Bin Laden killing: Whither objective journalism?

Published: May 20, 2011

Media organisations have conventional patterns of reporting that they operate under, consciously or subconsciously.

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.


Naureen Aqueel

A Karachi based journalist working as subeditor on the web desk of The Express Tribune

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Fahad Raza

    Interesting points shared. Its all about the circulation and rating these days in which objective journalism has lost. In Pakistan OBL’s death created a sense of uncertainty of national security and Internationally its was seen as the climax to any Hollywood movie. No body was interested internationally in Pakistan sorrow of 34000 lost lives during these years of war, instead it was portrayed as defeat for Pakistani Intelligence Agencies.
    I feel objective journalism is not found internationally anywhere when it comes to Pakistan instead international journalism serve the objective to defame Pakistan internationally.Recommend

  • Lefty

    No, there’s really no such thing as objective journalism anymore. We see this in America every day. Our media here is overwhelmingly slanted (each establishment in its own direction) and wholly unapologetic about it. What made the coverage in America of bin Laden’s killing even more so was the fact that most Americans are terrified of being politically incorrect. Bin Laden’s actions have been probably the single most emotional subject for all of us for the past ten years, and I don’t think anybody here really knew how to safely handle it or respond to this news.

    I’m sure if we knew the truth, everyone here was filled with relief. But anymore, to express that publicly is to give a sensationalist yellow media an easy shot at portraying you as a bloodthirsty violence junkie. Among the yellow journalism, tabloid exploits, PC speech policing and finger-pointing, it becomes pretty impossible to be objective about anything. As you mentioned, news agencies will design their media around the story they want to sell, which isn’t always the one that really happened. The day every media outlet in the world becomes a non-profit organization is the day we’ll see objective journalism.Recommend

  • Scott

    “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?”

    I guess you were not paying attention to the coverage at Ground Zero? Recommend

  • Tribune Reader

    Objectivity, whether be it journalism, political decision making or managing personal conflicts does not exist period. The people of this nation lack objectivity at all levels.Recommend

  • Abhinav

    I think pakistan is becoming a mystry to rest of the world. It is really difficult to understand the country when on one extreem there are people who support Osama like JuD (the so called charity and humanitarian organization) and on the other hand thinkers and media persons who are against fundamentalism and terrorism. Pak Establishment has not taken any side. When US pressurises they do some operations and catch some extreemist, when pressure is off they let the same people do what ever they want.Recommend

  • http://Karachi Anwar

    The media has a very responsible role to play. Sometimes it gets side tracked. Free Media and democracy both take decades to mature. I hope this process continues and our media continues to show even greater maturity in the future. Recommend

  • Kulsoom

    Naureen, you always come up with some interesting point of views. I personally consider you one of sensible bloggers in ET’s elite lot.

    Indeed media did played a critical role and instead of saving our national image, they hampered it by showing people hailing OBL in Quetta and want to become like him one day. It was the time when media should have supported the idea of non-extremism, they instead showed a spiced up version of whole operation. Probably we lack objective of reporting but objectives for revenue & rating are pretty much achieved.Recommend

  • parvez

    Nicely articulated. You are being harsh with your profession, holding them to standards that
    are very hard to come by. Even the Economist has on its cover something like ‘ You have killed him. Now kill his dream ‘ shows its a tale too tempting to let go.
    I feel the world has moved on from Bin Laden. It was wise of Obama to realise this and close the chapter on the man. Recommend

  • Sumaira Memon

    Today so-called independent media is supporting right-wing political and social thoughts, and giving disproportionate coverage to various fundamentalist and rightest political groups. Pakistani media has made it practically difficult for liberal and progressive section of the society to present their side of pinions on the subject of sensitive and a highly political nature. And Geo is leading the tally with most number of right wing programs and anchors, it’s top-rated talk shows are highly biased and imbalanced one, as they promote right wing or conservative ideology. This sort of unfair treatment of news made Geo unacceptable for liberal and progressive section of society plus Pakistan Peoples Party’s sympathizers. In a bid to remove the tag of ‘right-winger’ and restore the credibility, confidence and trust of its TV with new liberal narrative, Jang group has hired Najam Sethi, a journalist, having liberal credentials, just to change outer skin and try to present itself as a liberal progressive news organization. But it becomes another failed attempt to revive the democratic image due to internal censorship by the management.Recommend