The Girl Who Changed Pakistan: A Critical Assessment
To make international news appealing to local audiences, US media follow specific strategies. One important figure in the realm of American print media is the weekly news and opinion magazine Newsweek (Hockenberry, 2007). This paper analyzes the strategies used by the editors of Newsweek in order to apeal to a US audience when covering a story about a young girl shot by the Talibans on her way to school in Pakistan. The photograph on the cover projects contradictory assumptions by both alienating and attracting US audiences. However the story and the photographs inside the article attract US audiences’ attention.
The Cover Image: Contradictory Assumptions
On the cover of the Newsweek issue that appeared on October 29, 2012 is a close-up photograph of a young girl with dark hair, deep brown eyes, thick eyebrows and light skin tone. Only her face and hands are visible. On her left hand, one can notice faint traces of henna, a traditional dye used in some Middle Eastern countries. She is wearing a headscarf. These features immediately suggest that the girl is from an Oriental background. Moreover, on the top left corner of the cover page, a caption in bold white letters states the following: “Malala: The Bravest Girl in the World”. Malala is not a familiar name to US audiences. The idea that this girl is part of the out-group is thus reinforced. To American audiences, she is part of the “Other.”
However, other features of the same cover photograph play a role in attracting US readers. The girl appeals to be a young teenager. She is happy and serene, smiling while fixing the photograher. Her eyes are beaming. She represents the epitome of childhood innoncence, a universally recognized emotion. Keeping in mind that the average age of Newsweek’s readers is 47 and that they are from middle and upper classes (Matsa, K.E., Sassen, J., & Mitchell, A. 2012), the photograph of a smiling, serene young girl may remind these readers of their own happy children. Moreover, the author emphasizes in the caption that this girl is the bravest in the whole world. This generalization also plays a role in depicting this girl as familiar to an American audience. By being the bravest girl in the world, she is de facto the bravest girl in America.
Looking at this image, readers of Newsweek are faced with contradicting assumptions. On one hand, the appearance of the girl and her name do not sound familiar. The girl is part of the out-group. However, the girl’s facial expression and the generalization in the caption render her familiar to a US audience. The content of the article entitled “The Girl Who Changed Pakistan” and additional images found in it contribute to depicting the girl and her story as familiar to US audiences.
According to Moeller (1999), US media assume Americans prefer to read stories where the dichotomy between good and evil is obviously presented. The editors of Newsweek follow this strategy. Three images are present in this article. The first image depicts Malala wearing colorful clothes sitting in a bare room. The only piece of furniture is a desk with an old white computer. Another image in the article portrays several young girls, wearing identical clothes (blue dress and white headscarf). They have a serious expression, and they appear to be praying. These two images portray the “good”, the innocent children, the victims. In contrast, the third image is a black and white photograph of armed gunmen sitting on the back of a truck, with threatening facial expression and dark glares. They are all bearded. This image symbolizes the “evil”, the threat, the “bad guys.”
Analogies and Metaphors
Another strategy used by US media when portraying international news is the use of analogies and metaphors to help reduce complex situations into concrete terms (Moeller, 1999). This Newsweek article abounds in such figures of speech. The author of the article compares Malala’ battle to a “battle over education” (Taseer, 2012, p. 32). US audiences can relate more easily to the notion of girls’ education being threatened than to the fact that a girl was killed in a foreign country. Education is a universal right. In addition, the attempted murder of this young girl is presented as directly related to the rise of schools teaching radical Islam in Pakistan. Moreover, the author believes that the solution to defeating the Taliban lies simply in acquiring critical thinking skills: “Critical thinking has the power to diffuse terrorism” (Taseer, 2012, p. 33). Finally, education is compared to light and ignorance to darkness. The solution merely lies in crossing from darkness to light.
The American Connection
A third strategy used by US media when covering foreign events is to relate the story to the US (Moeller, 1999). The editors of Newsweek use several strategies in order to make the story of Malala’s shooting significant to US readers. First, the author mentions that the Taliban view Malala as an emblem of American culture and values “the Taliban […] saying Malala was an American spy who idealized the black devil Obama” (Taseer, 2012, p. 32). Thus, the attack on Malala is an attack on America. Moreover, the author mentions that Malala was a blogger, frequently publishing posts about her daily life on a site related to the BBC. In addition, Malala is depicted as an exceptionally assertive and bright student, having received numerous awards and prizes both related to academia and extra-curricular activities. The author suggests that Malala is an intelligent fully rounded student. She is the ideal college applicant according to US standards. Most importantly, the significance of this story to US audiences lies in the fact that the US is engaged in a war on terror against the Talibans.
An Alternative Cover
The photograph of Malala on the front page of Newsweek sets the tone for the rest of the article. The author frames the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan in terms of a child victim. Malala, gravely wounded by the evil Taliban is a torchbearer of freedom and education, standing in the way of ignorance and oppression. Here lies the emotional center of the whole story (Hockenberry, 2007).
An alternative image may consist of a family, burying a child killed in the hands of the Taliban. This alternative image may appeal to the same demographic (wealthy middle-aged individuals) by triggering powerful emotions such as the fear and pain associated with losing one’s children and the anger and hatred directed at the people who are responsible. One might argue that such an image might alienate readers who do not have any children. Nonetheless, even such readers can grasp the gigantic pain that comes with such an ordeal.
One possible drawback of such an image is the frequency of similar images already present in the media. For instance, whenever the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the Syrian conflict are covered in the media, images of bloodied children and cadavers of youngsters surface. One possible consequence is the desensitization of readers to such images,
In conclusion, the cover picture projects contradictory messages. Even though the girl is part of the “Other”, US audiences can easily familiarize themselves with her. The image of this young girl is but one of the numerous tactics used by the author of this Newsweek article to attract US audiences’ attention to the rise of the Taliban in Pakistan.
Hockenberry, J. (2007). You don’t understand our audience. MIT Technology Review.
Matsa, K. E. ,Sassen, J., & Mitchell, A. (2012). Magazines: By the numbers. The State of the News Media 2012: An Annual Report on American Journalism. Retrieved from http://www.stateofthemedia.org
Moeller, S. (1999). Four habits of international news reporting.
Newsom, J. (2012). Facebook weekly roundup: October 22nd-26th. [missrepresentation.org] Retrieved from http://www.missrepresentation.org/media/weekly-round-up/weekly-roundup-october-22nd-26th/
Taseer, S. (2012). The girl who changed Pakistan. Newsweek, 160, 30-35