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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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Nothing but piracy

Posted in conflict, media coverage, piracy, Somalia with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 10 May, 2010 by Virgil

What would we see or hear about Somalia if it weren’t for the pirates hijacking ships off its coast? Very very little. 

This graph shows what the stories covered by US television news networks on Somalia were primarily about for the year 2009 (sourced from the Vanderbilt archives). Little additional explanation is required. Almost all (84) of the 91 stories were about the issue of piracy, while 5 stories covered US citizens of Somali descent going to Somalia to fight; 1 story covered a suicide bombing and 1 more mentioned an attempted terror attack.

 It just so happens that Somalia is currently host to one of the world’s deadliest conflicts. If one were to focus on the issues associated with Somalia according to their scale, the conflict and related issues (such as food security) would be front and centre. The media would report on the state of the conflict itself, and attempt to grasp and communicate the underlying causes and issues. Piracy would be a side issue – certainly not the main (sole?) event.

 Alas, this is not the world we live in. The conflict itself is almost completely ignored. Somalia is a forgotten conflict (a type of stealth conflict: see here for the difference). It was once remembered – when US troops were there in the early 1990s – but was quickly forgotten when US troops left. The conflict, of course, went on, but it was no longer deemed worthy of attention.

 Part of the media’s formula for choosing which events and issues to cover is the ‘home’ connection – are there any of ‘our’ people involved? Does it affect ‘us’? (The ‘home’, ‘our’ and ‘us’ here are primarily national and/or racial identities). Piracy directly affects Western shipping (and is sensational) and therefore is of interest. But even if we surrender to the obsession with a home connection, the link between the conflict and potential terrorist attacks that threaten Western countries/interests could (should?) make the case for serious coverage of the conflict. It seems even this connection is not enough to overcome the apathy. Of course the dangers of reporting could be considered a factor in the lack of coverage, but when has danger ever stopped coverage of Iraq or Afghanistan?

 Piracy is in a way related to the conflict – the damage to livelihoods drives people to piracy, and authorities are not there to put a stop to it. Other key factors are thought to be the damage caused to the fishing industry by foreign corporations and criminal organizations taking advantage of the lack of protection of Somalia’s territorial waters to illegally overfish and dump toxic waste (see here and here). But the news is most likely to provide us just with the shallow blow-by-blow account of the attacks themselves.

 We can get a better idea of media priorities if we look at the breakdown of the coverage of piracy by the same media corporations. 

The vast majority of coverage for 2009 was of the attack on a single ship – the US Maersk Alabama. It had so many of the elements of a ‘good’ story and the media went all out. Critically, the ship and the captain were from the USA. This gave it what it needed to put the story on the agenda to begin with. That the captain gave himself up to let the crew get away, and that US Navy SEALs rescued the captain and the ship gave it the elements of sensationalism and critically, heroism. Coverage of the story continued until the homecoming (hero’s welcome) of the captain and the appearance in court of a captured pirate.

 It is worth noting that in 2009 there were a total of 214 attacks on ships and their crews (from a wide range of countries) in the region resulting in 47 hijackings. The US television networks covered 10 of these attacks. Of these, 9 were attacks on either US or European boats, including a French yacht and a British yacht. The only other attack covered was the capture of a Saudi oil tanker (noteworthy because of the unprecedented size of the vessel captured).

 This state of affairs really brings home the sad and sorry state of media coverage of the world – an obsession with the ‘home’ connection and the sensational, and an almost complete disregard for anything that is not directly connected to ‘home’ (including much larger issues, the bigger picture and the context).

 No wonder so many people know so little about what’s going on in the world.

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