Saturday, September 04, 2004

One-sided news coverage

One of the things I have found frustrating with living in the United States for the past few years has been the spotty coverage of international affairs you get in the mainstream American news media. When I was living in Canada, it was different: you'd pick up a typical newspaper and the cover-page is filled with major news happening around the world. In the US, it seems you usually have to dig way into the middle of the newspaper to find anything of note about world news.

The coverage of the Olympics was a good example of this. If you watched the coverage on NBC, you might easily be led to believe that the United States won ALL the gold medals in the whole Olympics. Why? It seems the only events they really focused on (gymnastics, etc.) were events the United States did well in, and with few exceptions the only medal ceremonies they showed were ones where the American team won the gold medal. So, you'd sit on your couch hearing the Star-Spangled Banner played over and over again ad nauseum, thinking the United States Olympic Team was winning every event. In actuality, while the United States did win 35 gold medals, the Chinese were right behind them with 32 - and yet the only time I actually heard the Chinese national anthem being played was in the closing ceremonies where they were handing the Olympic flag to Beijing (who will be hosting the 2008 games). When I was living in Canada, one thing I used to enjoy about the Olympics was hearing the national anthems of many countries for the first time. With the NBC coverage here in the United States, the only national anthem I heard for the first time was Israel's (they did show the medal ceremony for them here).

Living in the United States, which is so big and self-sufficient, it is very easy to forget that there are a lot of other countries in the world, and that most people in the world are not Americans and may think differently about some issues than Americans do. Schools in the United States tend to do a very poor job of teaching geography and international history (many students only learn about the United States and may even have trouble pointing out Canada and Mexico on a map). The news media here tend to give very scanty coverage of international news, and when they do cover it, it is often from a very US-centric perspective.

I've sometimes joked that if you had two news articles come in at the same time, one about OJ Simpson getting arrested for murder again, and one about a massive earthquake causing half the continent of Asia to slide underwater killing millions, the OJ article would be on the front page of the local newspaper and the Asia article would be relegated to page 23.

Just like their coverage of the Olympics over the last few weeks, news organizations here tend to slant their regular international news coverage strongly in favor of the United States and its allies (Israel, etc.). If the US or an ally of the US does something wrong (like mistakenly bombing a wedding party in Afghanistan), the US news media seems to brush it under the carpet or make excuses (the wedding party was really a bunch of terrorists with one really bad terrorist wearing a white wedding dress). If an American gets kidnapped or killed, it's huge news, but if someone from another country gets kidnapped or killed, it's minor news. In the early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people in Rwanda were murdered by machete-wielding thugs, nobody here did anything about it, and news coverage of this atrocity was scant. Rwanda, in the eyes of most Americans, was this far-away foreign place that nobody new or cared much about, so the news media (wanting to sell more newspapers) didn't report much on it.

There are some good exceptions to this. The Washington Post was the newspaper that first broke the story of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse pictures (which took a lot of guts on their part). The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are also both very good with international news coverage, as are some of the television documentary shows ("60 Minutes", etc.). But, for the most part, American news media do not pay much attention to international news.

This lack of coverage can really have a negative effect here , because public opinion here is often shaped by what is reported in the news media, and since this is a democracy, public opinion shapes the government's foreign policy. When news coverage is nonexistent, public opinion around an issue is not strong, and the government may not feel any obligation to address it.

Americans are generally good-hearted people, and tend to mean well in their dealings with other countries. But, when the American public are not given the information necessary to develop an informed opinion about issues, they may not understand the point of view of other people and countries.

Personally, one thing I like about the Internet is the ability to get both sides of a story. For example, if something happens in Israel or the occupied territories, you can get two very different perspectives on the same story by reading the Israeli media (Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, etc.) and then the Arab media (Al-Jazeera, Arab News, etc.). The truth of the issue generally lies somewhere in the middle of the two perspectives, because in any war or dispute, both sides suffer, although they each tend to focus more on their own suffering.