Very early on the morning of Sunday, June 16, 2016, as the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida, was announcing their last call for drinks, a man walked into the club and began shooting people. Over the next several hours the gunman killed 50 people, wounding at least another 53, ending in his death after an intense shootout with police. News media across the world reported the tragedy, often in real time, detailing the horrific event and its aftermath.
Those details, and the way that the articles were written, offer a fascinating look into how media organizations in different parts of the world report on events. That the Pulse Nightclub was primarily a gay venue, and a popular one in the Orlando community, complicates the ways in which news media from different cultures reported the tragedy. This paper examines initial reports of the event from three news media outlets in different parts of the world, including how they handled aspects of the story, how objective they were, and cultural factors that influenced their articles.
Reports From Three Media Organizations
The three media organizations, CNN from the U.S., France 24, and Iranian newspaper Kayhan, generally agreed on the main aspects of the event. At around 2 a.m. on Sunday, June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen walked into Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and began shooting patrons. Armed with a pistol and an assault rifle, Mateen walked through the club shooting victims indiscriminately. For about three hours, Mateen held a group of people hostage as the police outside planned their negotiations. Police eventually stormed the club, shooting and killing Mateen in a wild shootout. After these similarities in reporting, each media organization covered the event with differing levels of detail.
The coverage provided by CNN4, at well over 3,000 words, featured the most depth of the three articles. A long video overview appeared at the top of the article, along with links to over two dozen other videos featuring various aspects of the event. Beneath the videos, the article began with a bulleted, short introduction to the event, giving way to more in-depth sections. The following sections included much more detail about the shooter, his possible ties to terrorism, eyewitness reports from within the club, reaction within the city of Orlando and the federal government, and commentary from law enforcement, local businesses, and both the Muslim and gay communities. CNN4 also included the arrest of a possible similar threat in California that was ultimately unrelated to the Orlando shootings, and that some Orlando officers had been put on temporary leave for the duration of the investigation.
At just over 1,250 words, France 245 described much of the event, but differed in a few key ways. France 245 covered much of the same information as CNN4, including information about the shooter and reactions from police and President Obama, as well as having one overall video featured at the top of the page. But France 245 did not go into nearly as much detail from the eyewitness side, and spent much more time on both Mateen’s link to ISIS, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) side of the discussion. France 245 did not include any condemnation from Muslim communities, but did offer several paragraphs based on reactions from the two U.S. presidential candidates at the time, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Other than similar commentary from President Obama, the political inclusion was far different from either of the other two articles.
As the shortest of the articles, clocking in at a mere 595 words, Kayhan8 was much more to the point than either of the other articles. Kayhan8 used only a sentence or two for each for the major points of the article, with very little examination or expanded content. There was one sentence for the shooter, two for Orlando’s mayor, and a continued brevity throughout the article. Kayhan8 did not mention reactions from the U.S. presidential candidates, reaction from the Muslim or gay communities, the similar arrest in California, or the officers that had been put on leave. There may be some cultural and style differences between Iran and the other countries to explain both information that seems to be missing, particularly any mention of Pulse being a gay nightclub, and the style in which the article is presented.
Two of the articles seem to have been generated at least partially from the same source. Kayhan8 and France 245 share several points, in some cases word for word. At the bottom of France 245, there is a short note that indicates that France 24 used information that it collected, as well as information from both AP and Reuters, but the same note does not appear anywhere in Kayhan8. In comparing Kayhan8 and France 245, there are several areas that are simply reworded, including one case where extra words are added to a copied paragraph. Another sentence is copied word for word, appearing in both: “Orlando has a population of 270,930 and is the home of the famed Disney World amusement park and many other tourist attractions that attracted 62 million visitors in 2014”8;5. Both may have used the same source, possibly AP or Reuters, that featured the same information, whereas CNN4 either reworded the information or did not use it at all.
Objectivity and Presentation Styles
One of the pillars of modern journalism is the theory of objectivity, of presenting fair and balanced news articles. Journalistic objectivity is the need for journalists to avoid their own feelings in their reporting, and the importance of moral integrity without bias10. It comes down to journalistic ethics, of presenting all sides of a story with accuracy and without the perception of attitude or opinions10. Good journalists are expected to stay objective in their writing, to hold to their ethics. But events like the mass shooting in Orlando, with so much horror and with the complication of the strong LGBT aspects of the event, can make that objectivity harder to maintain in cultures that are not as accepting.
