not shown to be actively engaged with the children unless it is in play. Whereas the mothers do tend to be active when they are present. If one parent is to be shown, then in adverts related to toys, play or learning it will tend to be the father, who is the fun, authority figure. In adverts related to food or day-to-day activities it will be the mother who is shown. These findings show that although society may be changing in its family ideologies, many old ideals are remaining in advertising. The advertisers rely heavily on stereotypes.” (Wilkinson; 2002)

There is a new movement however, in advertisements of sharing of male and female characteristics. Males are being represented as sensuous and nurturing, while females are represented as strong and confident. “However, the impetus behind much of this nontraditional coding is not a celebration of stereotypical gender traits being supplanted, but rather advertising’s continuing need for a new means to capture and hold the consumer’s attention.” (Kervin; 1990)

From the 1950s through the 1980s researchers have found a lessening of advertising images showing women in the home or in family settings, and an increase in the number of women portrayed in work roles (Bell and Milic; 2002).

Absence of family in Western ads—the rise of individualism

A great change in advertising in the West especially since World War 2 has been “the ascendant motif of the solitary figure” (Fowles; 1996). Illustrations of individuals occur far more frequently than couples, families or friends (Andren; 1978 as cited in Fowles; 1996). The people featured in ads are increasingly devoid of family. “Leiss et al. (1990) discovered that individualism rose steadily over the 20th Century in their sample of Canadian print ads” (Fowles; 1996)

The family does not seem to play a role in many British advertisements nowadays. If the family is represented in advertisements it now tends to be in a nostalgic manner to show the product as having longstanding values or some such message (Wilkinson; 2002).

Portrayal of family interactions and intimacy

A happy family in the ad is a close family (Wilkinson; 2002). Wilkinson (2002) identifies an ad in which the mother is showed as the ‘involved parent’, caring for the children and having a deep bond with them. Respondents to a study (Borgerson et al.; 2007) said that the presence of physical contact and closeness generally gave the various people the appearance of families. Among the ‘family cues’ was closeness and children.

The most pervasive of family values on television is family solidarity including loyalty, support and love for one’s family (Harris; 2004). Short, joyful moments of interaction between families are often caught in the ad (Patel, 2008). Advertisements like the Indian ad of Airtel and the Pakistani one of Everyday Tea Whitener show small gestures and good relationships among couples (Ejaz; 2008).

The Regional Perspective

Many current and old Pakistani advertisements can be identified as having portrayed the family while attempting to market their product. The family has been, beyond doubt, a popular figure featured in many Pakistani advertisements.

Since there is a serious dearth of researches on this subject in Pakistan, and if there are any at all they are very difficult to obtain, I interviewed some personnel from advertising agencies to get an insight into the portrayal of family life in Pakistani advertisements and the reasons for the kind of portrayals one finds.

The family is very popular in Pakistani ads, because every consumer is part of a family one way or the other (Ejaz; 2008). Furthermore, people are very family-oriented in Pakistan and thus many brands prefer focusing more on families as compared to the individual, but whether or not family is shown in the ad depends also on the type of product being advertised (Patel; 2008). “A lot of advertising in Pakistan is feel-good advertising, a lot of it focuses on the soft-sell approach by bringing emotions into it,” therefore, the family becomes a popular figure in ads here (Meenai; 2008).

In fact, many products have basic marketing themes focusing on family and relationships. Their slogans clearly spell out this, like for instance “Yehi tou hai who apna pan” (This is what you call belongingness) of Brooke Bond Supreme, “Rishton ki khushboo” (The fragrance of relationsips) of Soya Supreme Banaspati, “Mukamal Ghar” (Complete household) of Tapal Family Mixture, “Jahan mamta wahan Dalda” (Where there is mother, there is Dalda) etc.

