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Boston? Yes. Arusha? No thank you

Posted in Africa, media coverage, Tanzania, terrorism with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 9 May, 2013 by Virgil

The bomb blast tore mercilessly and indiscriminately through the crowd, killing three innocent civilians and injuring scores more. Mayhem ensued, as the injured were rushed to hospital and the people struggled to understand why such a tragedy had befallen them. The gathering had been peaceful and the mood, celebratory. And this was not, after all, a place accustomed to such indiscriminate violence – the country had not experienced a bombing of this nature in more than ten years. Law enforcement agencies moved quickly and resolutely in response. Links with organized international terror groups were immediately suspected, and certain individuals of apparent Middle Eastern origin were singled out and tracked down.

No, this is not the story of the events that transpired at the 2013 Boston Marathon on 15 May. This is the story of a more recent bombing – one that occurred at Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in Arusha, Tanzania, on Sunday 5 May. At the inaugural mass held at the newly built church, which was being attended by the Vatican’s ambassador to Tanzania and other dignitaries, a bomb was allegedly thrown by an assailant on a motorcycle into the crowd that had gathered for the occasion. No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, but the arrest of three Emirati, one Saudi, and four Tanzanian nationals attempting to cross the border into Kenya suggests that connections with international terrorist groups are being seriously suspected.

The Boston Marathon, which also left three people dead, and in which links with international terrorist groups were also initially suspected, sparked saturation coverage on a massive scale by the mass media, not only in the USA, but throughout the world. All subsequent developments were reported in a blow-by-blow manner, and even hints of what might appear to be a new twist or turn were also immediately released online, on the airwaves and in print, often with little concern for confirmation or fact-checking. The search for answers was vigorous and unwavering. Detailed backgrounds were sought and provided on the suspects and their origins, offering in-depth analysis and speculation covering all conceivable motives. At the same time, moving accounts of the pre-bombing hopes and aspirations of the victims and their families, and their courage in facing life after the tragedy, quickly filled the news.

The bombing in Tanzania, on the other hand, was met by media outlets around the globe with little more than a collective yawn. As of 9 May, the Boston Marathon bombing had been the subject, for example, of 249 articles made available on the BBC News website, exploring every possible angle of the bombing and its aftermath. On the same website, the bombing in Tanzania has been the subject of just two articles – both of which were released on the day after the bombing. No effort has been made to provide any portrayals of the victims – their backgrounds, hopes or aspirations. And the lack of any follow-up articles reveals little interest in clarifying or pursuing the circumstances behind the bombings, or the arrest of the suspects currently in custody, including their backgrounds, motives and possible international connections. This gaping discrepancy between the attention devoted to these two bombings is not at all limited to the BBC, but is largely representative of major media corporations throughout the world.

The similarities between these cases are clear. Unexpected explosion at a prestigious and peaceful gathering of innocent civilians? Check. Three dead and scores injured? Check. A stunned and grieving community? Check. Video footage available of the attack and its aftermath? Check. The fear of further attacks in similar situations (marathons and churches)? Check. The possibility of the involvement of foreign groups known to use terror as a means to achieve certain political ends? Check.

What makes them different? At the risk of belabouring the obvious, the prime difference is clearly in the value that the media attach to events that impact on the world’s economic, political and military ‘centre’ (predominantly white, Western, wealthy, powerful), and the ‘periphery’ (predominantly black, African, and impoverished). It is closely linked to the notion of ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ victims. But to a degree it is also about the possession of military clout and the willingness to use it. Terrorist attacks directed at the USA have in the past been used as the pretext for massive bombing campaigns and invasions of other countries. There may have been a degree of anticipation regarding the possible global ramifications of a US government response (military or otherwise) had links to certain foreign organizations been discovered.

