BEIRUT: Lebanon is divided; it is unstable; it is torn. Glance at international headlines over recent weeks, and they have tended to stress the most negative aspects of the news.
Long a victim to some of the laziest stereotyping and cliches, Lebanon, “the phoenix which rises from the ashes,” is once again the subject of countless articles, and with the pope’s visit over the weekend, scrutiny on this tiny country recently increased even further.
Understandably, the Syrian crisis is shining a light on its neighbor, as the uprising next door is having a knock-on effect on Lebanon – clashes between pro- and anti-regime supporters in the northern city of Tripoli last month left 11 dead and over 120 wounded.
However, media outlets often ignore the details – the social situation in the city, the levels of poverty – and are often quick to label the events as a precursor to a Lebanese Civil War part two, observers say.
“In general, international coverage of Lebanon has always taken a conflict or a war framing, ever since the Civil War,” says Jad Melki, assistant professor of journalism and media studies at the American University of Beirut, who adds that this is especially true of U.S. media.
This “framing,” Melki explains, is a theory which exists in journalists’ minds. “It’s very strange or awkward for them to talk about Beirut in times of peace, but on the other hand it’s very easy to talk about it when any conflict is happening.”
“Especially in broadcast journalism,” Melki adds, “it’s very difficult to explain that a small conflict in north Lebanon is not world war III. And then the audience thinks that the whole country is on fire.”
Coupled with this “Civil War hangover,” the often hyperbolic coverage of Lebanese news, Melki says, is exacerbated further by the importance awarded to foreign news, especially in the U.S.
Over the last 40 years, the column inches or air time awarded to international news in the U.S. has fallen from around 40 percent to just 12 percent.
With increasingly minimal space in which to describe an often incredibly complex event, journalists and editors resort to “exaggeration and hyperbole.”
“Shooting between two groups becomes civil war, and similes and metaphors are used to bring that image back home,” Melki adds.
As international news outlets often choose to place their regional bureaus in Beirut – whether due to the fewer limits than in other Arab countries, or ease of traveling – the sheer number of journalists present in Lebanon also contributes to the fact that the country makes global headlines more often than Croatia, which has the same size population, Melki explains.
“Like Belfast, Beirut struggles to throw off the reputation of a war-torn, divided city,” agrees Tom Fletcher, the British ambassador to Beirut who has been vocal on Lebanon’s depiction in the news.
This has recently been amplified by, “the fact that so many regional correspondents are based here ... with the tagline ‘reporting from Beirut’ accompanying footage of violence in Syria.”
While it is important to be realistic, Fletcher says, and “there is always risk of instability,” he adds that, “people living here, including journalists, know the situation is much more complex.’
“It is telling that there was much more high-profile coverage of the recent spate of kidnappings than there was of the releases,” Fletcher says of the recent abductions of Syrian and Turkish nationals, events which made global headlines.
And, “that there was more coverage of the pope visiting ‘divided Lebanon’ than there was of the many Muslims who turned out to welcome him.”
Ultimately, he says, these negative depictions of Lebanon affect the country, including in terms of tourism, which, for the first half of this year, was down 18 percent on 2011, which was already 24 percent lower than the year before that.
Jad Aoun, author of the blog “Lebanon News: Under Rug Swept,” monitors coverage of Lebanese news, and “looks like Beirut” comparisons from across the world.
He believes that the high number of negative news stories on Lebanon preceding the pope’s visit stems from a failure of journalists to follow up on stories.
“I noticed that the Western press focused on the kidnappings, not on the subsequent releases; families with military wings, not the army intervention and subsequent arrests; and the smoking ban, particularly how it will unlikely succeed,” Aoun says.
“No one seemed to care about the positive developments that finally came to fruit. The focus was on the negative because that’s what people are interested in reading about and that is what gets clicks.”
“Focusing heavily on the bad without providing the developments of the story leaves a dark cloud over the city,” Aoun says.
While Aoun concedes that, “Lebanon has always been a news-interesting place because things can get out of hand quite easily,” he also believes that Syria, and the high concentration of journalists in Beirut, are contributing to the volume of stories from the region.
For Aoun, Lebanese and Arab media are also becoming increasingly focused on “news which excites rather than informs.”
By their nature more informed of local news, Aoun says, but adds that “they now seem to follow the Western press in focusing on the single, groundbreaking events while glimpsing over the developments.”
For Melki, when it comes to a negative image of Lebanon, local media have not been without blame either.
In the coverage awarded to various kidnappers over the last couple of months, “Lebanese media have been irresponsible by giving a voice to every local schmuck: They shouldn’t censor them, but why give value to, or exaggerate, whoever says they intend to do something.”
However, he adds, “I wouldn’t blame the journalists, these are decisions made by the editors, and many, if not all, media outlets are politicized – these stories are serving one agenda and not another.”