Informing VS Telling a Story

5 mins read

By Astrid Othelius

Two terrorist attacks. Eight days apart. Different parts of the world. But how were these events portrayed in Western media? Let us narrow it down and take a look at how the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter covered two terrorist attacks in New Zealand and Mali in 2019. What information was included or excluded, and how does that affect the narrative of the attacks presented to the readers? 

The terrorist attacks

New Zealand. On March 15, 2019, two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, were attacked by an Australian white supremacist. 51 people lost their lives, and about 50 people were injured. The motive behind the terrorist attack was based on right-wing extremist ideas. Specifically, white supremacy and islamophobia were cited as the reasons for the terrorist attack in a manifest written by the terrorist himself. New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern received a lot of attention due to her actions in the aftermath of the attack. She immediately stated that gun laws would be revised, and subsequently military-style semi-automatic firearms were banned. Several world leaders immediately condemned the attack, expressed their sympathy and offered help.

Mali. Eight days later, on March 23, 2019, two villages in the Mopti region in central Mali were attacked, allegedly by Dogon Hunters from the group Dan Na Ambassagou. There were a total of 157 people killed, and 65 people injured in the attack that happened in their own homes. The victims mainly belonged to the Muslim ethnic group Fulani, and they were all civilians. The Dogon people and the Fulani people have a long history of ethnic-religious tensions, which have increased dramatically since 2012. On March 24, 2019, Mali’s president Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta had an extraordinary session with the Council of Ministers  regarding the group Dan Na Ambassagou. The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) directly responded with a new action, called Operation Oryx, with the purpose to decrease the violence in the Mopti region.

How were the attacks portrayed? 

The agenda. Let us first look at Dagens Nyheter’s agenda-setting regarding the two terrorist attacks. The agenda-setting theory highlights that the topics that are being addressed in the news often are consistent with the public opinion regarding what topics are important. Looking at the number of articles published in Dagens Nyheter(68 versus 2 articles), it is clear that the attack in New Zealand got more space and attention. The coverage was unbalanced to an extent where it most likely had an impact on what the readers thought of since they were exposed to the terrorist attack in New Zealand to a higher extent. Furthermore, the frequent updates on the attacks in New Zealand could be seen as a way of collective grieving and healing, whereas the lack of follow-up articles regarding the attacks in Mali could have contributed to a lack of compassion and public opinion of the attack.  

The frames.The purpose for journalists to use frames is to create coherent stories from a huge amount of information, in order to present a comprehensive narrative for the readers. Let us look at one specific article from each terrorist attack to identify four frames. The two articles I have chosen to compare and identify frames within are the first articles published by Dagens Nyheter regarding each attack. Furthermore, they were both published the same day that each of the events occurred. 

After observing that the New Zealand article is given more space in terms of words (895 versus 301 words), I have then identified four different frames in which the first published article regarding New Zealand and the first published article regarding Mali could be categorized in to → 

Terrorist attack as a local and distant problem

With an almost total absence of illustrative words and photographs, the article about the terrorist attack in Mali is using a simplified narrative. The article is significantly shorter than the article about the terrorist attack in New Zealand, and additionally there are also fewer descriptions of the attack itself and how people and the nation were affected. The lack of illustrative descriptions consequently decreases the recognition and compassion for the attack. The only quotations in the article are from local people, which contributes to the perception that the attack was a local and distant problem that did not affect the readers, and was not important enough to make a statement about for international leaders. 

Terrorist attack as an international problem

The legacy from the September 11 attacks of framing terrorism are prominent in the way the New Zealand mosque shootings is framed. First of all, the local event is instantly seen as a global concern with several of the most powerful leaders in the world condemning the attack and offering help. In addition, the connection to Sweden is emphasized, and even the Swedish Prime minister of that time, Stefan Löfven, is quoted in the article. This creates a narrative in which the terrorist attack is seen as a direct concern for both Sweden and the world community. 

Terrorist attack as a result of a prevailing condition

The main problem described in the article regarding the terrorist attacks in Mali is the prevailing turbulence between the Dogon and Fulani people. Even though there is a clear statement from governor Boubacar Kané that the victims of the attack were civilians, the article still emphasizes that some members of the Fulani group had been recruited to jihadist extremist groups, which in turn is described as a contributing factor to civilians being killed in the attack. The framing conclusively focuses on the prevailing situation between the two ethnic groups, rather than framing a narrative of the specific terrorist attacks that occurred.

Terrorist attack as an unusual event

The article about the terrorist attack in New Zealand has a quotation from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: “This is not us. The act does not reflect how we are in New Zealand.In juxtaposition to the framing of the terrorist attack in Mali, the narrative in this article is that terrorist attacks in New Zealand are highly unusual. It is highlighted that an increased level of security threat never had been used earlier in New Zealand. Furthermore, there is another quotation from  Jacinda Ardern regarding how well planned the attack was. This goes in line with the terrorist being Australian and described as intelligent, which white Western terrorists often are,  whereas non-Western terrorists more often is described as impulsive and fanatic, which could enhance wrongfully preconceptions about ethnic groups. Furthermore, the terrorist alone is described as the reason for the attack in New Zealand, which enhances the article’s framing of the terrorist attack as an unusual event. 

Judging by both the frames and the agenda setting, we can see that the attacks were portrayed in completely different ways, despite their many similarities. Looking at the context however there can of course be underlying factors to why the New Zealand attack got a bigger and more detailed coverage, such as the security situation for journalists in Mali and terrorist attacks being less usual in New Zealand. Nonetheless, there are several arguments for having a more equal narrative of the articles, such as Sweden having around 300 UN peacekeepers serving in Mali at the time and that there were three times as many victims in attacks in Mali just eight days after the attack in New Zealand. 

So in conclusion: there were two very different narratives on two terrorist attacks, that happened eight days apart in different parts of the world. Dagens Nyheter is Informing the public about the attack in Mali, and Telling a Story about the attack in New Zealand. Furthermore, there is a high probability that these narratives are reflected in the rest of Western media. Judge for yourself: which frames are the most effective in drawing your attention and making you interested in each article? The ones that are rich in details, or the ones that are not?

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