Many people find the topic of LGBT rights controversial, and news organizations might find objectivity more difficult if they have an existing agenda against articles about LGBT rights. The Pulse nightclub was an important place for the area LGBT community, and advocacy group Equality Florida stated, “Gay clubs hold a significant place in LGBTQ history. They were often the only safe gathering place and this horrific act strikes directly at our sense of safety”5. CNN4 described Omar Mateen as very anti-gay, and included a comment from Mateen’s parents explaining that he was upset after previously seeing two men kissing in Miami. If a media organization has set an agenda not to discuss LGBT issues, or even simply to downplay them, the agenda setting could interfere with objectivity.
Agenda setting by news media can work both for and against topics. News organizations use agenda setting not necessarily to tell users what to think, but what to think about3. Among the three news articles, France 245 discussed the LGBT aspect openly,CNN4 only mentioned it briefly, and Kaylan8 completely avoided any words that would even hint at homosexuality. All three articles highlighted possible terrorism links thoroughly, even to the point of the title of CNN4 prominently including the phrase “shooter pledged ISIS allegiance”. Those differences clearly follow an agenda set by those organizations, either to highlight or downplay links to LGBT issues or terrorism. Agenda setting in news media is not unusual when it comes to discussing LGBT issues12. Surveys show that coverage of LGBT issues has grown over the years in The New York Times, becoming an important issue into the 21st century12. In contrast, coverage of homosexuality dropped in USA Today, though for both news organizations it was specific news events that kept LGBT issues in the public eye12. Terrorism, in contrast, is a term that is mentioned much more frequently, up to a whopping 15% some weeks between 2007-2012 in a recent survey13. National security, which terrorism fell under in the same survey, was always extremely important to the media over the years examined13. The data from the survey clearly showed an agenda of the news media discussing more about terrorism and national security over many other topics, and highlighting that agenda in all three articles follows that trend.
The setting of the agenda for both terrorism and LGBT issues can be seen in the objectivity and presentation styles of all three articles. After opening coverage and the latest developments from the event, CNN4 spent several sections discussing the event as a terror attack, Mateen’s possible links to ISIS from a 911 call he placed, a mention of pro-ISIS sympathizers, and even an arrest in California that may have stopped another terror attack. The pattern follows the “If it bleeds, it leads” idea, of making the most prominent story sensational to sell papers, especially when it concerns Muslims and the assumption of Muslim terrorism9. Many stories on Islam and Muslims became reduced to loud headlines that have little to do with the normal lives of typical Muslims, but are sensationalized for the popularity of the media9. The American news media keeps the terrorism up front, highlighting it throughout CNN4, clearly keeping the agenda intact. The objectivity of the American news media becomes questionable if an agenda of highlighting terrorism at every chance is apparent.
While France 245 balanced discussion of LGBT and terrorism throughout the article, Kayhan8 sat firmly at the other end of the spectrum to show agenda setting in a different light. Kayhan8 featured terrorists and Daesh, the Middle Eastern term equal to ISIS in the West, often throughout the article. Though Kayhan8 reported those Daesh connections in a less sensational light than CNN4, more a report of the situation over an in-depth discussion, in most ways reporting possible terrorism connections more as a matter of fact over supposition. Where agenda setting comes in is in what is not mentioned, as there are no mentions at all in Kayhan8 of homosexuality. Kayhan8 never refers to Pulse as a gay nightclub, no indication that Mateen was severely anti-gay and outraged at seeing men kiss, or any mention of LGBT communities or victims at all. Omitting those mentions shows a strong lack of objectivity, and highlights an agenda that is set not by what the article said, but what was clearly absent.
Cultural Factors in the Media Reports
Agenda setting is an important theory when it comes to how news is reported, and a country’s culture can impact how that agenda is set. Media/society: Industries, images, and audiences explained priming, a theory linked to agenda setting, as the news media paying more attention to specific topics and thus increasing how delicate a culture acts towards that topic3. By setting an agenda for or against LGBT issues, and constantly mentioning terrorism and national security, a culture is more susceptible to influence. The three articles feature agendas that are set through their individual cultures, either through regularly using specific ideas or excluding them completely.