The stark difference in the coverage of these two incidents certainly serves to reaffirm and bring home something that should already be abundantly clear: the major ‘global threat’ as perceived by much of the world’s media is not so-called ‘terrorism’ per se. Nor is it the more specific variety of cross-border ‘terrorism’ that is seen as being linked to extremist Islamic groups. It would appear that the concept of ‘threat’ is dependent not on the nature or the scale of the act itself or on the actor responsible, but primarily on who (or where) the victims are. Which passport do they carry? Where are they based? And it is clear that in the eyes of the media at least, some victims are far more worthy than others.

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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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‘We cannot stand by’

Posted in conflict, DRC, Israel-Palestine, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 12 January, 2009 by Virgil

The media barrage on the conflict in Israel-Palestine is unrelenting. Consumers of media products around the world continue to be subjected to article after article, front-page headline after front-page headline, hour after hour of coverage on this conflict, all demanding our attention. At times it seems not only that the world at this point revolves around Israel-Palestine, but almost as if Israel-Palestine is the only place in the world (apart from the country we happen to live in) worthy of our attention at all.

 

This is what a ‘chosen’ conflict looks like. It is admittedly not as chosen as some conflicts, like Iraq in 2003, or Afghanistan in 2001, or Kosovo in 1999. For a conflict to be chosen in this way – to the point that coverage of that conflict seriously interrupts regular programming – generally requires that US troops are directly involved, bombing or invading the country in question. When Iraq was invaded, the 24-hour news channels ended up casting to the wind whatever was happening in the rest of world at the time (like the overthrow of the democratically elected government in the Central African Republic), broadcasting instead hour after hour of live footage (from embedded journalists) of tanks in Iraq doing little more than driving north.

 

So this conflict is not quite that chosen, but it does dominate the news wherever you turn. A look at the main homepage for the New York Times website on January 11, for example, revealed 10 links to different articles on the conflict, including ‘Multimedia on Gaza’ (interactive graphics), a timeline of Israel, the Gaza Strip and Hamas, and a video analysis of the Gaza conflict. And that is just the main homepage. Click on the Middle East page and a multitude of additional articles reveal themselves, along with links to blogs on the conflict.

 

On the BBC homepage on the same day, a click on the Middle East link will lead you to a choice of 28 items on the Israel-Palestine conflict, including feature articles on ‘Lost innocents’ and ‘Gaza aid’, Mideast papers on Gaza, a Gaza conflict map, and ‘Rallies for Gaza’ in pictures. On the CNN homepage, there were more than 150 videos posted on the conflict in just two weeks (since 24 December 2008). In Japan, the editorial for the Asahi Shimbun (newspaper) for 8 January was titled ‘The Gaza tragedy: for how long will we leave it be?’

 

All this saturation coverage appears to have had a significant impact on the general public. The internet is buzzing with copious quantities of all manner of comment and chatter, and thousands have gone out onto the streets, from London to Indonesia (and even to Osaka) to demonstrate about the situation. Both sides are highly emotionally charged, with the majority seeming to be outraged by the high loss of innocent life (primarily on the Palestinian side), and others (much fewer in number) insistent that the Palestinians brought it on themselves, and that Israel should have the right to defend itself. What needs to be noted is that, regardless of which side they take, there are so many people talking about the conflict. As Bernard Cohen famously said, the press “may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about”.

 

Whether it is the media obsessing over the conflict or the members of the public lending their voices to the issue, the tone of so much of the discussion is of the humanitarian variety. There is so much concern about the loss of innocent life. Words like ‘horror’, ‘tragedy’, ‘carnage’ and ‘humanitarian crisis’ are being used in abundance, and the media corporations present the humanitarian toll in great detail, finding individuals with harrowing stories to tell, and helping us to know them and feel their pain. Variants of the phrase ‘we cannot stand by and watch this happen’ (or ‘the world cannot stand by’, or ‘the international community cannot stand by’ – whatever ‘the international community’ is supposed to mean) are also being used in abundance.

