Neither Can Live While the Other Survives: How the Representation of the Syrian Conflict in the Media Neglects the Citizen
There is a clear problem in the way current events are reported worldwide. News items are systemically reduced to catchy headlines and dramatic media snap-shots. Most disturbingly, headlines are dominated by the rhetoric of the powerful. The current Syrian crisis is no exception to this reductionist tendency and readers worldwide pay the cost.
The media tends to depict the Syrian conflict as a crisis shaped according to the personal whims of heads of states, most notably President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin, and presents a decontextualized view of the conflict. Headlines frequently suggest that Russia’s rising use of military force in Syria is primarily intended to disturb the United States’ peace of mind, and are quick to demonize the Russian president’s motives accordingly. A simple Internet search for “Syria” reveals ample news articles detailing a plethora of theories interpreting Putin’s actions, ranging from defensive to downright sinister. Yet all of the articles and headlines demonstrate the pervasive preference to narrate global conflicts as a battle between powerful world figures.
In the Syrian case, this narrative preference reduces the political complexities of the conflict into a power struggle between the two ‘demi-god-like’ figures of Obama and Putin as the media consistently fails to explore alternative avenues for gathering information. This narrative is reinforced by media’s reliance on official government sources close to the seat of power, and the consistent exclusion of other avenues of information-gathering. Often reader’s trust in ostensibly reputable sources (as government representatives should arguably be) prevents readers from questioning the information and viewpoints presented. Additionally, press conferences and official statements can provide dramatic quotes that appeal to readers’ desire to personify international relations between nations. Yet the creation of this power struggle narrative is often at the detriment of examining the context of the conflict itself more deeply outside of mainstream headlines and misleading one-liners.
Context is critical in order to gain a deeper understanding of the conflict. It is important that readers do not let their conception of modern conflict be dictated solely by leaders or media headlines. Leaders are often detached from the on-the-ground implications and from the context of the people involved. As media consumers, there are at least two reasons for investigating beyond mainstream media.
First, there is a natural human tendency to categorize complex circumstances into a binary or dualist system. This system of thought provides the comforting ability to ‘join a side’ between two parties or ideas. The problem with this subconscious preference is that individuals are less likely to inquire as to how the two sides originated and the subsequent motivations for the split, and opt instead for the most readily “absorbable” explanation: the explanation that fits their preconceived viewpoint.
A major hazard of this preference, however, is the risk of blind acceptance of an absorbable narrative, in this case an oversimplified interpretation of the Syrian conflict as an inherently bipolar antagonism between two major powers (a strict “balance of power” interpretation). In the Syrian case, the popular, and absorbable narrative is the captivating picture of the conflict as a combination of confrontations between the United States and the Islamic State (IS), Russia and IS, and the United States and Russia more widely. It is misleading to reduce the confusing multitude of possible reasons behind the Syrian conflict into two identifiable ‘sides.’
Second, in the effort to provide digestible news stories, external commentators frequently neglect the voice of the people directly involved in the conflict. In the Syrian case, the Russian/United States dichotomy emphasized in the media is simply not reflective of the greater density of the power imbalances within Syria and region more widely. The power of local alliances, structures, and organizations are often underreported or not at all. Yet this local context directly influences direction of the conflict. The power of local councils, for example Zabadani, courts, and armed factions within the country should not be ignored. The multitude of citizen-run forms of governance within Syria, many established in response to the failure of state institutions, directly impedes external attempts of the United States and Russia to affect change, challenging the standard narrative emphasizing only the power of these two states. . However, the media consistently ignores these sub-national organizations when reporting on the conflict.
With Russia standing firm on supporting President Assad’s regime in Syria, and the United States likewise defending an entrenched position against President Assad, there appears to be little room in the headlines for consideration of the citizens affected directly in the region. Such a shallow consideration of the context plagues the headlines and propagates the idea of great powers as the ‘be all and end all’ saviors of the conflict.
As readers it is imperative to read beyond the dichotomous representation of international conflict presented in the headlines of major news sources. If readers allow media sources (and their government informants) to shape popular understanding of foreign conflicts without question, readers risk transforming these oversimplified conceptions into the basis for foreign policy action: a natural reaction as democratic leaders respond to the opinions of the people they represent. It is vital as readers to expand our focus beyond the great power dichotomy that neglects the multifaceted context of the issues explored. This is done only by reading beyond headlines, and asking questions that delve deeper into the context and sources of the media we consume.
Jessica Tselepy is in her third and final year of a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and Psychology at the University of Queensland. She has a keen interest in the effect of human factors in international decision-making processes, particularly in conflict management, gender equality and the international political economy.
Image credit: Stefano Corso/Wikimedia Commons.