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Conflict coverage 2009

Posted in media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 August, 2010 by Virgil

Here is a graph that brings home the difference between chosen conflicts and stealth conflicts. It is based on a search for news items related to armed conflicts throughout the world covered by the evening news of the major US television networks. The search was conducted using the Vanderbilt University database of evening news (covering ABC, CBS, NBC, one hour per day of CNN, and Fox) for the year 2009.

The graph requires little explanation. Conflicts in which the USA was involved as a belligerent (Afghanistan, Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan), and the eternal chosen conflict, Israel-Palestine, in which the USA is indirectly involved, received large amounts of attention. Afghanistan in particular attracted concentrated coverage, reflecting a renewed interest in, and active debate over, US military involvement in that country. Viewers of US television news had the opportunity to watch as much as 18 hours of coverage of Afghanistan over the course of the year.

Beyond these chosen conflicts, coverage abruptly drops off into near insignificance. In fact, these four conflicts account for an incredible 97 percent of the total amount of conflict coverage for the year. The fifth most covered conflict, Darfur, managed roughly 27 minutes of coverage for all of the networks combined over the course of the year. For the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the total coverage was just 7 minutes, and this was mostly focused on the threat to animals from the conflict, and on the visit to the DRC by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This marginalization should by no means be viewed as a reflection of the lack of conflict – fighting and insecurity displaced as many as one million people over the course of the year in the DRC.

Also noteworthy is the marginalization of the conflict in Sri Lanka. 2009 marked the final offensive of the government forces against the Tamil Tiger rebels (LTTE), ending a long and bloody war. These developments should have made for a major news story. But the government was quite successful in shutting down and intimidating local media, and in shutting out foreign media during this time. Without images of the conflict and its humanitarian consequences, and critically, without the involvement of the USA, for the US television media, the story simply failed to become newsworthy, and it was ignored.

This introverted and myopic media perspective is all a sad reflection of the failures of the media – the failure to recognize conflict scale even as one of the factors determining levels of coverage, and the failure to look at the world in its entirety. Coverage of conflicts by US media corporations (and of the world in general, for that matter) is dependent on strong US involvement or interest, and all those that are not the recipient of such involvement or interest remain under a virtual news blackout, however large in scale they may be. From the perspective of the media, a conflict is either a chosen one or a stealth one, with virtually no middle ground between the two.

It is quite ironic that in this day and age of rapid globalization, in which survival and prosperity are dependent on knowledge and understanding of the world, and in which there is potentially access to any amount of information about anywhere, the media persists with such a narrow and highly selective view of the world. And with so few observers calling for change or even pointing out this obvious imbalance in coverage, it can hardly be expected that the situation will be any different for 2010 and beyond.

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The home connection

Posted in activism, Congo, DRC, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 18 August, 2010 by Virgil

Yesterday, CNN ran a story about a US citizen (Lisa Shannon) who, inspired by a story on Oprah about the abuse of women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), started a movement that does charity runs to assist Congolese women. The news item featured some facts and figures on the humanitarian tragedy of the conflict and some images, but Shannon is the only person we hear from. The DRC is the setting (or the backdrop), but the story is about her.

It seems the story has been doing the rounds in the USA and in basically the same formats. ABC News also aired a story on the same subject, with an online article also appearing entitled “Run for Congo: American helps Congo’s women escape violence, one step at a time”. The story is about Shannon’s awakening to the issue and her efforts to get the movement going.

In this particular case, this format for the presentation of the story, or ‘lens’, was already largely in place before it reached the media. The subtitle of the book written by Shannon (“A thousand sisters”) is “My journey into the worst place on Earth to be a woman”, and, according to the blurb, the story is indeed about her journey. Photos of the story, both on the website and on the cover of the book are of Shannon embracing (comforting?) Congolese women.

These observations are in no way meant to take away from the value of these efforts to draw attention to this the world’s deadliest conflict, and to ameliorate the suffering it has caused. The movement and the news stories it generates means more people become aware in some way of the issue. But by the same token, one can’t help but wonder why this home connection is seen as being so essential to whether foreign events and issues are deemed as being newsworthy or not. While I grudgingly acknowledge the sad reality that some people find it easier to identify with a distant story when there is a connection with a person/people with the same skin colour and/or passport colour, the media has taken this way too far. The same can be said for books. A large proportion of books about Africa that one can find on the shelves of a bookstore in the West are about the adventures or travails of white people in Africa, rather than about Africa itself.

Probably one of the worst cases of this syndrome I have ever seen was in the Australian Newspaper’s atrocious reporting of the findings of a mortality survey that 3.8 million people had died as a result of conflict in the DRC in 2004. Far from focusing on the unparalleled scale of the conflict or even on the conflict itself, the article focused on the fact that a number of members of the survey team happened to be Australian citizens. The article (9 December 2004) was entitled “Aussie counts 3.8 million dead in Congo”, and words informing the readers of the Australian-ness of the team appeared a further five times in the article. It was as though what had just become known as the world’s deadliest conflict simply didn’t matter, and that the newspaper was just proud that some Australian citizens were facing hardships to do something noble somewhere.

