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Controlling the Power of the Picture

Violent images from conflict regions such as Iraq pose a dilemma for news organizations: Should they show graphic footage or edit reports for good taste? Is it a case of cultural differences or are other agendas at work?

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How far is too far?

No one can doubt the power of the picture in the reporting of war. But the choice of image, either to show or not to show, can determine the message that comes across from a particular broadcaster.

While Arab sender Al Jazeera favors graphic scenes of battleground action and its bloody consequences in its coverage from the hot zones of Iraq, western broadcasters like Germany's public broadcaster ARD choose to edit scenes for violent and explicit content. Deutsche Welle is a member organization of ARD.

Al Jazeera, probably the most important television station in the Arab world, opens its hourly news program in much the same way every day. The main story is Iraq and the images that open the report carry the latest developments from the continuing violence in graphic detail. On the hour, the pictures are repeated: Four U.S. security operatives are burnt, their corpses disgraced and the remains hung up from a bridge.

The broadcaster, responsible for footage that many others cannot get, showed these pictures exclusively; no western stations would show the event in as much detail. Hussein Abdel Rani, Al Jazeera's bureau chief in Cairo, justified the decision when he talked to DW-WORLD.

Arabische Freiwillige im Irak

Images of Arab volunteers in Iraq as shown on Al Jazeera.

"We always pay attention to the fact that our work is not censored, we show everything," he said. "We work for the audience, they want to see that. We speak for 40 million viewers. The people who give us the tapes of such footage know that the number of viewers for it will be high."

Patrick Leclerq, a former ARD Middle East correspondent and chief of the foreign news department at the German broadcasting company, knows all too well that similar pictures arrive at western stations every day but, like ARD, they decide not to run them in the fashion of Al Jazeera in their news reports.

Catering for different audiences

"Of course the correspondents send the reports, but they aren't aired in the same form as they arrive," Leclerq told DW-WORLD. "Sometimes there are really heated discussions on how to arrange the reports. We look at the pictures and then decide what we send and what we don't send."

Freilassung der Japanischen Geiseln im Irak im japanischen TV

A Japanese reporter watches a report on the release of three Japanese civilians taken hostage in Iraq.

Abdel Rani defended Al Jazeera's editorial decisions, denying that that the Arab sender showed uncut material. "We work within international standards," he said. "There we do not differ from, for instance, CNN or the German transmitters. We have graphic pictures of the Japanese hostages which we have not shown. So we do pay attention to what comes in, what goes on the program."

Al Jazeera has also refused to show the recent footage it has of an Italian being killed in Iraq, an example of the borders that the broadcaster has set itself within these international standards.

Even so, the broadcaster's coverage has drawn sharp criticism from the U.S. military which claims that Al Jazeera presents one-sided, anti-American reporting. Abdel Rani again defended the channel against such claims, saying that it works freely and independently, only illustrating the reality of what takes place in Iraq.

Cinematic trailers of U.S. destruction

For all the claims against Al Jazeera, it rarely resorts to the lengths taken by Al Arabia, the second Arab television broadcasting station and one of the most important TV news channels in the Middle East.

Al Arabia also deals with the war events in Iraq in its daily broadcasting but its news programs are advertised in trailers which are almost cinematic in production: American soldiers in combat, helicopters swooping into battle over Iraqi cities and warplanes overhead, firing missiles, mixed with images of dead civilians and ruined Iraqi residential areas.

Such obvious news weighting is also avoided by ARD. "That is inconceivable," said Patrick Leclerq. "We understand that governments, warlike parties and religious groups all have their own propaganda enterprises but we want to maintain our standards and our claim that we work for the news, that we work objectively and impartially and that we are responsible to our viewers."

Current instability changes the balance

US-Truppen marschieren in Irak ein

Military vehicles of the 3rd Infantry Division are seen in crossing the border in Iraq, Friday March 21, 2003 in this CNN report.

The news coverage of Iraq has changed dramatically since the official end of major combat operations was announced on May 2, 2003. Before then, embedded journalists were monitoring and reporting from the heat of battle. Now, only the Arab reporters deliver news from the current flashpoints. ARD has pulled out all its correspondents from Falluja and Najaf, citing the dangers posed to foreign nationals.

Could it then be argued that Al Jazeera is showing the real face of the on-going violence in Iraq while the western broadcasters water down the reality? Or is the graphic representation of the events adopted by the Arab channels suiting a different purpose than just reporting the facts as the less sensationalist ARD claims to do?

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