Mattsays)

Outpouring of public outrage and sympathy in London (Photo: Mattsays)

 

 

 

But the sad reality is that that is exactly what we tend to do. We do stand by and do nothing about the vast majority of conflict-related suffering in the world. We are perfectly capable of ignoring humanitarian suffering in most of the world’s conflicts most of the time. This is to a large degree unavoidable – there is so much conflict-related humanitarian suffering that we have to be selective. There are 20 or 30 conflicts ongoing in varying degrees in the world at any point in time (depending on one’s definition of conflict).

 

But almost all of the deadliest conflicts in the world are happening in Africa (with the exception of Iraq and Afghanistan), and it is these conflicts that we ignore the most. Roughly 500 people (estimates seem to have increased) were killed in a series of Christmas massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after a multinational offensive against the Ugandan LRA. But there has been no outpouring of sympathy or outrage (or of anything except apathy) for these people and their families, and what has happened in the course of the offensive since then may as well be altogether unknown. The New York Times has shed no ink at all for the conflict since it reported on the Christmas massacres in a single article, sparing just 748 words for the conflict since mid-December. Compare that to the 44,480 words it lavished on Israel-Palestine in just two weeks after fighting began to intensify. And compare CNN’s 150 videos on Israel-Palestine on their website in the same two weeks to the zero videos on the offensive against the LRA. The lack of any semblance of proportionality is staggering.

lra-massacres-in-the-drc2 

Why are we so absorbed with the humanitarian consequences of conflict in one particular case (Israel-Palestine), that we have not a drop of sympathy remaining for all the rest – especially those that are much worse? There is no stopping to even question why this conflict is so much more important than the others, why others should be erased from the possible media agenda altogether (if they were ever there to begin with). Why have all the media corporations and the general public all jumped on the same humanitarian bandwagon?

 

However we choose to justify the exclusive saturation coverage of Israel-Palestine, we run into some inescapable contradictions. If it is about humanitarianism, why are those in Israel-Palestine more ‘human’ than others – why is far greater human suffering elsewhere almost completely ignored? If it is about religion, why is the persecution of people based on faith elsewhere given so little attention? If it is about the effect of the conflict on the price of oil, why don’t we care about conflict in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria (a major player in the oil business), where conflict is directly responsible for a reduction of one-quarter of its oil exports? If it is about terrorism, why does the terrorism practiced by warlords in any other of the world’s conflicts go unnoticed?

 

None of these reasons seem to hold up. About the only excuses that seem to remain are that the politicians are all talking about it (and they always have), our reporters are on the scene anyway, and the other media corporations seem to believe so much in its importance (follow-the-leader and pack journalism). The ‘important’ players in world affairs believe it is important, and therefore it must be. And because they have believed it is so important for so many years, then the whole process becomes self-sustaining and automatic.

 

But with the levels of disproportion in attention so extreme, the question begs to be asked: how does this situation go unchallenged? Are the victims of conflict in the DRC not human enough to qualify for our ‘humanitarian’ concern? Or is it because the media’s high-beam spotlight on the Israel-Palestine conflict is so intense and its blackout over the conflict in the DRC so dark? And why are we the public just going along with it, swallowing whole what we are fed? Is it a case of out of sight, out of mind? Is it that the conflict in the DRC doesn’t bother us because the newspapers and TV stations are not constantly waving it in our face?

 

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that so much of the world is suffering from an acute case of selective indignation, and worse still, no one even seems to notice…

New world maps

Posted in Africa, conflict, conflict death tolls, media coverage, world maps with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 30 December, 2008 by Virgil

Here are some new versions of the world map that we are used to seeing that might help us to get a fresh perspective on the way things are, and the way they are shown to us. In these maps, the square area of continents/regions corresponds to their proportion of conflict death tolls and of media coverage. Let’s start with some maps representing conflict death tolls, and follow with some maps representing media coverage. The media coverage maps are for the year 2000 for CNN, BBC, the New York Times, Le Monde and the Yomiuri newspapers.

 

Map of conflict-related deaths (1990-1999)

(What’s the big continent in the middle? Africa? That’s odd, we so rarely seem to hear about it…)

conflict-death-map-1990s 

Map of conflict-related deaths (1990-2007)

(Note the relative growth in conflict deaths in the Middle East since 2000 – that’s the war in Iraq. The Middle East is still totally dwarfed by Africa, though, as is the rest of the world’s conflict).

