Norhan Basuni was just 11 years old on Sept. 11, 2001. Still, she sees the importance in being educated about groups the United States considers terrorist organizations.
“The United States is very involved in this war against terror,” Basuni, 19, a student at John Jay College, said. “And I feel like as Americans, we should know, because this affects us.”
But really knowing about groups the U.S. considers terrorist organizations may not be the easiest thing to do.
When reporting on organizations like Hezbollah, both American media organizations and organizations abroad often fail to challenge the policies of their own governments—contributing to the rift between perceptions of groups like Hezbollah in the Arab world and in the West.
“I feel like Americans kind of live in a state of dark ignorance about [Hezbollah],” Basuni said. “Because the sources that they get are so one-sided.”
Basuni, a Sunni Muslim whose parents were born in Egypt, studies international criminal justice. She was raised in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
“It’s always the words terrorist, radical, Islam, all these words linked to it,” she said.
Helga Tawil-Souri, Professor of Culture and Communication at New York University, attributes this kind of linkage to the ways news organizations appeal to the policies of their own governments.
“Neither CNN, nor Fox, nor ABC, nor anyone else that is an American organization would necessarily challenge what the U.S. government policies state,” Tawil-Souri said. “So if Hezbollah is an agreed upon terrorist organization in the U.S., then I would be willing to bet that 99 percent of the news organizations in the U.S. are going to call it that.”
FoxNews.com’s five most recent articles about Hezbollah dating from March 30, 2009 to Aug. 6, 2008 refer to the organization as a militant group, or “a group the United Stated considers a terrorist organization.”
CNN.com also calls Hezbollah a militant group in articles referring to it, and at times a terrorist organization, depending on the city and country where the story is reported.
One reason companies like CNN or Fox report news in line with government perspectives is obvious—because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t get viewers, Tawil-Souri said.
But critics say American media is not the only media failing to challenge its viewers.
When discussing Hezbollah, Al Jazeera typically does not use any descriptors for Hezbollah, whether it be a terrorist organization, political party, or otherwise. This assumes the reader already has knowledge of the subject at hand, Tawil-Souri said.
“They don’t necessarily immediately label it a terror organization simply because that’s how it’s listed in the U.S. government,” she said.
But by failing to prescribe names to Hezbollah, which is generally known in the Arab world as a “resistance movement,” Arab audiences are not being challenged to think more about how other parts of the world perceive the organization.
Further differences in reporting are evident amongst organizations when it comes to the ordering of facts, adjectives used, and the images used to accompany articles.
On the first page of a 2006 WashingtonPost.com article titled “What is Hezbollah?” there is an image of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah above a list of “Major Attacks” that outlines every major bombing and missile strike since Hezbollah’s formation in 1983. The words “terrorist organization” are mentioned at the top of the third paragraph.
BBCNews.com’s 2002 article “Who is Hezbollah?” is accompanied by photos of Hezbollah supporters holding posters that embrace “the Palestinian cause.” Two additional photos show fighters dressed in militant gear celebrating Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon, and a photo that reads “Hezbollah proved to be a formidable fighting force.”
Hezbollah is called an “inspiration” in the third paragraph. The word “terror” is not mentioned until the seventh paragraph.
A 2008 article on BBCNews.com with the same title mentions the word terrorist only once in the article, and not until the ninth paragraph. Note that the European Union does consider Hezbollah’s military wing a terrorist organization, but not its political sector.
With these differences in reporting come various cultural consequences, Tawil-Souri said.
“I think there’s a way in which it’s actually detrimental to democracy,” she said. “And not simply democracy at home in terms of how we vote, but democracy on a global scale.”
If Americans want to live in a world where freedom of religion and speech are valued, then they must also be aware of the multiplicity of opinions and the diversity of interpretations, Tawil-Souri said.
“I feel like history is kind of built up on a kind of racism and stereotyping,” Basuni said. “And if we continue that, without people properly getting educated about certain issues such as Hezbollah, then history’s gonna repeat itself.”