Clearly there is a problem when the presence of a home connection makes the difference between whether an issue is reported on or is almost completely ignored. It contributes to a terribly distorted picture of what is happening in the world, and perpetuates nationalistic perspectives of world affairs. And the ever-present stereotype of generous Westerners making great efforts and going through hardships to help those less fortunate (who often remain undeveloped characters and the largely passive recipients of charity) has been considerably overdone.

From another perspective, though, this Run for Congo example does show what the power of a single news story about a distant crisis that apparently does not affect us (those with different skin and/or passport colour) can be. From among the millions of viewers that see such a crisis story, even if the majority may remain unaffected/uninterested, for perhaps tens of thousands of people or more, interest at some level is pricked, and for a select few, the end result may even be direct and committed action. This says something about the media’s marginalization of issues on the grounds that people at home are not interested.

On a related side note, there are reports that Hollywood is changing, that business concerns related to growing foreign markets for movies are starting to make some movies less US-centric. This interesting article from the Wall Street Journal talks about how some movie production companies in Hollywood, with a view to making movies more “global” and thereby attractive to foreign viewers, are rewriting/rejecting some movie scripts on the grounds that they are “too American”.

There may still be hope yet.

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Peace journalism

Posted in academia and conflict, activism, media coverage, peace with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 18 July, 2010 by Virgil

Thanks to the likes of peace scholars/practitioners Johan Galtung and Jake Lynch, peace journalism has been increasingly growing into a strong movement (see their recently released book, Reporting Conflict: New Directions in Peace Journalism for more detail).

 While peace journalism may sound like a form of activism on the part of the journalists, this is really not the case. It is more a case of putting a measure of balance into how journalists portray conflict, working towards a more comprehensive picture of how things are. As things stand now, the media tends to report on conflict with an ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ mentality. That is, focusing simply on the violence – the bombs, explosions, the people fleeing.

 At the same time that violence is being played out, however, there are people and organizations that are working to bring a stop to the hostilities and solve the underlying causes of the violence. Peace processes are underway. But it is not only the peace processes that are being given scant attention, so too are the issues, context and underlying causes themselves. Lynch and Galtung liken this state of affairs to looking at the smoke and ignoring the fire, or simply viewing the result of a disease without examining the diagnosis, prognosis or therapy. War journalism could be seen as parallel to disease journalism whereas peace journalism would be similar in nature to health journalism.

 If journalism is supposed to be facilitating our understanding of the conflicts that are going on in the world, then simply portraying the violence is really not going to help. It is in fact going to inhibit our understanding, not only because it provides but one superficial part of the picture, but also because it encourages gross oversimplification of the situation and the reinforcement of inaccurate stereotypes.

It is in this light that a demonstration for peace journalism was held outside the offices of the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) in Sydney on 9 July 2010, primarily targeting workers at the ABC as they came in for work. It seems that this was the world’s first protest for peace journalism. It was a modest gathering with most of the participants being those attending the conference on the theme ‘communicating peace’ organized by the International Peace Research Association (IPRA) and held at Sydney University, but the movement will surely continue to grow.

 The notion of stealth conflicts is about the majority of conflicts remaining off-the-radar of the media, with the bulk of media attention being lavished on a select few chosen conflicts. Peace journalism draws attention to the ‘stealth’ within the coverage of individual conflicts. As long as the violence is the primary target of coverage of conflict, many important aspects of the conflict will remain in the shadows.

With corporate media seemingly addicted to action and sensationalism in attempting to sell their product – which is increasingly infotainment, rather than news – the movement for peace journalism will certainly be an uphill struggle, but it is one that is very necessary.

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Which gets more coverage?

Posted in Africa, conflict, conflict death tolls, Israel-Palestine, media coverage, world maps with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 4 May, 2010 by Virgil

 

Why Israel-Palestine?

Israel-Palestine is used here because of the sheer levels of disproportion (conflict death tolls versus media coverage). Each time there is conflagration of any kind in Israel-Palestine – huge quantities of media coverage inevitably follow. With the exception of Afghanistan and Iraq (and recently, perhaps Pakistan), no other conflict in the world even comes close in terms of coverage levels (and certainly in terms of disproportion).

In 2009, Afghanistan stood far above all other conflicts in levels of media coverage in the USA and coverage of Iraq, while still very high, had begun to decline – all very much in line with US policy interest. Afghanistan and Iraq are not used here because their death tolls are much larger than Israel-Palestine (in the hundreds of thousands, rather than thousands), and because coverage is more easily explained away considering the direct involvement of the USA as a belligerent in these conflicts.