In America, terrorism has been a feature of news media for many years, especially since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The magnitude of the 9/11 attacks, and the wars and further global attacks since then, are often mentioned in the news media. CNN4 prominently mentions terrorism throughout the article, spending a great deal of time on the subject. In more subtle ways, the article consistently uses terms that reinforce the notions of terrorism, especially in how the article links the attack to other events. Phrases like “the nation’s worst terror attack since 9/11” and “[Mateen] mentioned the Boston Marathon bombers”, and including the unrelated arrest in Santa Monica, point to the terrorism connection that CNN4 is trying to make, content that neither of the other articles added. While all three articles briefly mentioned the shooting of Christina Grimmie in Orlando just two days before, and the possible connections Mateen had to ISIS, only CNN4 tried to make a broader connection to overall terrorism.
Where two of the articles approach the broader terrorism agenda similarly, all three articles approach LGBT issues in very culturally different ways. France 245 featured the most discussion of the LGBT aspects of the event, and approached that content from a fairly neutral, but inclusive, stance.Homosexuals in France are described as not separating themselves from other people based on their sexuality, and the French people overall ignore the differences between those groups11. There is no closet to come out of, because the French care very little about those differences11. While highlighting LGBT issues more than the other two articles, the phrasing used in France 245 is not any different than if written without LGBT being involved. “Packed gay nightclub” and “especially heart-wrenching for members of the US lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community” are typical of a news article talking about any event5. Other articles from France 24 used “packed” in very much the same manner, such as “packed with holiday makers”6 and “he told a packed courtroom”7. Using it commonly makes France 245 unremarkable in using the terms the same way.
The American culture treats LGBT issues somewhat differently, and U.S. news media try to balance those discussions between various cultural groups. The U.S. is a broad makeup of many cultures, and as time goes on the culture in America is changing in regards to LGBT issues11. Homosexuality is gaining acceptance, and where the French have reached a point where those differences do not matter, in the U.S. that is still in progress11. The way that CNN4 treats the topic of homosexuality is a sign of a changing agenda. The article neither avoids nor embraces the LGBT discussion, and does not take a clear side by either including more information or avoiding it altogether.
Avoiding the discussion of homosexuality altogether sets a clearly cultural-based agenda, and the current cultural climate of Iran can be seen at the other end of the spectrum. Kayhan8 does not contain any references to gay, homosexual, or LGBT, not even mentioning that Pulse was a gay nightclub. Where both CNN4 and France 245 featured quotes from world leaders like President Obama that specifically mentioned LGBT communities, Kayhan8 avoided any quotes that included those references. Kayhan8 offered a number of other quotes from officials and eyewitnesses, but chose only quotes that avoided homosexual references. In the Arab world today, homosexuality is strictly prohibited by Islam, and is perceived as an infiltration from the West2. In Iran, Islam is used by the government and clerics to muffle free expression, and content that does not fit Islam or Iranian ideology is considered anti-Islamic1. As a prominent newspaper in Iran, Kayhan8 would need to follow that agenda. By omitting LGBT references so thoroughly, the culture in Iran sets its agenda in the media.
The ways in which the news media across the world reported the tragedy of the Pulse nightclub offers a fascinating look into how media organizations in different parts of the world report on events. The mentioning of terrorism and LGBT issues, or avoidance of those terms altogether, complicated the ways in which news media from different cultures reported the event. Examining reports of the event from three news media outlets in different parts of the world allows observation of the strength of cultural agenda setting, objectivity of each story, and the influence of unique cultural factors in modern journalism.
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- AbuKhalil, A. (1997). Gender boundaries and sexual categories in the arab world. Feminist Issues, 15(1-2), 91-104.
- Croteau, D. & Hoynes, W. (2012). Media/society: Industries, images, and audiences (5th ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
- Ellis, R., Fantz, A., Karimi, F., & McLaughlin, E. (2016, June 13). Orlando shooting: 49 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/12/us/orlando-nightclub-shooting/
- France 24. (2016, June 13). Mass shooting at gay nightclub in Orlando leaves at least 49 dead. Retrieved from http://www.france24.com/en/20160612-mass-shooting-orlando-nightclub-police-report-casualties
- France 24 Italy (2017, Jan. 18). Rome halts trains as three quakes strike central Italy. Retrieved from http://www.france24.com/en/20170118-italy-earthquakes-strike-rome-halts-trains
- France 24 Judge (2017, Jan. 12). French judge clears billionaire art mogul Wildenstein of tax fraud. Retrieved from http://www.france24.com/en/20170112-french-judge-clears-art-dealer-wildenstein-tax-fraud
- Kayhan. (2016, June 13). Deadliest shooting in U.S. history. Retrieved from http://kayhan.ir/en/news/27689/deadliest-shooting-in-us-history
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