Consider the Brooke Bond Supreme Tea television commercial that shows a joint or extended family sitting together in a traditional style, drinking tea together. The family shown is a middle class family with three generations comprising the grandfather and grandmother, their son and his wife and their children—a young girl of the ‘traditional’ age of marriage and her younger brother. The presence of the grandparents with a couple and their children usually complete the family picture here (Patel; 2008). Brooke Bond Supreme as a brand has been known to focus on families since the beginning with a theme of togetherness and relationships and its ads always show family life. Old brands like Supreme don’t focus only on the new generation, they want to show that they have been here for a long time and hence they show traditional families and portray all age groups in it (Patel; 2008).

What type of family an ad portrays also depends on the target market of the product being advertised. Ads of products for the ‘C’ market usually show joint families (Ejaz; 2008). For example, products like Tapal Family mixture tea or Sunsip Limopani show joint or extended families in their television commercials, comprising mother, father, children, uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents. “Why would they show nuclear families, which people can’t relate to? If a product shows nuclear families, they can’t make the product approachable” (Ejaz; 2008)

But then many Pakistani ads show nuclear families as well. For example, one television commercial of Kashmir Banaspati shows a typical nuclear family of four, so does the television commercial of Knorr Soup and Knorr Make a meal, and that of National Foods. One television commercial of Manpasand Oil, shows four different types of families within a single commercial. It shows the extended family with the grandparents and uncles and aunts, one family with grandparents alone, one young couple with a new born baby, and one typical nuclear family of four comprising mother, father, son and daughter. Ads like those of Dalda Cooking oil or Surf Excel tend to focus only on the mother-child relationship, they do not show any other family members, so we cannot say whether they intend to show a single mother or not.

Because companies want to target the masses they show all sorts of people from the young to the grandparents all in one ad (Ejaz; 2008). Thus, they show all sorts of families too. Bank Insurance ads often show lone couples, other products feature on one parent and one child (Meenai; 2008). Print ads usually focus on one parent and one child or two. “It depends on what is being advertised. I think they are trying to move away from the normal (configuration of the family) and reach out to all segments of the market” (Meenai; 2008)

Advertisements in Pakistan usually show the nurturing side of families (Meenai; 2008).  Fun time in families is usually shown (Patel; 2008) For example, the mother-relationship is often highlighted, as in Dalda and Surf Excel commercials. Husband and wife bonds are also shown as in Knorr Soup commercials and those of Everyday Tea whitener. Some Pakistani ads also challenge traditional gender roles by showing men cooking like Knorr Soup, Everyday Tea Whitener and  Ads like those of Coca Cola in Pakistan make people believe that soft drinks can change the mood of the family and make them go dancing out on the streets, others like those like Tapal tea or Everyday Tea whitener can magically bring people together to tie the knot or to sort out marital tiffs (Mapara; 2008).

Perfect situations or idealized depictions are used because of the aim to sell the product (Patel; 2008). A lot of products preach aspirational values and thus use idealized portrayals of family life and relationships. All products try to show that you will have a perfect life if you choose that product (Meenai; 2008)


Thus, we see family life is portrayed in many different forms in advertisements. The family is one of the most popular figures featured in advertisements in Pakistan. Many products draw on the family in their advertisements in hopes of having positive associations for their products. This is ever more true for traditional societies like Pakistan and India which are family-oriented societies. While most western ads portray the conventional nuclear family, Pakistani ads more usually show the extended or joint family, although we see many ads showing other configurations of the family as well. Portrayals of single parent families though remain rare, and same-sex-couples-with-children is indeed out of question in conservative societies like Pakistan. Pakistani ads usually show families with traditional segregated gender roles, though we see some commendable counter trends emerging now.

Family ads in Pakistan usually focus on strong relationships and bonds, which although raises the question of the false image of perfection, has positive implications for society if it is able to shape trends within society as many theorists suggest. Herein comes the shape versus mirror debate and we are pressed to question whether these portrayals mirror society or are idealized depictions which though may not exist in society, are able to shape it. The disappearance of family from Western ads is a disturbing trend indeed in terms how it can negatively shape their society and lead to individualism and isolation. So, is the association of family happiness and completeness to materialism and consumption which is an all-pervading trend in ads the world over. Advertisers must take into account the effects their ads can have on society and must strive to picture positive and healthy portrayals.


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