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Title: East Timor Through Three Lenses
Class: Culture of Journalism (JOUR 120a)
Prof:  Michael Socolow
School:Brandeis University
Date:  04 December 2002
Grade: A
Notes: This paper offers a look at one news story through several different "objective" sources. The goal is to have the reader clearly see that true objectivity is impossible, but the closest we can get in the modern world seems to be the BBC. The assignment should be clear from the content. This paper offers no solutions to the objectivity problem(although there are a myriad of books on the subject), but it should be a useful starting point for people who are interested in journalistic objectivity or those who like to bandy about words like "objective" without taking into account the huge difficulties with the actual implementation.

East Timor Through Three Lenses

To examine the themes of objectivity and bias in reporting, I decided to choose a breaking news story covered by several sources. I jumped to Google News and clicked on the top headline, a story from the UK's Independent discussing recent violence in East Timor. A few minutes later when I clicked back to Google News, the Independent story was gone, replaced, in the second spot, with a story from Australia's The Age. For an additional perspective I clicked over to BBC News, where the story was second on their international page. Looking for a U.S. perspective, I visited the New York Times. There was no mention of the story on their home page or international section. Searching their site turned up nothing. Searching Google News turned up a Reuters wire story buried in the New York Times site, and that was the extent of their coverage.

In covering bias, I wanted to choose a story in the most unbiased way possible. Google News uses computer algorithms instead of humans to choose its breaking stories. The East Timor story was provided along with 285 links to similar stories, so clearly it was getting coverage from a myriad of news sources. While I did not find an American news media source to use, I still went forward with a few ideas. First, that the increasingly global nature of news means that these same issues will apply regardless of source. Second, that many international papers use the same wire sources as American ones (Reuters, AP, UPI, AFP). Third, that an American viewer looking at non-American reporting might have a different perspective then the intended target audience.

With those views in mind, I read three stories about riots in East Timor, each with different levels of objectivity and bias. By far the BBC offered the most thorough, unbiased reporting, followed by the very brief AFP wire story in Australia's The Age.

  • BBC News: "East Timor declares state of alert"
  • Independent: "East Timor in flames after five die in student riots"
  • The Age: "UN troops patrol Dili"
The story is simple. There was rioting and looting in the streets of Dili, the capital of East Timor. The causes and consequences are more varied. A correspondent in Sydney, Australia writes the Independent story. She claims that witnesses report three to five demonstrators dead at the hands of local police and U.N. peacekeepers. Either before or after this incident, hundreds looted shops and destroyed property in the city. Demonstrating students sparked the shootings by throwing stones at officers. This demonstration, we learn half way through the article, was caused by the arrest of a demonstrator the day before. After the shooting, demonstrators "went on a rampage" and burned down a hotel and a supermarket. When the protestors moved to the parliament building, at least five more were killed, according to a "journalist at the scene." Why did the protests take place? "One local resident said that the trouble had been brewing because of the Gusmao government's failure to keep its promises."

The Age begins with quotes from government officials in East Timor from the UN. They mention the President's address to the people, a report from a UN leader, and a statement from the Prime Minister's chief of staff. As for the motives, The Age says that, "United Nations and other officials said the trouble began at parliament. Shots were fired and one student was killed after a large crowd demanding the release of an arrested student went on the rampage there." The death count? The government confirms one casualty, with at least six more injuries.

The BBC begins by declaring that Dili is in a state of alert and under curfew. It then spends several more paragraphs emphasizing that return to calm in that city before moving to a discussion of the riots. "In the confusion which followed, a 16-year-old student was killed but reports speak of up to three more deaths," the BBC reports. "It is not clear whether the firing came from the crowd or from the police." The crowds looted stores and a hotel, the BBC notes, and set fire to the President's house. The end of the article is two paragraphs of explanation of East Timor's break from Indonesia and its becoming an independent state this May. The BBC ends with a very quick explanation: "The BBC's Rachel Harvey in Jakarta says the rioting may be a result of a 'clash between expectations and reality' in the tiny, impoverished state."

We can briefly consider the very contradictory reports of death counts and the order of events. The BBC says that the source of the gunfire is unclear, while the other two reports declare that the police fired on the crowd when provoked. The three reports serve different agendas -- the Independent specializes in shock value, The Age provides a brief report targeted at interested Australians (and specifically warns them not to go into the region), and the BBC emphasizes many times that the region is calm, the violence is over, and the authorities dealt with the situation quickly and effectively (its theme being world stability). It is telling that the BBC speaks to the UN officials and yet will not offer any further elaboration on the question of "who shot first." Most important, however, is every report's failure to deal with the basis of and history surrounding these events.

