Analysis: How The Mainstream Media Portrayed the 2005 Kidnapping of Nonviolent Christian Activists and Why It Got It So Wrong

Ekklesia's Simon Barrow
Ekklesia's Simon Barrow

Simon Barrow at U.K.’s Ekklesia (an independent Christian news briefing service) has released an excellent analysis of how mainstream media is addicted to the dominant war narrative and how “alternative” media is better suited to report on the ongoing complexities of a story.

Using the example of the 2005-2006 kidnapping of Christian Peacemaker Team members in Baghdad, Barrow unpacks why the mainstream media was incapable of reporting a story that didn’t fit with their news formula.

While major news outlets failed, “alternative” media – primarily religious outlets who understood the alternative script in operation – were consistently better situated to report accurately and provide the best framing of the unfolding story. These alternative media sources included Ekklesia, Sojourners, the Mennonite Weekly Review, and even Vatican radio.

Barrow’s analysis is a must read for anyone involved in truth-telling in alternative media sources or anyone who wants to understand how to deconstruct the mainstream media. Barrow reveals the “story under the story.”

Here’s an excerpt from Barrow’s report, but I recommend reading his whole article titled Writing Peace Out of the Script.

For the Western news media, North American and European hostages in the Middle East are big stories because they personalise and dramatise what may otherwise seem like one endless series of nameless tragedies in faraway places. They become, in fact, mini-soap operas with their own recognizable cast of heroes, villains, victims, and clowns. Their stuff is the daily drama of hopes and despairs writ large. Their setting is an exotic but mostly unexamined stage. No one knows how long the mini-saga will last, but everyone realizes there can only be two outcomes: tragedy or triumph.

In the meantime, minute attention is paid to the twists and turns of the story — or, in the absence of any real news, what people think the story is or ‘should be’. And it is in these terms that the conventions of ‘the narrative’ and ‘the script’ are written by those who have to keep people watching and reading. They are experts at their craft. They know what communicates and sells to a broad or narrow audience, and they know how to tailor the plot details to the kind of story that can be told — and the kind of story that cannot.

The ‘dominant narrative’ (the generally accepted version of events) is frequently established in the earliest stages of an event and this was certainly the case in the CPT Iraq hostage situation. At its starkest, it went something like this: “A well-meaning but essentially naïve and ill-prepared group of peace activists — Christians who are fish out of water in a conflict-ridden Muslim environment — have been kidnapped by a militant group after political advantage or money. By being there and being caught out, these Western activists have caused danger to those in contact with them. If they are to be freed, it will most likely be because of financial inducement, diplomatic effort, or military bravery. Some admire their intent to bring peace, but hardheaded realists know that they are at best misguided and at worst irresponsible. Their chances of getting out of this alive are limited, but if they do it will be a warning to fellow activists that they should keep their idealism out of the real grown-up world of politics and violence. This is a war on terror, not a playground for wishful thinking.” …

Again and again, the dominant narratives of our time, most especially what theologian Walter Wink calls “the myth of redemptive violence,” assert themselves in such a way as to write peace and peacemaking out of the script. This is only to be expected. Expending a lot of energy raging against the machine is likely to be futile. The appropriate response is not despair or collusion, but the cultivation of what the late Archbishop Helder Camara once called “small-scale experiments in hope.”

Such experiments arise from the constructive but vulnerable witness of persons like those who serve with Christian Peacemaker Teams in situations of seemingly intractable destructiveness — and above all in the local people whose ongoing resistance to the powers that be is the only final source of alternatives, when attempts to impose external ‘solutions’ by force inevitably break down. To be effective, however, alternatives need to spread. To spread they must be heard. And to be heard they must be re-inserted into the script, written out of it (in the sense of inscribed within and scribed without) — not written off, or written away. This is a vital ongoing task, both within the media environment, in terms of the practicalities of conflict transformation, and in relation to public policy on interventions in situations of conflict.

Read the whole article here. To read one of my articles on CPT in Iraq, check out Raising An Army of ‘Peculiar’ People.

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