That said, the problem is not necessarily that there is too much coverage on Israel-Palestine (please do not use this graphic as evidence of Israel being unjustly picked on by the media). Organized violence that results in thousands of deaths is not something that should be downplayed or justified anywhere and for any reason. The problem is that there is not enough coverage of the rest of the world’s cases of organized violence. And when this violence is resulting in millions of deaths, its marginalization by the media should result in red flags, flashing lights, alarms and all manner of questioning on the performance of the media in fulfilling its social responsibilities.

Evidence:

The bold statement in the graphic is based on a number of studies. In this study on media coverage of conflict for the year 2000, the media coverage of the conflict in Israel-Palestine was greater than that for all of Africa’s conflicts combined for all sources studies – BBC, CNN, Le Monde, the New York Times and the Yomiuri newspaper.

A study of the Australian newspaper for the year 2007 yielded similar results. In this case, not only was coverage of conflict greater, but coverage of all subjects/topics associated with Israel-Palestine was greater than that for all of Africa’s 53 countries combined.

Another study on coverage of conflict in US media sources for the year 2009 (the New York Times, ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox and NBC – the results have yet to be published) again shows (surprise, surprise) that conflict in Israel-Palestine gets far greater coverage than all of Africa’s conflicts combined.

A few pre-emptive strikes on answers:

The graphic asks if there is any valid reason that can justify this state of affairs. Based on past experience (particularly in such havens for anonymous comment), I suspect the following three justifications may come up, so here are a few brief pre-emptive strikes.

“Violence in Africa is barbaric”

How is firing a missile from an Apache helicopter into a house that shreds the flesh and bone of any man, woman or child within any less barbaric than shooting someone with an AK47 or cutting someone with a machete?

“Violence in Africa is chaotic”

It is not. Nor is it irrational. Just like any other conflict in the rest of the world, it is complex. Calling a conflict chaotic simply indicates a lack of understanding (or worse, a failure to even attempt to understand) – see this post for more. In fact, lumping all of the various conflicts on the African continent together and trying to somehow do a mass group analysis is over simplification in the highest degree and cannot be taken seriously.

“Violence in Africa never seems to end”

Lumping all of African conflicts together will of course produce the effect of continual conflict, so before getting into this, why not use individual examples of conflict? And by the way, couldn’t we just as easily say “violence in the Middle East never seems to end”?

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Witches, hippos and US policymakers

Posted in Congo, DRC, media coverage, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 26 April, 2010 by Virgil

As noted in my previous post, 2009 was an exceptionally deadly year for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with fighting displacing more than 1 million people. You probably didn’t hear all that much about it, though.

 I did a search for news items on the DRC covered by major US news networks on the evening news (Vanderbilt University has a great online archive of the evening news, covering ABC, CBS, NBC, one hour per day of CNN, and Fox) for the year 2009. The search turned up just ten news items for the entire year on all of the networks combined.

 Here they are:

 23-Jan-09          CNN     Arrest of rebel leader Laurent Nkunda

26-Mar-09         ABC     Sanctuary for endangered bonobos

28-Apr-09          CNN     Rescue of baby gorilla in Congo

22-May-09        ABC     Plight of child witches 

10-Aug-09         ABC     Clinton’s Africa tour, question about Bill Clinton

10-Aug-09         NBC     Angry response to question about Bill Clinton

10-Aug-09         CBS      Angry response to question about Bill Clinton

10-Aug-09         CNN     Angry response to question about Bill Clinton

11-Aug-09         CNN     Clinton with rape victims in refugee camp

20-Dec-09          ABC     Threat to hippos from Congo conflict

 Aside from the obvious almost complete marginalization of the country and the conflict, the content of the news on the few occasions it was covered speaks volumes.

 Of the ten times the DRC was covered, only one news item covered the political developments in the conflict (the arrest of Nkunda), and that piece went for all of about 20 seconds. Three pieces covered the plight of animals in the DRC – bonobos, a single baby gorilla and hippos threatened by the conflict. One piece dealt with the issue of children accused of being witches and their parents who are forced to pay for exorcism – an exotic attention-grabber.

 The remaining five pieces all covered Hillary Clinton’s brief visit to the DRC. Four of those focused on the incident in which Clinton lost her temper when a Congolese student asked for her husband’s opinion on an international financial matter (there had been an error in the translation), while the fifth covered Clinton’s visit to a refugee camp.

 Considering all the political, military and humanitarian developments that were missed in 2009, what are we to conclude? That the DRC is only relevant if important Western policymakers visit (and do something interesting), if cute animals are threatened, or if there is something that feeds our need for our ‘heart of darkness’ stereotype to be confirmed (like witchcraft)?

 One thing we certainly can conclude is that however religiously we watch the evening news, we are really not going to know all that much about what is going on in the world.

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