 

conflict-death-map-to-20072

 

The world according to CNN (2000)

(Coverage of the Middle East is more than double that of Africa)

cnn-map2 

The world according to BBC (2000)

(A little more on Africa than CNN, but that continent still looks pretty small)

 bbc-map1

 

 

 

The world according to the New York Times (2000)

(This does not include domestic news – news about the USA) 

ny-times-map

The world according to Le Monde (2000)

(This does not include domestic news – news about France)

 le-monde-map

 

 

 

The world according to Yomiuri (2000)

(This does not include domestic news – news about Japan)

yomiuri-map 

 

Notes and disclaimers

 

Data is organized according to five continents/regions of the world: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Middle East. In the conflict maps, the square area of each continent/region is proportionate to that continent/region’s percentage of the world’s total conflict-related death toll. There is no detail beyond that, so although Madagascar appears on the death toll maps, it is only there because it geographically represents a part of Africa (there were no conflict-related deaths recorded for Madagascar).

 

In the media maps, the square area of each continent/region is proportionate to that continent/region’s percentage of the coverage by each media corporation. As with the conflict maps, there is no detail beyond the continent/region as whole, so the shape of the Americas (no distinction is made between north, south or central), for example, was made roughly according to geographic scale and does not represent any internal proportion in news coverage. In the case of the maps for newspapers, the coverage is limited only to the international news on the front page and international pages – home/local news is not included. It should also be noted that the percentages for the media maps do not add up to 100 percent because a certain percentage of media coverage could not be categorized according to geographical location – coverage of global issues or United Nations conferences, for example.

 

Displaying these maps together here is not to suggest that levels of media coverage should be proportionate to the numbers of conflict deaths. Conflict-related events are not the only issues that become the source of international news stories. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect that the sheer scale of a conflict (death toll) will be the only factor considered in determining news coverage – although it should certainly be one of the major factors (alas, it is not).

 

It should also be noted that the timeframe of analysis is quite different. The death toll maps are based on cumulative data of death tolls since the end of the Cold War, while media maps are one-year snapshots of coverage – in this case, the year 2000. A number of the conflicts that make up the cumulative death tolls in the maps were not ongoing in the year 2000. By the same token, it should also come as no surprise that the deadliest conflicts of the year 2000 were occurring in Africa – the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Angola, Ethiopia-Eritrea and Sierra Leone. It is also critical to note that it was in the year 2000 when it became known (through a survey conducted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC)) that conflict in the DRC had claimed 1.7 million lives, making it by far the deadliest conflict in the post-Cold War world. This revelation didn’t seem to have any impact on media coverage.

 

Sources

 

Death toll data is generally very unreliable, as has been mentioned in a previous post. That shouldn’t stop us from trying. The sources for the death tolls in this map are from my book, but before they arrived there came from a multitude of sources, including projects and institutions that try to record, measure and compare death toll figures, epidemiological surveys, and sometimes the media. Where there are conflicting studies/records for death tolls, compromises have been made in some cases. None is more controversial than in that in the case of Iraq. The death toll for Iraq used here is a very conservative 400,000. Some death toll figures now are reaching the 1 million mark.

 

The sources for the media coverage maps are from a study I conducted some years ago of news coverage in the year 2000. I measured the square area of each international news article (including photos) for three newspapers (the New York Times (USA), Le Monde (France) and the Yomiuri (Japan)) each day for one year. I also measured the length (in seconds) of each news story for one 30-minute news program each day for CNN International and BBC. I wish I could provide more recent data, but this kind of study takes a huge amount of time to conduct and I have yet to find that kind of time to do a similar study. More results from the study (and analysis) can be found in an article I later published: Hawkins, Virgil ‘The Other Side of the CNN Factor: the media and conflict’, Journalism Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2002, pp. 225-240.

 

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