I happened to come across an interesting exchange of views about media attention to conflicts in the long list of comments below an online article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper. The article itself is a little dated, but the information remains very relevant.
The article was about bias in reporting on Israel-Palestine, but the comments turned to the issue of selectivity in reporting, with one comment criticizing the Guardian for focusing on Palestine “to the exclusion of other stories of human suffering and war, namely Congo.” Brian Whitaker, an editor at the Guardian, fought back, calling the claim “nonsense”, but when confronted by other readers with some simple statistics on the number of articles the paper had published on Israel (2,262) compared to that on the Congo (276), he wasn’t left with much of a leg to stand on.
To justify this state of affairs, he left this gem:
“I agree that Israel gets more coverage in the world’s media than Congo but you have to consider that in the context of international politics. For example, Hillary Clinton hasn’t been to Congo as secretary of state, but she has been to Israel.”
Now granted, this comment came in the heat of an informal online exchange, it was not a carefully considered statement at a formal press conference apologizing for such wanton disregard for proportionate and balanced media coverage of the world (wouldn’t that be nice). Furthermore, Mr. Whitaker is an editor with a strong personal interest in Middle Eastern affairs (not in Africa). But these factors aside, given the fact that the comment came from an editor at such a prominent newspaper, I think it offers an interesting glimpse into what makes newspapers do what they do (and do not do). It is worth stopping to take a closer look.
It is interesting that the indicator of newsworthiness that first comes to mind is whether or not Hillary Clinton has visited as US Secretary of State. The Guardian is a British newspaper, so this is not a question of the issue being close to ‘home’, but of being close to power. This is clearly what Mr. Whitaker means when he refers to “the context of international politics”. He is essentially saying that because an issue is important to the powerful policymakers, then is should be important to the media as well.
While the media of course certainly need to take into account issues of power in international politics when making judgements on newsworthiness, some sense of proportion needs to be observed. If the media sees itself as serving the role of a mirror (objectively reporting on the facts), then surely the sheer scale of a conflict should also be treated with importance, whether it is important to those with power or not. If, on the other hand, the media sees itself as a watchdog (speaking truth to power), then it must work to draw to the attention of those with power the problems in the world that are the gravest. Neither seems to apply in this case.
Conflict in the Congo should of course have plenty of implications for international politics – it was after all a conflict that directly drew in tens of thousands of foreign troops from at least eight countries, and plenty of other countries (the world’s most powerful among them) have been indirectly involved. Then again, I get the sense that many (not just Sarah Palin) find it difficult to imagine ‘international’ as a term applicable to relations between nations within the African continent. ‘International’, for some strange reason, seems to suggest Western involvement (hence the highly selective use of the term ‘international community’). Other terms like ‘regional’ are used for Africa, keeping the continent localized and distant.
The vast mineral wealth that lies beneath the soil in the Congo – wealth that is becoming increasingly important to the outside world – is another factor in the conflict that is difficult to ignore. And surely its status as world’s deadliest conflict since World War II (some 800 times deadlier than the conflict in Israel-Palestine) should also count for something in “the context of international politics”. Unfortunately, as things stand now, the size of a conflict is completely unrelated to the quantity of media coverage it receives – by any media corporation.
As an interesting side note, since the time the article and comment were published, Hillary Clinton has been to the Congo in her capacity as US Secretary of State (the Guardian’s articles on the Congo in this period were clearly defined by her, not by the Congo). Now that she has been there, should the media be increasing its coverage accordingly?
The disproportion in quantities of coverage of these two conflicts, and the comment above used to justify this situation, smack of an almost blind deference to power on what is and what is not important, although there are admittedly a number of other reasons for media decisions on newsworthiness. Media deference to power is hardly something new (even within vibrant democracies with an apparently ‘free’ press), and it continues to be well documented, but surely this is not something that should be openly used to justify this sad and sorry state of affairs.
The Guardian and all the other media corporations that continue to pay such scant attention to the world’s deadliest conflicts are going to have to come up with better excuses than that offered by Mr. Whitaker. But then again, what reasonable excuses could there possibly be?