Suicide Bombers as Women Warriors: Making News through Mythical Archetypes

By Berkowitz, Dan | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

Suicide Bombers as Women Warriors: Making News through Mythical Archetypes


Berkowitz, Dan, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This study explores how mythical archetypes become a journalistic tool for reporting news about terrorism. Textual analysis of newspaper items examined coverage about seven female Palestinian suicide bombers. Mythical archetypes changed initially from the male suicide bomber as Trickster, to female bomber as Woman Warrior, and finally, to the Terrible Mother when the circumstances of the seventh suicide bomber no longer fit the Woman Warrior mold. Findings suggest that journalists negotiate their reporting within two realms-realities of occurrences and resonance of myths-to accomplish their work.

In both news1 and popular culture,2 representations of the Middle East offer a clear image of the terrorist: a fanatic male, bent on destroying whatever stands in his way. This depiction became especially well known after the White House introduced its "war on terrorism" news frame following the September 11, 2001, attacks.3 By drawing on the terrorist image and the terrorism frame, journalists made the task of sorting out fast-moving and unfamiliar events manageable.4

But journalists covering the Middle East were not ready for a new twist: the appearance of the first female Palestinian suicide bomber in January 2002. Suddenly, their exclusively male model had little utility; a new image needed to be crafted so that journalists' work could be done.

This study examines news about female Palestinian suicide bombers to consider how journalists manage the reporting of new "types" of occurrences by adopting mythical archetypes. Using these archetypes helps make storytelling resonant with what both journalists and their audiences "take to be real and important matters of life."5 Bird and Dardenne, for example, discuss the "Cinderella" story.6 In a similar way, Lule shows how archetypes such as The Hero, The Trickster, and The Good Mother regularly surface in the news.7

Following an overview of the interface between news work and myth, this study suggests that the archetype of the Woman Warrior (for example, television's Xena or Charlie's Angels) was adapted by journalists to tell the story of female Palestinian suicide bombers.

Conceptual Framework

Journalists can be seen as workers much like those in any other organization or industry.8 To demonstrate their legitimacy as good workers-as "good journalists"-they need to produce an appropriate product within the constraints of a media organization's timeframes and resources. Although the profession of journalism is founded upon an ideology of objectivity that believes in the discovery of existent truths, in practice, journalists learn to polarize an issue and define its parameters to facilitate their accomplishment of work.9 In essence, news is framed rather than reported freshly, so that information from new occurrences is quickly transposed onto a story framework known in advance-even before an occurrence has taken place.10

Where do journalists find these frameworks to accomplish their work? One answer lies in myth. As both a part of their culture and as storytellers for that culture, journalists construct stories through narrative conventions that are culturally resonant for themselves and for their audiences.11 Journalists know how their stories are supposed to go and what they have to do to produce them.12 Even when reporting on unusual and unexpected events, news workers end up explaining a situation in a way that becomes relatively familiar and usual.13

Myth represents a cultural story, an enduring yet dynamic conception of society and its institutions.14 Myths have identifiable narrative structures15 that become formulaic through repeated application, complete with common central actors and predictable outcomes.16 By evoking taken-for-granted interpretations about a society, mythical representations seem natural and the choice of actors becomes relatively closed.17 An archetype can be defined as an "ideal story"18 repeatedly called upon for new tellings: no version is definitive, yet most can be identified as the same basic tale that spans cultures and eras. …

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