Journalists Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel believe that "journalists must serve as an independent monitor of power" (112). The journalist must be a watchdog on the government, a constant voice for the people. In East Timor, a crowd of 500 rioted only seven months after the country declared its independence. What is the root of this problem? All three articles hint at civil unrest due to "unkept promises" by the government, but none elaborate. In a story that Google considers fit for its number-one spot, with 300 different reports catalogued under its algorithms, not one of the top ones from major newspapers looks at the causes of the event?

In our increasingly interconnected world, stories can break in any locale, and it is an unfortunate fact that very few major news outlets will be there to know what is going on. The BBC report cites several government sources, and suggests that the mob has no central leadership. The Independent speaks with a "local journalist" whom they do not name, as well as at least one local person and some unnamed government sources, again with unclear results. One must wonder if the Independent, while admirable attempting to get local coverage, simply dialed random numbers in the phone book to find their sources.

James Fallin's Breaking The News discusses the sports nature of modern journalism. In a different context, Fallin speaks of the spectacle of news, of reporting on methods and conflicts instead of the substance of debate. He also discusses "professional" reporters who specialize in reporting but do not have any background in the field on which they report. While anyone can and will report on violence and bloodshed, only the studied few can extrapolate causes based on facts and chains of events. In this case, none of the three reports that I read seemed to have a firm grasp of the recent history leading up to this state of events. The best source for context was the BBC story, which offered a good concise explanation of the independence of East Timor, but none of the three were able to suggest valid reasons besides "unrest" for the riots themselves. Why now and not last week? Why students and not workers? Professional journalists with no background on the politics and history of East Timor but with background on violence and riots are the people who wrote these stories. The Independent used a Sydney correspondent, so she knew more then the others who to call, but she still did not know much. The Australian reporter gave just the facts she had received from wires, similar to the BBC's story except that the BBC did some more fact-checking with their many government sources.

Of course this story is "breaking news," and one can't expect every paper or even wire service to have a reporter in each tiny country in the Pacific Rim. We can at least applaud these three sources for covering the story at all, along with Reuters, which gave a fairly balanced report, and the AP. Each report had its own bias, as outlined above. The BBC attempted as always to remain completely objective within its frame of reporting. The Age, with its cursory coverage, kept its structure logical enough that it remained mostly objective, even if biased by a reporter (or editor) with little interest in the story. The Independent, with its exciting report, maintained the least objectivity and to its detriment -- the facts were hard to interpret and the story hard to follow: did the shootings occur at the beginning or the middle? Was there one set of shootings or two? The Independent did attempt to give a diversity of opinion by quoting locals, local journalists, local government officials, and UN officials, but its cursory and happenstance quotes did little to keep the report balanced. Altogether I found the BBC report the most fair, balanced, and objective. Since I do not have all the facts for myself, I cannot completely judge accuracy, except to say that the BBC was the most conservative in its facts, The Age in the middle, and the Independent reckless with its unsubstantiated numbers. Together, these three stories left me confused and uninformed about the events. I'm not sure that current world reporting, even by non-American sources, is at the level we need to make informed choices about world events.


  • Marks, Kathy, "East Timor in flames after five die in student riots" The Independent 05 December, 2002 http://news.independent.co.uk/world/pacific_rim/story.jsp?story=358557
  • "East Timor declares state of alert" BBC News 4 December, 2002 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/2541609.stm
  • Agence France Press, "UN troops patrol Dili" The Age 5 December, 2002 http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/12/05/1038950125782.html

American News Coverage Survey

  • CNN
    A wire story with some additions far below the fold in the World section.
  • ABC News
    A Reuters story hidden far below the fold in the World section.
  • New York Times
    A wire story hidden in the World section was found through search.
  • Fox News
    An AP wire story was found after a search, not linked from any news pages.
  • Boston Globe
    An AP wire story was found after a search, not linked from any news pages.
  • Washington Post
    No story was found.
  • Los Angeles Times
    A wire story was found after a search, not linked from any news pages.

Here is my recounting of the events, a month after the fact.

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